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Can you combine RFID tag technology with GPS to track stolen goods?

When laptops or smartphones are stolen, retrieving them can mean the difference between a data breach a close call. Learn if it's possible to combine RFID tag technology with GPS devices for tracking stolen goods to their exact location, and if so how much would it cost?

Can RFID technology be combined with GPS to track stolen items? Is it possible to do with a homegrown system?

Being able to track stolen goods to their exact location, bust down the door like Jack Bauer and tackle the thug just as he's about to sell your server is a dream that many, including law enforcement, wish could be a reality. Unfortunately, the technology to support this is too expensive to justify its use in the current market.

Let's explore the two technologies: RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) and GPS (Global Positioning System). These two systems were conceived for very different purposes. RFID was created to manage goods through the entire distribution process, from manufacturing to customer sale. GPS was created to give vehicle operators accurate coordinates for navigation. Because of this, they leverage drastically different technologies.

GPS is satellite-based and consists of two components: The network of satellites circling the Earth and the GPS receiver. The GPS receiver has its own onboard computing capabilities used to receive signals from the satellites and determine its own location based on those signals; it then relays that information to the navigator. The GPS receiver can be no smaller than two D-cell batteries, and it must have an antenna or be exposed to the sky in order to receive signals from multiple satellites.

RFID is terrestrial-based and also consists of two components: the RFID tag and the RFID reader. The reader can only read the tags when they are in close proximity, usually within a few feet or yards. Once the reader reads the tag, it sends the information to a database. The tagged product can then be tracked on its journey from the warehouse to the checkout at a local super store. For example, the tag could be checked out at the loading dock of the manufacturer, again as it reaches the super store's distribution center, once more as it leaves the super center, again as it arrives at a local super store, and finally as it leaves through the register. Each time it is read, the tag is logged in a database accessible to the super store and the manufacturer. This gives them a better idea of where their product is so they can make more informed decisions regarding supply and demand.

The problem with tracking inventory via RFID is that, unless the inventory passes by a reader that you have access to, it can't be tracked. The problem with GPS is that attaching a bulky receiver that's capable of transmitting its location would be cost prohibitive. Also, there are currently no known GPS receivers that can receive a remote signal and respond with its position to an outside receiver.

More on this topic

  • Are smart cards insecure if Mifare Classic RFID encryption is cracked? Read more.
  • Learn more about how organizations can secure implanted microchips and RFID tags.


This was last published in January 2009

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