When rumours surfaced in 2003 that the European Central Bank was quietly planning to put RFID (radio frequency identification) tags in euro banknotes to combat fraud and money laundering, privacy groups balked at the possibility that anybody with an RFID reader could count the money in wallets of passers by.
While the rumours have not been confirmed or denied a new generation of casino chips with built-in RFID tags is giving an insight into the way banks and shops could keep track of real money if it were tagged.
The chips will be launched later in 2004 and will allow casino operators to spot counterfeits and thefts, and also to monitor the behaviour of gamblers.
RFID tags are tiny silicon chips that broadcast a unique identification code when prompted by a reader device. The tags do not need batteries, since they simply modify the radio signal fired at them by the reader. The readers work over distances ranging from a few centimetres to a few dozen metres, depending on the type of tag.
Counterfeit chips have long been a problem for casinos, and houses routinely mark their chips with inks visible only in infrared or ultraviolet light. Embedded RFID tags should make the chips much harder to counterfeit, and placing tag readers at staff exits could cut down on theft by employees.
The tags could also help casinos manage large-scale theft. If a large stash of chips goes missing after a table is overturned during an argument, for example casinos sometimes have to change their entire stock. This is unpopular with gamblers, since any chips that they have not cashed become worthless. RFID tags would allow the casinos to identify stolen chips without the expensive process of restocking.
Aside from improving security, the tags could also be used to track how people play in a casino, says John Kendall, president of Chipco International in Raymond, Maine, which is making and selling tagged casino chips.
The tagged chips would allow casino operators to keep tabs on the fortunes of every gambler on their premises, recording the stakes placed by each player along with their winnings and losses. American casino operators routinely monitor gamblers with security cameras, just as retailers monitor stores for shoplifters.
The casinos want to check that big winners are not cheating the house, and to identify lucrative “high rollers” and encourage them to keep playing by treating them to free meals, show tickets, or hotel rooms.
But this monitoring has to be done by human observers and is haphazard and unreliable. Chip tracking could dramatically improve the process.
Wear and tear
Tagging banknotes would require a much smaller and thinner tag than those used in casino chips. The leading candidate is the “Mu” chip launched in 2003 by Hitachi, which is just 0.4 millimetres square and 0.1 millimetre thick.
The tag can only be read from a few millimetres away, which would allow banks and stores to check the validity of notes without letting snoops spy on the contents of your wallet.
Details of a joint project between Hitachi and the European Central Bank to put RFID tags in euro notes were reported in 2003, but the ECB refuses to comment on the security features of the euro.
Putting the tags in notes would be difficult because of the wear and tear currency has to withstand, says Mark Roberti, editor of the RFID Journal, an online newsletter about the RFID industry. “Embedding a hard silicon device with a flexible antenna in money is a challenge,” he says.
And Roberti expects privacy advocates to object strongly to anything that would let people track an individual’s spending. “I do not expect to see US dollars with RFID tags in my lifetime,” he says. Europeans may not have so long to wait.