RFID adoption could boost homeland security

Widespread use of radio frequency identification technology throughout commercial industry could help the Homeland Security Department do its job better, a department official said today.

When companies use RFID to improve their supply chains, Homeland Security gains greater confidence in those supply chains, "thereby lessening the need for us to come in with some kind of one-size-fits-all regulatory structure," said Stewart Verdery, assistant secretary for border and transportation security policy and planning.

Verdery was speaking on an RFID panel in Washington, sponsored by the Commerce Department. He also described some of the department's plans to use RFID tags in its own systems.

As part of its Free and Secure Trade initiative, the Customs and Border Protection Bureau within Homeland Security has already begun using RFID tags to identify freight trucks as they cross the border with Canada.

By the end of the year, the Homeland Security Department expects to extend the U.S. Visitor and Immigration Status Indication Technology system to cover land entries along the nation's borders.

The U.S. Visit system is currently in use at 115 airports and 14 seaports. People entering the country on a visa are fingerprinted and photographed and their information is stored in a centralized system for tracking purposes.

At the Mexican border, Verdery said, the current U.S. Visit process of collecting biometric information would be untenable due to the sheer volume of people crossing the border. Verdery said Homeland Security will employ RFID in border crossing cards and other documents that visitors carry when they enter the country.

The department is also pushing the adoption of RFID for cargo containers. By using so-called "smart boxes," Homeland Security agents would be able to tell if a container had been tampered with.

Robert Poor, chief technology officer of Boston-based Ember Corp., said his company is working with firms that make carbon dioxide sensors that could be used inside large containers. The sensors could determine whether people were hiding inside by detecting their breathing.

In the short term, however, cost and radio spectrum issues are critical impediments to mass RFID deployment, panel experts said.

"The RFID tag is the tip of the iceberg," said Lyle Ginsburg, managing partner for technology innovation at Accenture Ltd.'s Global Products Group. Ginsburg said when you factor in the cost of tags, antennae, receivers, networking infrastructure, middleware and backend systems integration, RFID tags can cost up to a dollar apiece?a far cry from the nickel-per-tag that the industry aims for.

In addition, RFID adoption will be determined, in part, but the technology's performance, measured by speed and coverage. And performance is currently limited by Federal Communications Commission restrictions on wireless spectrums, said Piyush Sodha, chief executive officer of Matrics Inc., a Columbia, Md.-based maker of RFID equipment.

"Creating clean, healthy spectrum for this technology will help tremendously," Sodha said.

But issues of spectrum usage and other RFID standards must be considered in a global frame of reference, said Jon Brendsel, director of EPC network services at Mountain View, Calif.-based VeriSign Inc.

"If RFID is to help improve supply chains, it must be used globally," Brendsel said. Companies are sourcing products from all over the world, therefore standards and spectrum policy must be worked out by groups worldwide.

Still, the panelists agreed that RFID technology has moved beyond the pilot stage to become a full-fledged market opportunity. Accenture's Ginsburg estimated there were several hundred participants in the RFID market, with smaller companies leading the innovation charge and larger companies figuring out who to partner with.

"We're in a classic disruptive technology phase," Ginsburg said.

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