More Governments Vote for RFID

By Mark Roberti

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The fallout from the global recession isn’t pretty. Governments around the world have seen their budgets shrink, due to reduced tax revenues and fees, and now they have to figure out how to provide services with less money in the coffers. While radio frequency identification certainly won’t solve all their problems, many national, regional and local governments are discovering that the technology can help them become more efficient.

For many governments, their first foray into RFID was to improve security. Today, more than 30 countries issue electronic passports, which have embedded RFID chips, to better identify people crossing their borders. But as this issue’s cover story reveals, the technology has since spread to many other practical—and innovative—applications. Some national governments, for example, are deploying RFID to manage postal services more efficiently, city governments are saving money by tracking high-value assets, and local governments are employing the technology to reduce costs while enhancing community services. We’re also seeing RFID applications to monitor public utilities, crime-scene evidence and even voter ballots.

One key area where governments are employing RFID is to facilitate oversight in the livestock sector. Outbreaks of animal illnesses such as foot-and-mouth disease have led governments to order the destruction of tens of thousands of animals. RFID could be used to confirm which animals might have been exposed to a disease by tracking which facilities they transited through or other animals they came in contact with. This could reduce the number of animals destroyed if an outbreak occurred and protect the public from eating potentially harmful food products. But not everyone thinks tracking animals is a good idea. Small farms say they would be hurt by the cost of the new technology.

In addition, RFID could help governments protect citizens by ensuring that cargo containers have not been compromised. RFID-enabled electronic seals can reveal whether a container has been opened, which might indicate that a bomb had been placed within by a terrorist group. So far, no governments are mandating the use of e-seals, but companies are deploying them to protect their shipments from tampering, as well as to speed cargo through the supply chain and increase visibility.

One reason we’re seeing more RFID deployments by governments, as well as by other organizations and industries, is that RFID technology is maturing, though it’s still far from plug-and-play. In this issue, we’re debuting a column called Overcoming Obstacles, in which we give the vendor community an opportunity to share with end users how they’re working to make RFID deployments easier and ensure they deliver a return on investment. In our introductory column, we look at how RFID is moving from pieces-and-parts systems to packaged solutions. We invite RFID vendors to submit ideas for the column. Write to me at

RFID can’t cut through red tape or make governments less bureaucratic, but the technology can help governments be more efficient and effective. And I think most people would vote for that.

Photograph: Tom Hurst