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Clear Vision: RFID Emerges As Powerful Security Tool

A large German manufacturer wanted to reduce its operating and data storage costs while increasing the security efficiencies of the several hundred video surveillance cameras it uses to monitor a huge production facility.

To accomplish this, the firm placed radio frequency identification (RFID) tags on all the assets passing through the facility.

The tags use WiFi-based Active RFID technology from AeroScout Inc., in Redwood City, Calif.

RF “exciters” placed at strategic doorways throughout the facility signal any tags entering their coverage area.The tags respond immediately, enabling the network to precisely locate the tag. Once located, a local video camera begins recording in the tag’s area, so that cameras now record only when and where an asset is physically present.

“Whenever a tag is on an asset, you have complete visibility of it,” says Amir Ben- Assa, industry solutions marketing director for AeroScout.

Visibility -- of something or someone and whether they are or are not where they are supposed to be in space or time -- is RFID’s key attribute for security.

The technology uses tags -- a microchip combined with a tiny antenna -- and readers to enable companies to track the location of products, tools, personnel and activities.

Tom Schuster, CEO of Reva Systems, based in Chelmsford, Mass., says the technology gives security personnel a multifaceted, comprehensive view of the critical assets they must monitor. “RFID enables you to see individual items alone, as they come together with other items, and as they change,” he says.

From monitoring facilities to locating personnel in an emergency to deterring fraud and theft, vendors, analysts and a growing body of users say RFID is a potentially powerful security tool.

Keeping Personnel Visible

Placing RFID tags on employee, guest or contractor ID badges enables companies to define and enforce restricted areas and equipment and control access to them.

Occidental Petroleum Corp. uses Axcess International’s Active Tag RFID solution for hands-free access control at the company’s Elk Hills Reserve field in California. Occidental has used more than 14,000 tags to monitor employees and on-site contractors since December 2005. The system also gives the company time and attendance records required for safety reporting as well as a reliable locator system in case of emergency.

“The badge looks a lot like a proximity card but has a long range,” says Allan Griebenow, president and CEO of Axcess, based in Carrollton, Texas.

The Port of Barbados also uses an Axcess personnel monitoring solution that is exception-based. If a person’s RFID tag registers them as being out of place, an email, page or wireless alert is automatically sent. “That increases the productivity of security personnel,” Griebenow says.

Chain Of Custody

RFID tags also can associate specified users to specific pieces of RFID-tagged equipment, such as keyboards, factory or medical tools, vehicles, even filing cabinets and the documents within them. The tags can offer a record of who touched what when. University Medical Center in Tucson, Ariz., uses AeroScout’s WiFi-enabled active RFID tags with its Philips Asset Tracking Solution to monitor the location of thousands of medical devices. The tracking, with Web-based location tools, enables the hospital to quickly locate critical equipment across nine floors comprising about one million square feet. Faster location means better patient care. It also tells administrators who the last user was, in case the device is damaged or lost. That means units can be held accountable for damages.

To verify its shipments of consumer electronics products, Sony Logistics Europe is using an RFID deployment from Reva Systems.

In a large distribution warehouse in Holland, Sony labels individual goods with RFID tags. An automated MPEG4 video surveillance system records the tag reads during item picking, packing, pallet wrapping and truck loading. Further, the tag data is burned into the video stream at each point. If a delivery customer says an item is missing, the specific item can be traced back to individual cameras at each step so that Sony can verify whether it shipped.

“This was a project that had to stand on its own legs as an RFID application and bring security results,” says Schuster at Reva Systems.

“Loss prevention is key throughout the supply chain and retail,” says Dimitri Desmons, director of RFID marketing for Impinj, Inc. in Seattle, Wash. A luxury goods manufacturer is using Impinj chips to deter counterfeiting. By incorporating an RFID tag into its product packaging, would-be counterfeiters would have to duplicate the tag to get away with duplicating the product.

Custom Is Common

While RFID’s security applications are easily categorized into tracking personnel and assets, companies are unlikely to find prepackaged RFID solutions from vendors.

“There is no off-the-shelf RFID,” says Ravi Pappu, co-founder and head of the advanced development group for Thing- Magic in Cambridge, Mass. Further, he notes that even the widespread standardization of RFID components doesn’t guarantee plug-and-play applications. “There’s some black magic that goes on to make an RFID system work,” he says.

Some vendors offer RFID solutions for specific industries they claim can be deployed relatively quickly for applications with well-defined limits, such as complying with a larger trading partner’s RFID tag requirements. T3Ci and BEA Systems offer a solution combining RFID tags, readers and analytics.

Impinj and a group of allied vendors are offering semi-packaged “functionality” for pharmaceutical, media/entertainment, apparel, food safety and other vertical market applications. The supporting companies include epcSolutions, GlobeRanger, InSync Software, OATSystems, Omnitrol Networks, Scout Software, Systech International, Tacit Solutions,Vue Technology and Reva Systems.

Packaging vendors could offer additional near-ready-made RFID applications. Pliant Corp., a Schaumburg, Ill.-based stretch film manufacturer, has partnered with PowerID in Petah Tikva, Israel, to create tamperproof stretch film. The solution involves electrically connecting a PowerID battery-assisted RFID tag to a wire wrapped with the stretch film around a shipping pallet. Cutting the film ensures the wire is cut too, thereby breaking the circuit and making the tag unreadable.

“This is a solution for valuable or sensitive shipments,” says Jeff Middlesworth, principal development engineer at Pliant, noting that customers must be willing to balance the added security with the cost of the tag.

Securing Business Benefits

RFID applications easily cross security and business lines, with applications designed for process improvement leading to more security and vice versa.

Schuster cites a Reva Systems client that uses RFID tags to automate inventory counts when loading and wrapping pallets to improve security. Automating the reads meant the company could stack the goods higher on pallets because personnel no longer had to physically reach items to count them. In turn, the higher pallet stacks led to less handling, more efficiently packed trucks and fewer truck runs.

Capitalizing on the fact that RFID used for security can solve business issues too can help make the business case for RFID security applications.

“For high value items with a street value, [real-time location systems] or tamper-resistant asset tagging can provide a real ROI [return on investment] if losses are significant,” according to Daniel P. Mullen, president, AIM Global, an RFID industry group. In a written reply to queries, Mullen also noted that security might be the only business case for protecting data on laptops and removable media.

“Considering the potential embarrassment and legal/financial penalties for data loss these days, the ROI is fairly easy to calculate,” he wrote.

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