January 18, 2009
By invitation, I recently visited a remote facility in northern Virginia to see a demonstration of NOX – a new Intelligent Perimeter Defense system deployed by the FBI that uses covert Radio-Frequency Identification (RFID) technology to track people and assets without their knowledge.
That’s right, using RFID to track people without their knowledge. This system is exactly what the privacy advocates have long feared: Big Brother tracking us with spy chips. As Orwellian as this sounds, the undisputed fact is that this system catches thieves and does so at a fraction of the cost of traditional security solutions.
NOX combines high-resolution video pictures and RFID for identification, tracking and tracing, overlaid in real time on a facility map to show the movement of people and assets. The system allows security officers to see theft as it happens, even if the stolen object is inside a briefcase, under a jacket, or stuffed inside a sock.
What makes the NOX system I saw different from traditional security systems is that it uses RFID for clandestine surveillance: RFID readers are hidden inside walls, floors, and ceilings; RFID tags are discretely placed; and only the security personnel know that the system is in place – until the thief gets caught. Then, all the thief knows is that he or she was caught in the act, on video.
"It takes a criminal twelve seconds to defeat a lock or fence. Yet, we spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to create fences that only provide an illusion of security. NOX creates a virtual perimeter that tells us who is penetrating the perimeter, when they are doing it and, where it’s happening. With this information, we can respond with the appropriate level of force and prevent further penetration."
A commander with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS), who asked to remain anonymous for this article.
There is serious motivation behind the development of NOX in both the government and private sectors. The reality is that traditional security systems are simply not proving to be effective against criminals. Beyond the obvious homeland security concerns, the NOX team places strong emphasis on the impact to our national economy. According to the American Management Association, 95 percent of all businesses are victimized by employee theft. Employees steal over a billion dollars a week from their employers and it takes $20 billion dollars in sales every week just to cover the losses. That’s a yearly economic impact of one trillion dollars. Yet, most companies are embarrassed to talk publicly about how serious this issue really is. They try to deal with it quietly by spending money on traditional security systems. The most shocking statistic is that even with all the money companies spend on security, 80 percent of all employees will be tempted to steal if given the opportunity, according to the FBI.
This is also placing a huge burden on our judicial system. Public order crime is rising faster than any other type of case, as shown in the graphic at right.
Privacy advocates will have an extremely difficult argument when facing numbers that motivate government and big business like these do. The NOX Team Director commented, "Our mission is not to invade privacy, simply protect the innocent. RFID is just a tool in our system. If RFID wasn’t available, we would tag by other means such as scent, chemicals, or dyes — and, in actuality we do. The right to privacy is important but privacy and anonymity are different. All RFID does is help prove what you did."
The NOX team has perfected dozens of methods of tagging people without their knowledge.
One of the more covert technologies they employ is ID-Dust, serialized dust particles that can be interrogated like a RFID tag. The NOX team can coat a person or object with it to track movement. ID-Dust can show if an item was handled or it can even be sprinkled on the floor. People unknowingly pick up the ID-Dust on their shoes as they travel through a dusted area. The software combines the video surveillance and RFID information to create an association between the ID-Dust and a person. The ID-Dust allows the person’s movement to be tracked around a facility without the person ever knowing he or she is being tracked. While a criminal can easily defeat the motion sensors, the ID-Dust provides covert security with instant alerts when someone enters an area, plus a complete history of exactly where each person traveled and when.
Combining RFID and High Resolution Video Surveillance Cameras
The system uses video surveillance cameras mounted in obvious locations and others that are hidden. I was surprised to learn that security personnel no longer need to sit and watch the video monitors; the RFID tags provide a far superior means of triggering alerts. A tag read in a particular location automatically triggers video recording and sends an instant alert to the security personnel’s mobile devices. In my demonstration an iPhone received a high definition picture of a theft in progress.
I was very fortunate to be given a single screen shot of the NOX Operations Center (below).
The areas being monitored include perimeter doors, staircases, cargo bays, storage areas, and even bathrooms. These locations were identified as prime locations for employee theft. NOX generates a security alert when an asset enters or leaves any of these areas. Of course, not all areas use video. The bathroom is a perfect example. The NOX system sweeps the bathroom with RF to determine what went in and came out. Video is used to capture when people leave the bathroom.
The RFID tags are custom to the NOX system. All I am authorized to print is that the asset tags are small, silent until activated (either via motion or external inputs), and secure – meaning they use encrypted RF conversations and cannot be duplicated. Certain facilities are not limited by FCC regulations, which allows NOX to overcome some of the limitations facing traditional RFID tags and equipment.
Understandably, the NOX team preferred not to answer the majority of my technical questions. They simply stated that they don’t want people to know how this is being done, only that it’s being done and the motivation behind it.
NOX is currently being offered to Government agencies and select commercial companies.