New Guide on RFID Technology for Forensic Evidence Management
Written by Shannan Williams   

Tracking forensic evidence is a huge challenge for law enforcement agencies. While many agencies utilize state-of-the-art technology to perform scientific analyses on evidence in laboratories, few have explored using advanced technology—such as RFID—to address the challenge of accurately and efficiently managing evidence items before and after they arrive at the lab.

An example of an RFID tag. Photo by Linda Joy.
 
RFID, or radio frequency identification, is a form of automated identification technology that is rapidly growing in private industry. RFID technology makes the morning commute a little faster, retail inventories more accurate, and promises to make credit card purchases more secure. Very similar to barcodes, RFID tags contain information about a valuable asset, such as a piece of evidence, that is stored on a label or tag affixed to the item. RFID tags, however, are made of a microchip with an antenna instead of a paper label with bars and spaces.
 
 
Because data is transmitted through radio waves instead of an optical image, RFID systems can have added benefits such as the ability to read hundreds of tags in a few seconds, the ability to track an item as it moves through a process, the ability to sense environmental conditions, and the ability to encrypt data.
 
 
Some law enforcement agencies have used barcodes to improve their forensic evidence tracking and management processes. Very few have implemented RFID. The array of choices that agencies must make when integrating RFID are highly technical and can be fraught with obstacles.
 
 
To help agencies weigh these choices, NIST recently published RFID Technology in Forensic Evidence Management: An Assessment of Barriers, Benefits, and Costs. The publication is available online at www.nist.gov/forensics/evidence-management.cfm. The report is the result of a NIST-funded study on automated identification technology. The Technical Working Group on Biological Evidence Preservation, co-sponsored by NIST and the National Institute of Justice, identified the need for and requested the study.
 
 
RFID systems have been used to automate data collection in many different contexts. The E-ZPass system uses RFID technology to collect tolls on highways from Maine to North Carolina and New Jersey to Illinois. Retail pharmacies use RFID systems to meet federal and state prescription drug safety regulation requirements. Other retailers use RFID systems to improve inventory tracking accuracy and security. Some credit card companies have started embedding RFID chips in cards as a more secure way of transmitting credit card numbers compared to magnetic strips.
 
 
However, when it comes to managing and tracking forensic evidence, cash-strapped law enforcement agencies need to consider whether the benefits are worth the costs and whether they will be able to work around the barriers. In other words, are the time saved and other benefits worth the costs? The NIST report was developed to help answer that question.
 
 
Since many law enforcement agencies do not have expertise in emerging technologies, the report includes a helpful overview of RFID technology and how it works. The report describes in depth the types of RFID systems that are available (passive, active, and battery-assisted), price ranges, and components necessary for a complete system. And since implementing a new RFID system requires thorough planning, the report covers the barriers that agencies can encounter, including startup costs, reliability, and standardization.
 
 
The report also describes success stories in RFID implementation. It provides an example of a law enforcement organization that has made the switch, Netherlands Forensic Institute, and also offers examples from other industries: Purdue Pharmaceuticals and Bloomingdale’s.
 
 
The practical question that agencies must consider is whether the new technology can produce measurable benefits and a positive return on the funds invested in a new system. The NIST report estimates that RFID systems can pay back their initial set-up cost in about two years.
 
 
Various factors can affect the payback period. Systems that track and manage larger inventories of evidence (100,000 or more items) will recoup costs more quickly than those handling smaller inventories. However, if multiple jurisdictions share the costs of a system, the payback period can be shorter.
 
 
For More Information
 
 
To learn more about RFID technology for evidence management and to download the new NIST report, go to: www.nist.gov/forensics/evidence-management.cfm
 
 
About the Author
 
 
This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it is an Associate in the Forensic Science Program at the Special Programs Office for the National Institute for Standards and Technology.

 

 
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