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The Kaaba during the Hajj, cc Mohammed Al mobarak

Sometime this October, more than three million pilgrims will descend on Mecca, Saudi Arabia, as part of the Hajj, a journey that must be undertaken by every able-bodied Muslim who can afford it. In years to come, those pilgrims could be tracked by the RFID chips in their passports, or even an RFID wristband, say the authors of a new paper on the application of technology to the largest religious pilgrimage on the planet.

With that many people squeezed into one place over the course of just five days, bad things are bound to happen – everything from stampedes that kill thousands to outbreaks of H1N1. In a way, the Hajj is the ultimate test of RFID as a technology for Internet of Things-style tracking at extremely high density.

Many passive RFID chips can be read at distances of hundreds of feet, allowing, the authors propose, an automated head-counting system that could detect when an area becomes dangerously overcrowded. At close range, RFID chips that are unique identifiers could be used to access medical records of ailing pilgrims, reunite families and assure that visitors leave the country when the Hajj is over.

RFID tags could also be of use in the aftermath of disaster.

RFID tagging system will make the process of identification of dead or injured pilgrims in overcrowding and stampede or  when natural disasters occur easier, particularly in the absence or damage of identification document on the body.

RFID tagging is widespread in the management of livestock, so from a technical perspective, tagging every pilgrim on the Hajj is different only in terms of scale. There is also a matter of privacy and security – opponents of RFID chips in passports and consumer goods point out that they can be read at a distance and even cloned. But the Hajj is precisely the sort of event where the security to be gained from tracking every visitor could outweigh potential exploits of the technology. After all, what’s worse, having your temporary all-access Hajj wristband cloned, or dying in a terrible accident that could have been averted through better crowd control?

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Tagged: Communications, privacy, RFID

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