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RFID Takes Root in Washington

Beyond the U.S. Department of Defense's sweeping RFID mandate, the technology is becoming big business on the civilian side of the U.S. federal government—and it could have a lasting impact.
By Elizabeth Wasserman
Jun 01, 2007—After airline security was tightened in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) put out a call to commercial airline flight crews for volunteers to be trained to carry firearms on planes and even use deadly force in the event of future terrorist hijackings. In conjunction with the program, the federal agency needed a way to track the inventory of weapons and identify the trained flight crew. They turned to radio frequency identification.

Since July 2005, RFID tags have been embedded in the weapons used in the Federal Flight Deck Officer program, administered by the TSA's Federal Air Marshal's Service. The trained flight crew carries RFID-enabled ID cards, which are read by handheld interrogators when they check out weapons at classified locations.

RFID is becoming big business on the civilian side of the U.S. federal government—and it could have a lasting impact.

The tracking of weapons and the credentialed flight crew are just two of dozens of RFID applications the U.S. government has implemented or is now testing to better protect Americans, improve agency efficiencies and cut costs to taxpayers. Three years ago, the U.S. Department of Defense started blazing a path for the federal government to use RFID technology, mandating that RFID tags be applied to cases, pallets and packages of supplies—from uniforms to motor oil—so they could be tracked through the military's worldwide supply chain. The DOD, with its $440 billion-plus annual budget, wields a certain clout in the private sector; for many suppliers, the DOD is their biggest customer and they had no choice but to comply with the mandate.

On the civilian (nonmilitary) side of the federal government, where the combined budget exceeds defense spending by only a few billion dollars, RFID has become big business. Many different agencies are currently using or testing a wide range of RFID applications (see below). But each agency often needs to tailor the different uses of RFID to help solve unique problems or meet particular missions.

Taking Root
Here's a sampling of the wide range of RFID applications being tested or deployed in the U.S. civilian federal government:
Agency or Department: RFID Application
Agriculture: Animal tracking for disease control
Environmental Protection Agency: Hazardous waste tracking
General Services Administration: Asset management and transportation
Health and Human Services: Drug authentication, chip implants
Homeland Security: Immigration, border control and customs; search and rescue; disaster response
Interior: Access cards
Labor: Records management
NASA: Hazardous materials management
Social Security Administration: Warehouse management, asset tracking, inventory control
State: E-passports
Transportation: Freight and mass transport
Treasury: Records management
U.S. Postal Service: Mail security and tracking
Veterans Affairs: Patient and supply-chain tracking
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