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Letters re: Defense Department wants RFID tags on everything but sand

The notion of RFID-enabled troops has triggered considerable concern among Reg readers. Many of you out there suspect that the DoD's plan to slap every piece of military equipment with an RFID tag might not be the best idea for performing cloak and dagger type operations.

Has it occurred to anyone that a US military force's field positions might be covertly mapped by an opposing force with the foresight to invest in a pie-tin and an RFID reader?," asks James Hannon. "To hell with privacy; isn't 'secrecy' an issue?"

Hannon was by no means alone in his feelings.

That's really useful. Now, when US forces engage the bad guys, the bad guys can just scan their armoured vehicles to find out how much ammunition they've got, what types of missiles, what armour and communications systems are installed, how many people are inside etc. Unfortunately, the enemy won't be
able to determine if the US forces are packing gravel.

Still, US technology has provided such a significant battlefield advantage that it's really heartwarming to see the DoD "play fair" by deploying systems to boost the intelligence gathering capabilities of the enemy.

Regards
Adam Oellermann

But the most insightful letter has come from a former Army employee who worked on an RFID project in Germany.

He writes:

First off, the Army has been using RFID since the IFOR deployment to Bosnia. Initially, of course, it was done in a very limited manner. It was done on a container level, using programmable tags. A soldier would be handed a bill of lading for a single container, and would program the contents of the container onto the tag. The tags themselves could be read in one of two ways -- either a hand-held tag reader or a fixed reader.

The hand-held readers were used to locate items in container yards on bases (for example, in Tuzla). A soldier could enter the code for the type of item they wanted, and it would cause the tag on the container to beep and a light on the tag to flash, if the tag had the item they were looking for entered into it's memory.

The fixed readers were set up at gates on various bases and were used to confirm delivery of items to bases. The information from fixed readers is correlated on a central server so that the logistics people could determine where supplies were when someone put in a request for them -- so that they could use the nearest supplies, rather (in the case of the troops in Bosnia) than shipping the equipment from Germany.

The problem that we found with the system was that people would remove items from the containers and not update the inventory on the tags on the containers, so you as a logistics officer could (potentially) be delivering an empty container somewhere, thinking it was still full. I believe that the RFID tagging of supplies from the manufacturer is being done so that the programmable tags on containers can be automatically updated when items are placed in or removed from the containers.

The reason for the introduction of RFID into the Army comes from the first Gulf War. During the war, there was no real system for tracking what supplies were where. They were spray-painting the contents of the various containers onto the sides of the containers in the harbors. When, as in the first Gulf War, you had some 3-5,000 containers to keep track of, it was not an easy task. You also didn't know how much of whatever it was was left in the container without actually taking the container out of the stack and opening it, which further complicated matters.

Another reason was that because there was no real en route tracking of material being sent from 'headquarters' (or wherever) to the troops on the front lines, items would be ordered three and four times (and more, in some cases), which meant that far more supplies got shipped to the forward bases (Diego Garcia and Saudi Arabia) that was actually required.

Another problem was that the first order would go in at a 'normal' priority, and succeeding orders would go in at higher and higher priorities, which also caused problems. For example, once you get beyond a certain priority level (particularly in areas where there's shooting going on) things are shipped by air, which costs a lot more than shipping by sea, which was the normal case. I've heard stories about the amount of wood and barbed wire that were left behind after the first Gulf War because of situations like that (I've also heard stories - I don't really know if they were true or not - about a 747 that carried a full load of barbed wire over from the US (at considerable cost), only to arrive and have none of it used, since they had already received enough and just hadn't known that it was on the way already....)

While I agree that RFID has very privacy issues when used on normal consumer goods -- I'd never knowingly purchase anything that had a tag on it -- I think that for the military it makes sense. Particularly since they have a habit of losing track of things....

(Name supplied)

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