The Auto-ID vs. the Ubiquitous ID vs. ?

Steven J. Searle

Web Master, TRON Web

One of the biggest news items at TRON SHOW 2003 was the Ubiquitous ID scheme unveiled by TRON Project Leader Ken Sakamura. Long under research and development by the TRON Project, Prof. Sakamura announced that a newly established Ubiquitous ID Center would be giving identification numbers to everything under the sun, both tangible and intangible items. Since there is a similar project under way at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Auto-ID Center [1], a lot of Japanese reporters thought this was the big news item from the show. TRON would be challenging the U.S.; it's Unicode versus TRON Code all over again. In fact, the Ubiquitous ID and the Auto-ID are very different in their technologies and their scope. The Ubiquitous ID scheme is a "meta code," i.e., a code of existing and new codes, that gives a 128-bit number to both physical and non-physical things and is intended to operate across multiple network types. The Auto-ID scheme is a "new product code" that gives a 64/96-bit number to physical products and is intended to operate mainly via the Internet. Moreover, they use different scanning frequencies: the Ubiquitous IDs use a dual band, 2.45 GHz for RFID and 13.56 MHz for eTRON smart cards; while the Auto-IDs use 915 MHz for RFID. Here's a chart of the main differences.



Ubiquitous ID
Code type Electronic Product Code (ePC) to supplant current bar codes, e.g., Universal Product Code (UPC) New "meta code" that can incorporate current product codes plus new codes for products and services [2]
Code length 64-bit (max. 96-bit) 128-bit
RFID frequency 915 MHz (U.S. standard) 2.45 GHz (ISO standard)
Other frequency ? 13.56 MHz (smart cards)
Data transfer medium Internet All network types supported
Security measures ? eTRON security architecture

A quick glance at the above chart allows us to discover two facts: (1) the Auto-ID and the Ubiquitous ID are two very different animals, and (2) the technology for the Ubiquitous ID has already reached a high level of finish. The Auto-ID very clearly is an Amerocentric ID scheme for replacing current bar codes. It utilizes an RFID frequency that is used for cell-phones in Japan and Europe. Although it could probably be introduced into other countries through the use of dual frequency transceiver RFID chips, those RFID chips would be more expensive. Moreover, large numbers of Auto-ID RFID chips are currently being produced only in the 915 MHz frequency range, making them useless in other countries. And then, there is the question of continuing current bar codes, plus there are the questions of what to do about intangible objects, such as software and electronic money and tickets, plus there is big question of what to do about security. TRON's Ubiquitous ID scheme has already taken all of these issues into account and come up with technological solutions for each of them. What amazes this writer is that the Auto-ID Center people never came over to Japan to check out what the TRON Project has been doing in this area, even though it is well known overseas that the TRON Project has as its goal societal computerization.

One category that is not listed above--mainly because it is too long--but should be there is: "Serves as an integral part of a total computer architecture." The Ubiquitous ID has not been developed just to track inventory and/or business transactions so as to enable electronic commerce. If that were the case, it might be possible to replace it with the Auto-ID. Rather, it also has to provide identification capabilities for all objects inside computerized living and work spaces based on the TRON Architecture. Called "intelligent objects," these have been under development in the TRON Project since the mid 1980s--long before the expression "ubiquitous computing" was coined by an American researcher--and they are the progenitors of MIT's "Things That Think" and Microsoft Corp.'s "Smart Objects" that are currently the hot topic of conversation in the U.S. The YRP Ubiquitous Networking Laboratory has already developed a Ubiquitous Communicator for communicating with these intelligent objects, and Prof. Sakamura demonstrated at TRON SHOW 2003 how this device could be used to help the disabled. Using the Ubiquitous ID chips embedded inside soft drink containers, he identified the items with voice, image, and text data. Needless to say, this type of functionality will also be used to help foreigners living in Japan.

However, when it comes to the Auto-ID, there are more than network-related technical objections on the Japanese side. Who buys what from whom and when are "confidential data" in many supply chains. Accordingly, if these data are put into a universal electronic identification code and sent across the Internet, which is under around the clock surveillance by the U.S. government's ECHELON monitoring system, they could easily be intercepted. While people at the Auto-ID Center might scoff at this idea, it is well known that the U.S. government has already used this system to the advantage of American companies [3]. And even if the U.S. government promised it wouldn't intercept Auto-ID-based data, that doesn't mean there wouldn't be other organizations and/or individuals willing to try to intercept such data. Because of the sensitive nature of the information included in the identification data, this writer wouldn't be surprised if other identification systems in addition to the Auto-ID and the Ubiquitous ID came into existence, particularly a uniquely European one. Although these advanced product identification schemes have the potential to greatly improve the efficiency of supply chains, they could easily become a Trojan Horse. Security will be paramount in using them, both for businesses and their customers.


[1] The Auto-ID Center does have a presence in Japan, which is centered on a recently established research center at Keio University, Prof. Ken Sakamura's alma mater. The Japan research director is Prof. Jun Murai.

[2] The Auto-ID scheme seems to involve creating a completely new product code system that ignores previous product codes, such as bar codes, while the Ubiquitous ID scheme is a "meta code" that can include past codes plus new codes. This same dichotomy exists between Unicode and TRON Code, a result of the fact that the TRON Project stresses macro design.

[3] The U.S. government officially refuses to acknowledge the existence of ECHELON, although it is widely documented on the Web. This denial, ironically, is undercut by the fact that the U.S. government has publicly announced that it will create a similar system for data surveillance inside its own borders called Total Information Awareness, which will be run by the Information Awareness Office.