RFID Technology: Tag, you’re it

IT snapshot: When the delivery truck rolled to a stop, the agents waited until the driver stepped out. Then one approached, flashing a badge. “Like the scenic route?” he asked. The other agents hung back a bit, watching and ready.

The agent put away his badge and halted a few feet in front of the driver. Seeing a puzzled and nervous man, the agent explained, “We know you took a detour back there, into the restricted area. The truck’s tagged. So are you. You’ve got some explaining to do.”

A boon to supply chain management, radio frequency identification (RFID) technology also has many security benefits and applications. RFID tags and associated readers can, for instance, help ensure that valuable assets—trucks, laptops or other equipment—don’t walk off. The same tags can help enforce security restrictions by tracking where people go, even in an open space like a warehouse or an airport. If connected to a security system, RFID technology can control access, unlocking doors when appropriate.

In effect, the technology can set up invisible walls and checkpoints. Allan Griebenow, president and CEO of RFID technology supplier AXCESS International Inc. of Carrollton, Texas, thinks it’s only a matter of time before RFID is everywhere. “Everything’s going to be tagged. Every person and asset is going to be tagged,” he said.

Smaller and cheaper

Griebenow is biased in favor of the technology, but he might also be right. RFID technology is now inexpensive and getting cheaper every day. The cost for an active RFID tag, one that carries its own battery or other power source, has dropped 10-fold over the last decade or so, noted Griebenow. Such tags at one time cost over $100. Now, they’re less than $10. Passive tags, like those being used by large commercial supply chains, go for less than a dime in large volumes. Since RFID tags are essentially wireless radios, they benefit from advances in semiconductors and wireless technology with regard to power, cost, capabilities and size.

AXCESS makes semi-active tags, self-powered devices that wake up when interrogated. In contrast, passive tags run off the RF energy they intercept. Because of this, they’re cheaper than active tags and also smaller, coming in at a few tenths of a millimeter (hundredths of an inch) on a side and thinner than a sheet of paper. An active tag, by contrast, is roughly coin-sized.

A passive tag can be read at distances of only a foot or two, and even then the read reliability is only 80 percent or so. Because they have more power to work with, active tags have a range of about a 100 feet and better read reliability. Griebenow noted that his company’s products had been used to tag biohazard containers. For that application, he said, “You’ve got to be pretty reliable.”

RFID tags store information, if only a hundred or so bytes. Consequently, they’ve been fingered as a potential computer virus vector. In mid-March, researchers at Vrije University in Amsterdam demonstrated that an attacker with sufficient knowledge could deliver a virus using a properly constructed data sequence contained in an RFID tag. The database could then infect other tags as they were being written and spread the virus. In another scenario, the database itself could be corrupted, potentially snarling the flow of goods or people and costing substantial sums to fix.

AIM Global, an automatic identification trade organization, dismissed the problem by claiming the researchers had, in effect, set up a straw man that, not surprisingly, fell apart when attacked. “Many of the basic assumptions in the paper overlook a number of fundamental design features,” said AIM Global president Dan Mullen in a release.

In some ways, it doesn’t matter which position is correct. As AXCESS’ Griebenow noted, clever people abound. Some will undoubtedly try to compromise RFID tags. If there is vulnerability, somebody will likely eventually discover and exploit or publicize it.

An interested party

One group that might be very interested in these efforts to circumvent radio identification and tracking includes some famous people. Ankle bracelets and accompanying base stations are technologically similar to active RFID tags, with a range of 100 to 150 feet. They’re used for house arrest situations, where prisoners, parolees and others are supposed to be in their homes except for at specific, pre-approved times when they’re at work or another permitted location.

At the Roanoke Country Sherriff’s Office in Salem, Va., the technique is used for a few dozen people at a time as part of an overcrowding solution. According to Sergeant Brian Keenum of the sherriff’s office, the system was instituted almost four years ago, but has some drawbacks. “The disadvantage of the RF system by itself was that, once they left the house, they left the house. Unless you’re following them around, you don’t know where they are,” he said.

The solution was to add GPS tracking, enabling all movements to be recorded. Monica Hook is marketing communications director for BI Inc. of Boulder, Colo., the company that supplied the hardware used by Roanoke County. She noted that their approach is a multiple-unit solution, with separate RF and GPS components. The two work together, with an RF ankle bracelet, ensuring that the person being supervised actually remains near the GPS unit. The tracking data is downloaded into the house base station when the individual returns.

She added that there are many people who could be tracked; that population has grown significantly over the past few years. The number actually tracked, however, hasn’t changed all that much.

Hook attributed the discrepancy to factors that RFID technology can’t solve.

“The problem is that it’s not hard walls—it’s not a jail cell,” she said.

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