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The Genuine Article

Two startups are taking advantage of variations in RFID chips to create security features that protect tags from being cloned.
By Jill Gambon
Dec 01, 2008—In response to growing concerns about the vulnerability of RFID tags to cloning, two startups—Veratag and Verayo—are taking advantage of variations that occur in RFID chips to create security features that are impervious to hacking. While the companies use different technologies to authenticate the identity of tagged items, both say their solutions provide a lower-cost, less complicated and robust alternative to the encryption techniques being promoted for some applications, such as protecting RFID-tagged pharmaceuticals and high-priced goods from counterfeiters.

The companies do not expect their products to eliminate the need for encryption. Instead, they both maintain their products can provide a more efficient security solution for particular applications and can be used with encryption when needed. Both companies are founding members of the RFID Security Alliance, a resource and advocacy group.

Verayo says subtle variations in the silicon create unique physical characteristics that distinguish each chip from all others, creating a sort of "electronic DNA" that can be used for authentication.
Veratag has based its unclonable chips on microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) resonator technology, spun out of the Cornell University research labs. When MEMS resonators—micron-scale mechanical devices—are added to silicon chips, they produce unique high-frequency analog signals that can be read, identified and authenticated.

The security application was the unintended result of a quality-control problem the Cornell researchers were encountering, says Veratag CEO John Schneiter. Each resonator produced slightly different sets of high-frequency analog signals. Creating a resonator with a specific frequency signal is virtually impossible, because the signals are the result of variations in the manufacturing process. The unique behavior of each MEMS resonator, combined with the impossibility of manufacturing the resonators at a specific frequency, created the opportunity to produce a nanoscale device that can be used for authentication and cannot be cloned, the company says.

Borrowing the image of a one-of-a-kind snowflake, Veratag has dubbed the chips with resonators "MEMFlakes." When a MEMFlake is activated by an RFID interrogator, it emits high-frequency analog signals that are unique in terms of quality, sharpness and frequency peaks, Schneiter says. Once activated, the signals can be read, identified and authenticated by comparing them with a list of valid signals stored on the reader or in a database. This makes the technology a perfect fit for access control, passport, e-pedigree and other applications where there is a need for authentication but not the increased complexity of encryption, he says. MEMS resonators can be added to RFID chips for less than a dollar per chip, making them cheaper to use than encryption technology, he maintains.
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