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An RFID Cure for the Checked Bag Blues?

Secure Tag, a Toronto-based startup, has developed an RFID device it says could be used to both identify and secure airline passenger baggage.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
Dec 05, 2005Air passengers waiting at baggage carousels may worry about whether the airline lost their luggage, but Dave Da Silva, vice president of Toronto-based D&D Secure Tag, says there is a real chance something worse could happen. Thieves, for example, might rifle through their bags, or smugglers might try to use them to transport drugs or other contraband. Da Silva says a thief or smuggler could easily remove the metal zipper-pull padlocks used to secure bags and replace them with similar-looking padlocks, so that owners would not realize the luggage had been opened until after arriving at their destination. Moreover, fliers using these metal locks run the risk of having them forced open by U.S. Transportation Security Administration security personnel if a bag is selected for inspection and the TSA does not have a key to open its lock.

Da Silva claims such situations could be prevented if a bag were sealed with a Secure Tag lock, a hard plastic rectangular device roughly the size of a domino, containing a passive RFID inlay. Welded to the device is a durable plastic strap, similar to plastic ties sometimes used by police as handcuffs. To attach the tag to a piece of luggage, the free end of the strap is looped through holes in the zipper pulls, in the same way metal padlocks are used to prevent bags from being zipped open. The end of the strap is then inserted into a self-locking channel built into the device's hard plastic housing. To prevent entry into a locked bag by disengaging its zipper track, using a sharp object such as a ball point pen, and then re-engaging the zipper by pulling the two locked zipper pulls over the open portion of the zipper, Da Silva says the Secure Tag could be looped through both the bag's zipper pulls and its handle.

Zipper pulls are used to attach Secure Tags to luggage in an effort to prevent entry into locked bags.

This is how D&D Secure Tag envisions the tags would be used: Airline workers would apply a Secure Tag to each piece of luggage, thereby locking the zipper closed, then encode the RFID inlay with the unique passenger record number airlines currently print as a bar code on a conventional airline bag sticker. To examine the contents of a piece of luggage secured with the Secure Tag, TSA officials would first need to cut the device's strap. After completing the inspection of the contents, the officials would then use a second strap to re-secure the bag. One end of this strap terminates with a wide tab embossed with the words "airport security," while the other end has a narrow tip.

TSA officials would slide the end with a narrow tip through another of the device's self-locking channels, loop it through the zipper pulls, then slide it into the last self-locking channel. This way, passengers would know the bag had been examined and re-secured by airport officials. Because the end of the strap that slides into the self-locking channel has a small notch—something the original strap placed by airline workers lacks—and because the "airport security" tab is too wide to be pulled through the tag's channel, neither end of the security strap can be removed from the Secure Tag once the security strap is in place, even if that strap is cut. To track the individual security straps the TSA will use, and to make it harder for someone to steal or counterfeit them, Da Silva says his company is considering etching serial numbers into the straps, or even embedding RFID inlays into them.

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