Tag Archives: Automatic identification and data capture

A Beginner’s Guide to Scanning

(This is the text of my weekly Loose Wire Service column, written mostly for newcomers to personal technology, and syndicated to newspapers like The Jakarta Post. Editors interested in carrying the service please feel free to email me.)

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A lot of folk ask me whether they should buy a scanner: those things that take bits of paper, or photographs, and turn them into files your computer can use.

Frankly, I’m surprised by this (not the taking and turning, but the asking). Why would people not have a scanner? I have four.

Well, five, actually, if you include that little business card scanner sitting in a drawer somewhere. OK, six. I bought a backup scanner once in case all my other scanners eloped. I scan every piece of paper that I can.

I scan whole books I want to read on my computer. I scan coworkers who pass me in the corridor. The truth is that scanners can save you lots of time, space and pain. But I readily accept that my passion for scanning may not have won you over.

First off, don’t get your hopes up. Twelve years ago I bought a scanner that, lulled by the pictures on the box of pages flying into my computer, I thought would rid me of a ridiculous four-drawer filing cabinet full of stuff I had been lugging around Asia.

I was to be disappointed. Scanners won’t digitize everything paper, I learned, and sometimes they will but will take so long the task won’t be finished in your lifetime. No, scanners won’t make you paperless, but they may lighten your load.

So, the second task is to figure out what there is you have to scan, and then get the right scanner for the job. There are flatbed scanners, which look a bit like the tops of photocopiers, which scan one loose sheet of paper at a time. (You can sometimes buy sheet feeders that, well, feed the sheets in, to some of these units.)

These can be cheap: Less than US$100 will buy you a quality Canon device. These are good, and do the job well. They’re fine if you’ve got the odd document or photo to scan, or the odd chapter in a book you want to store on your computer.

But they’re not good if you’ve got lots of stuff. For this, I’d recommend something like the Fujitsu ScanSnap. I have one of the basic models (5110EOX, selling for $300 to $650), which looks a bit like a small fax machine, and it’s still going strong after three years of heavy-duty scanning.

You can only scan single sheets into it — none of the flatbed/photocopier option — but it will scan pages fast, front and back, without you having to do anything other than press a button. The pages are scanned direct to a common file format called PDF.

I love my ScanSnap. I will scan all incoming business mail — bills, receipts, statements, letters of eviction — which means I need keep no formal paperwork except the odd will or letter from Aunt Maude that has sentimental value. The ScanSnap can also handle business cards, which it can scan more or less directly into Microsoft Outlook.

Neither of these options is particularly portable. If you scan and you travel, you may want to consider a small portable scanner. NeatReceipts has two scanners that make more sense if you move around: one a thin, long device that looks more like a truncheon or night stick, and one a small, cigarette box-sized business card scanner.

Which brings me to the important bit of scanning: What happens to the document once it’s scanned. Most software simply converts a physical thing to a digital thing, but to make the text that is on that physical thing something you can edit, search or add to, you need to run more software over it called optical character recognition, or OCR.

This software – which usually comes included with the scanner — basically looks at the patterns in the image of your document that the scanning software has created and tries to figure out the letters.

OCR software nowadays is remarkably accurate, so long as you give it good, clean documents to start with. Don’t expect your spidery handwriting or a smudged and heavily annotated tome from the Dark Ages to come out 100 percent accurate.

NeatReceipts doesn’t just specialize in digitizing and organizing your receipts: The smaller device handles business cards too. But for most jobs, you’d be better off with something like Paperport, which will handle all the OCR for you and also help you organize your documents into folders.

Bottom line? Scanning stuff is a very useful way to keep your desk clear and to be able to find stuff. But you have to be disciplined about it, and get a rather perverse joy out of watching paper disappear into a roller.

And be prepared to be regarded by co-workers, friends and family as a bit of a freak.

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The Jakarta Post – The Journal of Indonesia Today

An End to the Anonymity of Trash?

Britain is quietly introducing RFID (Radio Frequency Identity) tags to rubbish bins (trash cans) in a bid to measure the individual waste of each household and charge them accordingly. Some Britons are up in arms about this, saying that households have not been informed and calling it an abuse of privacy. Is it?

The UK’s Daily Mail reports that some bins, provided by local councils for households to dispose of their trash, contain coin-sized devices that monitor how much non-recyclable waste the owner throws out:

With the bugging technology, the electronic chips are carefully hidden under the moulded front ’lip’ of wheelie bins used by householders for non-recyclable waste. As the bin is raised by the mechanical hoister at the back of the truck, the chip passes across an antenna fitted to the lifting mechanism. That enables the antenna to ’read’ a serial number assigned to each property in the street.

A computer inside the truck weighs the bin as it is raised, subtracts the weight of the bin itself and records the weight of the contents on an electronic data card.

When the truck returns to the depot, all the information collected on the round is transmitted to a hand-held device and downloaded on to the council’s centralised computer. Each household can be billed for the amount of waste collected – even though they have already paid for the services through their council tax.

According to The Mail two German companies manufacture the bins and sensors, Sulo and RFID specialist Deister Electronic.

As with all such things, the story reflects local fears, obsessions and behaviour. First off, drinking: The Mail quotes a local council chairman saying he believed the chips “were simply to ensure bins could be returned to the right addresses if they got mixed up or drunks rolled them off”. Second, avoiding paying: The opposition Conservative party warns that “people will simply start dumping bags in their neighbours’ gardens or at the end of the street to avoid paying”. And then there’s the whole castle thing: a council spokesman in Wiltshire says the chips were “to sort out disputes between householders about whose wheelie bin is whose. If there are any arguments we can just send out an officer to scan the chip and settle the argument.” Oh, and then there’s the whole WWII hang-up: The headline at The Evening Standard’s This is London website is “Germans plant bugs in our wheelie bins”.

Is this something to be worried about? Well, the government, and local councils, haven’t been very smart about installing these tags before explaining their use to the public. But that’s not unusual: A council in Australia did the same thing a few weeks back. What I think is most interesting about this is that coverage of the subject in both countries lacks depth, pandering to the fears of its readers (The Mail may not know better, but The Press Association and The Independent should.) Even basic research would show that this sort of thing is not new, is widely used elsewhere, and has a name: Pay-by-weight.

It seems the same technology is already in use in Ireland and has, according to the company involved, reduced the amount of trash put out for collection by 40%. (There may have been some privacy uproar, but I can’t find any obvious evidence of any.) In Canada the program has been in place since 1994, and as of 1999 more than 1.5 million transponders have been deployed throughout the world, including the U.S., although there have been problems with the technology (this being RFID an’ all.)

That said, just because it’s being used elsewhere doesn’t necessarily make it a good thing. Trash is as much a privacy issue as anything linked to personal property, and the angry response to the news is related to an individual’s desire to keep what they throw out a secret (however illogical this is, given you’re putting it in an unlocked plastic bin in the street for hours, if not days, before it’s picked up.) Further research into what these RFID chips are capable of isn’t particularly reassuring: The SULO device for example (PDF file), can measure exact weight, when the bin is emptied, can report any damage to the bin, and, if linked to other equipment, could also locate where the bin was emptied. Nothing too sinister about this, but it increases the possibility, at least in theory, that an individual’s trash is no longer as anonymous as it was.

Bottom line? I don’t think this is likely, and given the technology has been in active service for more than a decade. But who knows where the technology may go? This is more a story about how RFID — although it’s not really identified in the story as such — scares people when they hear about it because instinctively they recognise its power. No one would disagree with the goal — reducing the amount of non-recyclable waste — but, as with all technologies, Pay by weight has to be handled carefully, its usage and goals explained, and clear and transparent limits to its usage imposed.

The Barcode Revolution

Pacarc, the guys who brought the Mitsubishi Jet Towel to the U.S. are now bringing over another piece of Japan: The design barcode.

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The design barcode, in the words of Pacarc’s James Allard, “seemed so obvious – utilize the last one-inch square of (nearly) blank real estate on product packing for branding or company image purposes. Why didn’t we think of it?! We looked into it and discovered that the mad minds behind it were four Japanese guys in a company called design barcode, inc. We contacted them and after a number of great discussions we are now the exclusive distributor for designed barcodes in the United States.”

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It’s a pretty cool but simple idea: turn the boring barcode into something interesting to look at and to enhance the brand at the same time. Expect a full launch next week. I think it’s a very cool idea, and it’s funky that a company like Pacarc are picking up these ideas and bringing them over the Pacific. Expect to see a big launch next week.

RFID — Ready For Imminent Destruction?

RFID (radio frequency ID) tags are soon going to be in everything. But do we really know what we’re letting ourselves in for?

Last month some Dutch researchers said they had created a virus capable of infecting RFID tags, an assertion that was poo-pooed by quite a few security folk. The researchers said the virus could infect back-end systems, making it possible, they said, to a prankster replace an RFID tag on a jar of peanut butter with an infected tag to infect a supermarket chain’s database; a subdermal (i.e., under-the-skin) RFID tag on a pet used to upload a virus into a veterinarian or ASPCA computer system; and, most alarmingly, a radio-frequency bag tag used to infect an airport baggage-handling system.

This was all very theoretical, which is a nice way of saying far-fetched and somewhat Bondsian. But now a bunch of Australian researchers, according to Tom Espiner of ZDNet UK, has “proven that effective attacks can be launched against RFID tags.” Basically, the tags stop functioning after they’re overloaded with data.

In the tests, the Australian researchers saturated the frequency range used by the tags, which prevented the tags from talking to the readers. … They demonstrated that from a range of about 3 feet, they could disrupt communications between tags and readers, putting the tag into a “communication fault state.”

This is techie-speak for “broken”.

This is somewhat worrying, because RFID tags are not just used in peanut butter. The military uses them for keeping tag of supplies; hospitals of supplies and patients. That kind of thing. Imagine the chaos if folk found out how to put tags in important installations into “communication fault state”. And, much more importantly, for gambling. A recently approved patent, for example, envisages lottery tickets carrying RFID so they can be validated and tracked. I’d not like to be around if someone found their winning lottery ticket had been converted by a jealous neighbour into a “communication fault state.”

Who knows whether these kind of attacks might find their way out of the lab and into the hands of bad guys? We were probably asking this question of ourselves back when computer viruses were silly little things that threw up messages about freeing hashish from the strictures of law. Now look what viruses are doing. Not much fun, I grant you, but we ignore these warning signs about RFID at our peril. If RFID is going to be in everything, let’s make sure it works. As the Australian researchers themselves conclude:

Vulnerabilities in the newer UHF style of RFID tags have been found and are of concern for anyone trying to implement a RFID system that would have mission critical or human life issues involved in it.

China’s Facial Recognition System

China is about to launch a new facial recognition system “which will be used in public places, such as airports, post offices, customs entrances and even residential communities”, according to today’s China Daily (no URL available yet.)

The invention, developed by Su Guangda, an Electronic Engineering Department professor with Beijing-based Tsinghua University, has been approved by a panel of experts from the Ministry of Public Security, the paper says. The system “excels at capturing moving facial images and features a multi-camera technology to lower the error for mismatching.”

Of course this is a sensitive area, particularly in China. The paper says the technology is already in place, but “limited to police use. The technology has helped the police in Beijing solve a few criminal cases involving child abduction and supermarket blackmail in the past few years.” But its creator is quoted as pushing for broader use, saying residential communities, airports and banks could use it. Since China has no fingerprint database for the general public, instead the photo on the national ID card “might help establish a facial database easily.”

Su said one feature of the system is the use of multiple cameras to limit errors, although it’s not clear from the report whether we’re talking multple cameras at an entry point to capture different profiles of the face, or millions of cameras all over the place to capture everyone everywhere.

The professor does acknowledge privacy concerns. His solution: “As long as you don’t save the picture in the computer and just scan individual faces quickly, the privacy violation is not an issue,” Su said. “And we could realize that by avoiding adding a picture saving function to the technology,” he said.

I’m no expert, but I don’t really see how that is a solution. Surely that could easily be circumvented by an over-eager security team, and in any case, it doesn’t really address the underlying concerns about use of facial recognition, although maybe that horse has already bolted. An earlier piece in the China Daily said the database already has 2.56 million faces and can make a face match within a second and has been in use for a year to catch suspects on the run.

Cracking RFID With Your Phone

RFID tags and their security implications are returning to centre stage again. Adi Shamir, professor of computer science at the Weizmann Institute, has shown that it’s possible to crack passwords on RFID tags using a cellphone. In theory this could mean anyone with a cellphone could monitor traffic between a tag and a reader and collect the information being transmitted. As EE Times’ Rick Merritt writes (via Digg)

“I haven’t tested all RFID tags, but we did test the biggest brand and it is totally unprotected,” Shamir said. Using this approach, “a cellphone has all the ingredients you need to conduct an attack and compromise all the RFID tags in the vicinity,” he added.

Shamir said the pressure to get tags down to five cents each has forced designers to eliminate any security features, a shortcoming that needs to be addressed in next-generation products.

Quite a few of the comments on the Digg link are of the “why should we care?” variety:

I still dont understand what the big fuss is about RFID security. I mean who cares if someone knows that you just bought milk and eggs or that you are carrying around the latest Playboy. What could be tagged with RFID that people would so desperately need to keep private? I think that people are wrapped a little bit tightly around the issue.

This kind of response is infuriating, but predictable, and the reason why there’s still a huge gulf between the value we attach to our personal data and the value companies in the world of data collection attach to it. It is precisely the detail of our lives that is valuable to others; this detail — whether we bought milk, eggs or Playboy — comes together to form a very detailed profile of the consumer. The consumer is also a bank account holder, a patient, a credit card applicant, a driver, an employee. When all this information gathered on the individual is collated, it forms an alarmingly precise picture of their habits, their problems, their foibles — do you want a potential employer to know you read Playboy?, a life insurer to know you consume lots of fatty foods? — which might, just might, in the future prove the difference between a job, a loan, a credit card, a house.

Pay Money, Scan Barcodes With Your Cellphone

ScanZoom, which allows camera phone users to scan barcodes to compare prices in stores and obtain other information and services, is now available. It will work with most camera phones, but there’s a catch: You have to pay $10 for the software, $10 for a special macro zoom lens, and another $5 or so to get it to you. A similar version if available for webcams.

I haven’t tried it out yet, but if I recall correctly a barcode reading pen was available a few years back — the C Pen, if I’m not mistaken, which turned out to be less of a success than its makers hoped for. The idea was for users to scan barcodes they found in magazines and then send the data to their computer, which would in turn, er, tell them about the product they’d just read about in the magazine. I might be getting this wrong, but a) I couldn’t find that many companies that had been loaded into the pen’s database for it to work and b) how many people are going to do this kind of thing for it to work?

ScanZoom could be different, in that the user doesn’t have to do that much. But clearly the need for a macro zoom lens on the camera phone is going to be an inhibitor (can you still use the phone with the lens on it?), as it the fact you’ve got to pay $20 to get started. Unless the service really does help you get good prices, rather than just throw more advertising at you and steer you to certain vendors, you might be wondering who the chump is.

Still, as infoSync World reported late last year, this kind of thing is common enough in Japan. And ScanBuy, the company behind ScanZoom, says it used the technology at a soccer game in Spain earlier this year to ID ticket holders. And they’re not shy in their claims: Their PR blurb says (PDF only)

Optical Intelligence enables camera equipped cell phones and other mobile devices with barcode-reading functionality. This technology will drastically change use of cell phones as we know it today as the biggest problem with the cell phones, namely the input mechanisms, is now solved. With the new generation of devices, ScanZoom will allow to send an email, give a call, access a website, download music or purchase items according to the data scanned.

I’ve requested a review unit and will report back.

RFIDs And Shoplifters

Could RFID tags be used by shoplifters?

Robert Lemos of CNET’s News.com writes from Las Vegas that a German technology consultant believes the Radio Frequency Identification tags “could be abused by hackers and tech-savvy shoplifters”. He quotes Lukas Grunwald, a senior consultant with DN-Systems Enterprise Internet Solutions GmbH, as telling a discussion at the Black Hat Security Briefings that thieves could fool merchants by changing the identity of goods, he said.In time-honored fashion, Grunwald had the tools to prove it, unveiling during the session “a new software tool that he helped create that can be used to read and reprogram radio tags”.

The basic idea, it seems, is that such software — called RFDump, or sometimes RF-Dump — could be used on a PDA or laptop to mark expensive goods as cheaper items, allow underage folk to bypass age restrictions on alcoholic drinks and adult movies or create confusion in shops by randomly swapping tags.

How much of a threat is this to RFID? On first flush it sounds major. But I suspect that if it is going to be an issue it’s going to be more closely related to security than shoplifting. How many doors are already being opened by RFID? How many security passes are RFID? Luggage tags in airports? Of course these are probably encrypted but could these be reprogrammed?

A Dream Of Intelligent Luggage Tags

Something I’ve long dreamt of: An intelligent luggage tag.

Here’s a concept for a Bluetooth luggage tag that lights up when it’s in range of your Bluetooth gadget, helping you to identify it on the carousel. The Bluebird tag would contain additional information, so should it go astray the luggage could be returned to you. You could have separate tags for each item. (Found on blueserker.)

Now I don’t want to rain on anyone’s parade, not least because the Bluebird design looks so good. But others may have been here first: Samonsite unveiled a Bluetooth suitcase two years back which supposedly contains information for tracking and identifying luggae. Admittedly since then not much has happened: It’s not even clear whether the cases were ever sold. Three years ago Red-M said it was teaming up with Denmark’s BlueTags to use Bluetooth to help manage and track luggage and to help find it when necessary. I can’t find any subsequent mention of this, although BlueTags are now being used to track children at a Danish zoo, which is pretty much the same thing.

I like the Bluebird idea, but I’m not sure it would work. As soon as more than one person at the carousel has these devices, they become less useful, unless there’s some way of uniquely identifying each piece of luggage. Otherwise all you’ve got are lots of bits of flashing luggage going around the carousel. (One way around this would be for your PDA to tell you how far away your luggage is on the conveyor. But somehow that seems to have crossed some sort of nerd acceptability line.)

The other thing is that every Bluetooth device transmits a signal (unlike RFID, for example, which has a passive and an active element. The RFID tag doesn’t transmit, it only receives; it’s the scanner that transmits). So would lots of bits of Bluetooth luggage in the airplane hold be beaming confusing signals that interfere with the navigation system?

To me the biggest headache that could use a technology like this is reassuring the passenger. Using RFID or some similar technology on luggage would allow both the airline to check it has all its luggage aboard, but also the cabin crew to confirm for the passenger that their luggage is safely stowed. Airlines could even allow passengers to check for themselves, perhaps via the inflight display (key in their luggage number via a touchscreen, activating an RFID scanner in the hold to look for the item.)

Indeed, Delta Airlines this month said they were doing something like that. On July 1 it said it would use RFID to track luggage through its U.S. network. And Hong Kong’s airport last month said it was going to use RFID to track luggage going through the airport. But I can’t see airlines allowing passengers to do the monitoring, for the simple reason that if the scanner doesn’t find the luggage — either because it’s not aboard or the technology doesn’t work properly — you’re going to have a lot of very unhappy passengers insisting the plane turn around and go back to the gate. Things could get ugly.

More On Camera Phones As Bar Scanners

Here’s more on a subject I looked at in December (and then promptly forgot about): Using your camera phone as a bar code scanner. Wired says there are at least four software companies that have released applications that let you take a photo of a bar code, which will then trigger the download of coupons, reviews and other information about that product.

Not a bad idea. As the article points out, most phones have inbuilt browsers, so in theory it’s possible to check out competing prices and more information about a product you’re looking at. But who actually does that?

This is what the folk at trendwatching.com call SEE-HEAR-BUY: “the capability to buy everything you see or hear, wherever you are.”

Wired also takes a glimpse at the bit that worries me: The destruction of the small time retailer. If people are just wandering into shops, taking a snap of a product and then wandering off again, how helpful is that going to be to their business? Either they ban camera phones in their shops, or they try to find a way to make it work for them, perhaps by creating ways to make alternative recommendations for a product the customer is viewing. And of course, the edge the bricks and mortar folk have always had: Their extensive knowledge, onsite, online and delivered in human packaging.