Hong Kong airport RFID project

19 August 2005

Edward Alder, Alan Lee

The Hong Kong International Airport has announced that it has adopted Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology in its baggage handling and cargo services in August this year. It is believed to be one of the first such projects to go live worldwide in the industry.

Instead of putting barcodes on paper stickers on checked luggage, the new system involves placing an RFID tag on each item that will enable airport staff and the airline to track it on its path through the airport. The information will be uploaded to the tag by the check-in staff. Wireless devices used by staff, either handheld or fixed at points in the path of the luggage to and from the planes in the airport, can then be used to read the information stored on the tags and associate it with the location and time in a database. Unlike barcode stickers, no information is visible to the naked eye.

It is believed that the new technology will speed up baggage sorting and enhance airport security, thereby preserving Chep Lap Kok airport’s position as a world leader in the industry.

Passengers will doubtless welcome any advancement that speeds up the wait for luggage, but the deployment of RIFD technology in an application like this, going beyond the simple anonymous tagging of stock in factory and retail scenarios, does raise possible privacy issues.

For example, if the tags were to contain information personal to the traveller (such as the name, flight number, address or even passport number) that a signal reader could detect, the set of data stored on the tag would constitute “personal data” and the Personal Data (Privacy) Ordinance would come into play.

Under Data Protection Principle 4, the airport authorities and airlines would be required to take “all practicable steps” to protect such data against unauthorised access. This would certainly entail consideration of encrypting the data so as to make it unusable by third parties.