Can RFID Be Made Tamper Proof?

By Evan Schuman  |  Posted 10-16-2005
With so many retailers and manufacturers embracing RFID tracking throughout the supply chain, there is a strong assumption that an RFID label is still connected to the product it is supposed to be connected with. One vendor—Mikoh—is trying to challenge that assumption.

Today's barcode is relatively easy to replicate and fake with an ordinary laptop, a small scanner and a low-cost inkjet printer. RFID labels are much more difficult to copy but, fortunately for would-be thieves, they are usually quite easy to remove and reaffix to something else.

"There is no physical security in them at all. It's very easy to move the tags from item to item," said Peter Atherton, Mikoh's Chief Technology Officer. "If you look at the benefits that RFID has to offer, those benefits are always greatest when RFID systems are automated to the maximum possible extent."

What Mikoh has created is a supposedly tamper-resistant seal—dubbed Smart & Secure—that would alert monitoring systems when a tag has been moved or changed. The system has two modes: a lower-cost option that will cause the chip to "stop working altogether"; a higher-cost approach where the chip will proactively alert monitoring systems that it's been tampered with.

Mikoh's approach, though, assumes that thieves will steal the RFID label itself. If someone grabbed an RFID-labeled bottle off an assembly line, dumped out its content and refilled it with bogus product, Smart & Secure wouldn't detect anything, unless the Ricoh label had been sealed over the product's opening.

For that, Mikoh is developing a line of tamper-resistant containers, Atherton said.

How do thieves try and remove stubbornly-affixed RFID chips? Atherton says a popular tactic is a temperature attack, perhaps by spraying the chip labels with Freon "and they'll just snap off." Less sophisticated thieves will use solvents to dissolve away the adhesive or a simple mechanical attack using razor blades.

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin are testing the limits of RFID and helping companies develop best practices. Click here to read more.

Jeff Woods, a research vice president at The Gartner Group, is skeptical that the Mikoh products will make much of a difference, but he agrees that the need for making RFID more secure exists.

"There are a number of business cases for RFID and they're based on the assumption that the tags are secure and authentic," Woods said. "The asset management case relies on them. Pharmaceutical companies rely on the concept that they're authentic. It's definitely an important issue."

But Woods questions whether the Mikoh approach helps much.

"The question is whether or not the authentication scheme is part of the digital data scheme. Their system doesn't make silicon any more secure. It just lets you know if it's been tampered with," Woods said. "The idea behind RFID is to eliminate human intervention. But, you'd have to visually verify something hasn't been tampered with so I find it difficult to see how this technology is helpful."

Woods puts some of the blame on the non-secure nature of RFID with a lack of healthy paranoia used by the original creators.

"In the IT asset management case where someone has lots of computers and phones and wants to verify everything is still there, the problem is it's still relatively easy to steal inventory and have no one know. RFID tags can be placed on another item and no one will know. In that case, visual authentication systems don't do much," Woods said. "The reason this can still happen is that you can clone the tag. You don't even need to remove the tag. It can just be cloned. The real problem is if the tags aren't authentic."

Retail Center Editor Evan Schuman can be reached at Evan_Schuman@ziffdavis.com.

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