RFID tech turned into spy chips for clandestine surveillance

Nox Defense creates chips (and even RFID Dust) for tracking property and people

An employee looking to steal confidential information from his employer sneaks into what should be a secure back room after hours. He pulls charts and files from a top-level financial meeting and slides them into his briefcase before heading back out.

What the insider doesn't know is that his shoes picked up hundreds of tiny radio frequency identification (RFID) chips that had been scattered across the floor. As he passes by an RFID reader near the front door of his office building, security will be alerted that he had accessed a secure area. The evidence is all over the soles of his shoes.

Sound a little like a scene from a James Bond movie? It's not.

Nox Defense, an arm of SimplyRFID Inc., said it has created an invisible perimeter-defense system designed to track things and people in real time -- all without their knowledge. The system that is made up of several technological pieces -- RFID chips the size of grains of sand and an RFID and video camera surveillance system.

"The key to an effective surveillance system is intelligence in the equipment itself," said Carl Brown, president of Nox Defense. "It does no good to install a thousand video cameras if a thousand people have to watch them all day. ... Everybody is doing surveillance nowadays everywhere. They just don't have a setup that tells them what is important video to look at. RFID technology will tell you when something was moved, where it was moved, and then you can check the corresponding video."

Brown explained that the RFID chips, or spy chips, are perfect for what he calls clandestine surveillance. The RFID readers can be hidden in an office building or warehouse, and the RFID tags can be placed on company products or property -- even on employee name tags or ID badges. Thieves, intruders and even personnel see nothing of the tracking system.

If an employee in the warehouse walks off with a plasma TV or loads seven instead of five computers into the delivery truck, it can be tracked with the RFID technology. And since the RFID chips will tell security what time the equipment was moved, the company can check the digital video archives for that time and that section of the warehouse.

The Nox RFID readers and the digital video cameras are all tied into software that tracks the data feeds and allows security to quickly call up, for instance, all the video shot that day of a particular employee or of the video taken of the area where certain products are stored, explained Brown. The software creates data files of the RFID and video data.

"RFID is perfect for that because it's very inexpensive," said Brown. "RFID tags right now are under 20 cents a tag for passive tags. The technology is cheap enough that you can tag lots and lots of items for a fairly low cost. If you tried to watch every person, you couldn't. But with RFID, you can keep an eye on every single item as it moves through the building -- where it went, when it went there and who was moving it. We've got the tag, we know where it is, and there's the video of the person doing it."

The RFID Dust that Nox Defense also sells is actually made up of tiny RFID chips -- each about the size of a grain of sand, according to Brown. They can be scattered on a floor, so when someone walks through a room, entryway or warehouse, the tags will stick to their shoes or pants cuffs. When they walk past an RFID reader, it will be able to tell where they've been.

"We use it for positive ID. I could have a reader at the exit to tell where you've been in my building," said Brown. "Imagine you're working [with the government] in a drug lord's house in Columbia. You sprinkle it on the floor boards. It gets on their shoes. When they come through customs, there could be RFID readers on the floor mats. It would show that you had been in this drug lord's house. With this, you can figure out which place they visited and what RFID dust stuck to their shoes. It creates data points for you to make decisions. "

Brown also said that someone from airport security could drop a tiny RFID tag into someone's bag or attach it to the bag. "I can't carry around something really obvious to mark the bag, but I can drop a tiny tag into the bag and then we'll be able to see where it goes," he added. "If I'm a CIA guy operating in Columbia, and I put a tag in a bag and it ends up in New York, that information might be useful to me."

He noted that the FBI is one of his company's dozen or so customers. The FBI did not return calls to comment on whether or not it is using the technology or how it might be using it.

When asked about privacy issues or someone using the surveillance technology for malicious intent, Brown said that isn't a concern.

"We're all pretty trackable to begin with. Anyone who has a cell phone can be tracked. If you have a cell, you're giving off a signal at all times," he added. "The thing about it is if you're living a clean life, there's nothing this stuff is really going to do to you. If you're not doing anything illegal, this isn't going to catch you. Is RFID going to catch you stealing? Absolutely it will."

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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