back to article RFID could kill you

Researchers in the Netherlands have discovered that RFID systems, intended for tracking hospital kit, can fatally interfere with life-support systems from a distance of 30 centimetres. The tests were pretty rigorous: 41 different devices from 22 manufacturers were each tested against passive and active RFID systems. The …


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  1. GottaBeKidding
    Thumb Down

    READER not TAG

    The tag by itsself is inert. It is only when it's near a reader that it transmits a very very small signal. The issue here is with the readers, not the tags.

  2. Danny Silver badge

    Radiation FID chips

    Correct me if I'm wrong, but the shielding standards of hospital equipment are to prevent emissions rather than to protect from transmissions. You say there have been no deaths from RFID yet but that isn't known, nobody has looked for them before. If they are truly so damaging as the report implies then there may well have been deaths.

    Bad, or rather misplaced technology. I am reminded of the advert for asbestos 'to cap for tiny nerves in a sensitive tooth'.

    It's slogan 'When you think of Asbestos you think of Johns-Manville' also applies when you think of asbestosis or the Asbestos Strike. There is still asbestos in your kids crayons and talcum powder so why not chip them too. None of their hospital equipment will work but at least you'll know if someone has snatched them.

    This won't be a popular view here but neorosurgeon Dr Vini Khurana says on mobile phones "It is anticipated that this danger has far broader public health ramifications than asbestos and smoking". It is always the surgeons, not the engineers, who notice the health risks first.

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Dead Vulture

    This really shouldn't

    Be a surprise, I can remember picking up Radio 4 with just the right combination of leads going into my cassette recorder, also local taxis used to play merry hell with my friends amp and Rega Planar setup. By extension one would expect some problems with the active systems, the passive systems must be picking up some stray rf and hence causing the problem. Overall the bloody things are a bad idea, I'm sure we'll find they cause cancer or somesuch.


  4. Anonymous Coward

    Strike one potential business plan

    I guess that puts pay to this proposal to tag all hospital assets for tracking then.

  5. Dave Bell

    Not just RFID

    I really hope they've specified good shielding on all the ordinary computers they use.

    And then there is the cellular telephone farm on top of the local hospital.

  6. pctechxp

    sheilding inside the casing?

    might be a good idea.

  7. Anonymous Coward

    Now, will the paranoid whingers....

    .... who think that the no-mobiles-in-hospital rule is some sort of conspiracy theory to stitch them up for patientline charges please all line up and form a queue, so you can take it in turns to apologise for being a) wrong b) stupid and c) shrill and hysterical?

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Reader not tag?

    It is very important in these sorts of research to indicate how and indeed what tests were performed.

    In this case the abstract is not exactly explicit, but it appears that it is the readers that are being testing not the tags themselves (I get this from the statement that the "readers were 30cm from the medical device).

    As the readers transmit RF signals (especially passive systems as the rf signal needs to be strong enough to power the tag) it is not unexpected that the readers could cause interference with the medical devices.

    However I would be surprised if the signal from the tags were anywhere near strong enough to cause EMI in the medical devices.

  9. The Mole

    Not Fit For Purpose

    Surely if life critical hosptial equipment is this susceptable to interference then the equipment isn't fit for purpose and the manufacturers should be forced to fix there machines at their own costs

  10. Anonymous Coward

    @Now, will the paranoid AC

    And bend over for your RFID tag and we'll be sending you up for your MRI.

    Me coat, 'cos I don't want none of the splatter.

  11. Tezfair
    Thumb Up

    Forget the new technology...

    Downgrade back to Eyeball 1.0. It has a proven track record of working without interfering anything else.

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Effects HAVE been looked for

    And not found. We have a RFID (active, on WiFi frequencies) installation in our hospital and we spent months trying to provoke any reaction from sensitive equipment including anaesthetic machines, ventilators and cardiac telemetry systems. Neither during testing nor since installation have any problems been found and we are continually looking out for them (If any equipment acted oddly at all, we would assume the RFID was guilty until proven otherwise). Maybe we just have more robust (ie better designed) critical care equipment than the Yanks....

    Even though we couldn't find/provoke any effects, we still specified a minimum distance greater than 1m between any transmitter and any electronic equipment, 100mW maximum power output and no readers in the ITU, HDU, but maybe that's because we aren't the kind of people who put high powered transmitters 30 cm from ventilators to see if we can kill someone..........

  13. Josh

    My local hospital

    uses jammers to block cell signals in different parts of the building, such as the lobby to maternity and the ObER and delivery rooms, but not the maternity rooms themselves...isn't this just as likely to cause problems as the cell signal itself? If so, I don't buy the EMI stuff. They also provide wireless APs in some of the same jammed areas. I doubt the rfid tags will cause any problems if neither of the other two signals are, unless they just happen to be on poorly chosen frequencies. I think the equipment in the field is probably better equipped to handle such interference than we are told...seems to be the fear of the most remote chance that EMI could occur. I've not researched it, but I have never heard of any scenarios where actual EMI did occur and was noticed/reported/harmful.

  14. Peter Stern

    The real problem is crap life support systems.

    To me this suggests that those affected pieces of critical hospital equipment are really overpriced crap that don't have proper electrical shielding.

  15. Don Casey

    Here's why hospitals NEED this technology

    The number of deaths due to incorrect medicine and/or dosing is non-trivial. If each container of pills was tagged (passive tag) then read when dispensing for each patient (and automatically checked against the patient database) the occasional fatal error would likely be caught.

    The issue (as pointed out) will be with the radiation emitted by the reader, as passive tags don't transmit, they "reflect", and active tags are not appropriate for most hospital applications.

  16. Solomon Grundy


    The problem, like many new tech solutions, is that no one really tests things in their operating environment anymore. They test in a lab, or with a ridiculously small sample, and then point the blame and someone else when the lack of real-world testing causes a problem. In this case it's like building a submarine at home and considering it deep water worthy when the only testing has been in the backyard pool.

    The medical equipment was there first so the problem is with the RFID tech. Otherwise it's like blaming indigenous peoples for screwing up the country - and we all know how to solve indigenous peoples issues.

  17. Martin Usher

    Where does this leave Bluetooth?

    The wife recently ended up in hospital for a few days. Spiffy, essentially brand new US hospital where every room had a computer in it tastefully tucked away in a wall console. This computer -- one of the more compact Dells with a 15" flatscreen monitor -- was equipped with a barcode reader which used Bluetooth to communicate with the computer. This barcode reader inventoried every piece of kit and medication given to the patient, the nurse scanning the item, then the patient's wrist band. (Whatever else you can say about US hospitals, the billing system runs in real time.)

    Now, if you thought that this piece of R/F emitting kit was going to cause all the other equipment plugged into the patient to seize up, don't you think they wouldn't have installed it?

    A little knowledge, as they say, is a dangerous thing. There's far too many scare stories, far too little understanding of risk, just a need to get those headlines no matter what.

  18. Abdul Koroma

    More studies needed!!

    I'm not disputing the result of the studies but can't still find the connection. As one reader pointed out previously, the tags may not be the problem here. If this is truly the case, then future medical equipments should be built in a way that the RFID tags do not affect them. RFID tags will always be in use and with 'smart dust' also now on the horizon, it's time that further studies be conducted to ascertain the facts: We Are Smart Dust, We Are Golden (

  19. Kevin

    @Josh - jammer vs phone

    It's possible that a jammer could could less of a problem than a 2G phone. 2G phones use TDMA which involves the transmitter turning on and off very quickly. That's why you hear that dig-dig-dig sound from your radio when a 2G phone is transmitting. 3G phones use CDMA so they transmit continuously. As, presumably would a jammer. So it's possible that the two have different effects (I make no comment over which are benign and which aren't)

    But I do ask the question - if mobile phones are so deadly in hospitals, why do Doctors in Australia carry them on their hips? They aren't special ones. They're standard phones. And they use them in preference to pagers a lot of the time.

    And to AC above, why does this story prove that people who have been complaining about mobile phone rules in hospitals were wrong. The story is about RFID scanners, not phones. And there's also a difference between caused interference and actually caused malfunction, although I really do understand the desire to be conservative with people's lives and consider those two almost equivalent.

  20. Danny Silver badge

    Pissing yourself in a dark suit

    I don't know how to solve indigenous peoples issues. More relevantly, I also don't know how hospital equipment that is susceptible to RFID devices can withstand a mobile phone jammer Josh describes. Something to do with frequency or power I suppose but it is counter-intuitive I used to be an electronics design engineer, digital not RF, but have been away from that so long as to make it almost irrelevant. In those days only military stuff was insulated against interference. Domestic stuff, even high grade stuff like hospital equipment, was only shielded to prevent emissions, not to protect the device from other EMI.

    I once got a budget to shield the backs of VDUs in council buildings, about £80. Some metallic spray and some metallic tape, lot's of work. I don't know if it had a beneficial effect but it gave me a warm feeling in that job. "Doing a good job here is like pissing yourself in a dark suit. It gives you a warm feeling but nobody notices" - Unisys toilet grafitti.

    RFID seems better suited to a warehouse than a dispensary. I know all techniques are fallible and therefore fatal in hospitals but if this report is to be believed then RFID is more problems than it is worth. Bar codes can do roughly the same job without the extra risks or expense.

  21. Solomon Grundy


    You need to brush up on your history then buddy. England, Australia, New Zealand, and the U.S. have centuries of handling those problems.

    Firefox doesn't recognize New Zealand as being spelled correctly. Someone should fix that.

  22. Anonymous Coward

    jammer vs phone

    All a jammer needs to do is make it so that the phone can't hear the cell, so it doesn't bother talking back to it.

    Phones are clever things - they look at the incoming signal strength and determine how much power they need to send back to make the journey, varying from about 100mW to about 8W (in some cases)

    Therefore, you can see that having the mast on top of the building will reduce the near-field intense radiation from the phones.

    Having zero coverage eliminates the problem

    Using a jammer (probably using about 250mW) means that phones won't be sending 8W out, and the radiation is coming from a predictable location (ie high on the wall, away from equipment, rather than in someone's hand next to the equipment)

    Hope that clears it up for someone!

  23. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    RFID interference - from a developer

    As has correctly been pointed out, in passive systems the tags themselves have no power source and communicate solely by modulating the backscatter of the RF transmitted by the reader. The amount of RF thus backscattered is of the order of microwatts - the tags of themselves are harmless.

    A reader (of passive tags) on the other hand is a different issue - it has to transmit significant power levels for the tag to power itself up and backscatter a response. This power level is (usually) configurable, depending on what range at which you want to be able to read tags. Systems where tags are to be passed across a scanner may only need 100mW TX power, whereas portal readers in use by warehouses and baggage handling systems are likely to use 2W (the maximum allowed by FCC and ETSI).

    At 100mW I'm not sure what effect it has on electronic equipment (I didn't notice any) - but at 2W the system on my desk, at a distance of 1m, rendered my landline phone unusable due to the audible interference! Makes me wonder what it was doing to me...

    Glowing with health.

  24. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Radio attacks on embedded medical devices already published


    "Pacemakers and Implantable Cardiac Defibrillators: Software Radio Attacks and Zero-Power Defenses"

    presented and published last month in

    Proceedings of the 2008 IEEE Symposium on Security and Privacy

    by a completely disjoint set of authors, and covered back in March in many technology and mainstream news journals.

  25. Mike Manes

    EU Medical Device Directive EMC susceptibility conformance?

    DId the affected devices conform to the 3V/m EMC susceptibility requirements

    of IEC 60601-1-2? Electromagnetic compatibility is a two-way street.

    Mike Manes


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