Dispelling the Myth of RFID Myths

A security publication has created five myths about RFID, just so it could knock them down.
Published: June 8, 2007

Until recently, I’d never heard of CSO, a magazine and Web site published by CXO Media, an IDG Group company. But someone alerted me to an article it had published, entitled The 5 Myths of RFID. In this article, the author suggests—but never actually says—that radio frequency identification will not do much to halt the counterfeiting of drugs.

The problem with the article is the five myths are myths only in the author’s mind. Here they are:

1. RFID tags are anticounterfeiting devices.

2. RFID technology is necessary to track the movement of legitimate drugs.

3. RFID technology can be used to mark pills, tablets and elixirs themselves.

4. RFID technology will let consumers verify that they have purchased legitimate products.

5. The pharmaceutical industry is this close to widespread RFID adoption.

The interesting thing is that I don’t know any serious person who actually says any of these things are true. The writer simply set up these straw men so she could knock them down.

RFID does hold promise for reducing the counterfeiting of drugs, but it is not, by any means, a silver bullet. RFID tags are not anticounterfeiting devices, but they could be combined with other anticounterfeiting devices to reduce counterfeiting, and the unique serial number burned into some RFID chips at the time they are made could be used to help identify legitimate items, including drugs.

Of course, RFID is not necessary to track the movement of legitimate drugs. It isn’t even necessary to identify drugs. Serialized bar codes could do the job. The reason RFID has any application in securing goods in the supply chain is that it allows for fast, labor-free data collection. Do you want to pay people to pick up millions of bottles of drugs and scan each one individually, or do you want to push many bottles past an interrogator and have their RFID tags read almost instantly?

The writer notes that pilots are not geared toward allowing consumers to confirm they have purchased a legitimate product. That’s true—but only because RFID hasn’t yet been adopted in the drug supply chain, so the infrastructure doesn’t yet exist. Clearly, if RFID is to be used to help reduce counterfeiting, the public, law enforcement officials and supply chain partners will all have to be able to get information on the history of drugs. It will take time for this infrastructure to be developed. Widespread adoption cannot be achieved until that happens, and no one is saying it will.

The one “myth” in the story that was interesting was No. 3. The author quotes Novartis’s James Christian as saying: “We have had experience with counterfeit product in genuine packaging, and genuine product in counterfeit packaging. The packaging isn’t what’s important.”

This adds a wrinkle to the issue of how to reduce counterfeiting, but I believe a specially designed RFID tag could help detect tampering with legitimate products. The tag could be connected to a circuit that would be broken if a package were opened. The next time the tag was read, it would indicate to the reader that the package had been tampered with.

But as I said, RFID is not the silver bullet for ending drug counterfeiting. It is one tool in an arsenal in the war against counterfeiters. And that war will be ongoing and require continuous innovation to stay a step ahead of the counterfeiters. An article falsely claiming others herald RFID as the sole solution, then debunking that claim, doesn’t help educate anyone on this important issue.