Scanned and tagged

RFID and biometrics are just two of the technologies making an impact in the field of physical security for enterprises. NME examines just how much traction they are gaining among Middle East organisations.

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By  Sean Robson Published  January 5, 2009

RFID and biometrics are just two of the technologies making an impact in the field of physical security for enterprises. NME examines just how much traction they are gaining among Middle East organisations.

While IT software and hardware are often seen as the primary defenders of enterprise data, the physical security aspects of protecting IT environments should not be neglected. Radio frequency identification (RFID) and biometrics are just two of the technologies that are increasingly able to play a crucial role in securing these environments.

RFID is an identification method that uses specially prepared tags and radio frequencies to store and retrieve data. An RFID tag can be applied to or incorporated into a number of objects, and can be electronically read from up to several meters away with the relevant reading device.

Biometrics involves the scanning of an individual's body part, usually fingers or eyes, to verify their identity, following which they can be granted access to a specific location or asset.

"I use both biometrics and RFID in order to control and monitor access to specific areas. Biometrics, for instance, protects both the server room and IT department. The fact is that certain areas require more privacy and as a result enhanced physical security," says Bassem Aboukhater, regional IT director MENA at the Leo Burnett Group.

T. Nagarajan, IT manager at Toyota in Doha, Qatar is another IT professional who has invested in both the technologies. "We use both RFID and biometrics. We use them in tandem across the company to not only monitor access to critical areas, but also as a way to check employee attendance," he says.

Nagarajan contends that the use of biometrics is crucial in preventing the misuse of RFID cards, which can be stymied by people sharing them.

"We also use RFID to protect the datacentre. The normal data system is linked with our main system, and so we are able to see which staff come into the various sites like the datacentre, which is actually located away from the main offices," he explains.

RFID is not a new technology having emerged in the late 1940s, yet it is only over the last few years that it has been gaining any real traction. "As a technology RFID has been around since the end of World War II, but only found a real commercial use in 2002 when supermarket chain Wal-Mart and several other global retailers and manufacturers began to think about how to deploy RFID in their supply chain," says Mike Meranda, CEO of Tagstone.

Tagstone is an RFID and biometrics vendor that, according to Meranda, is focused not just on protecting the assets of a company but also creating business intelligence for organisations.

"We don't look at our solutions as being just RFID solutions, because RFID is simply a piece of it. RFID is what we call a data carrier and so you can put a unique number on a RFID tag, and then you can watch that tag move around. But the real value comes in being able to understand and optimise business processes, based on that tags movement," Meranda says.

Tagstone's biometric offerings are used across a variety of sectors and verticals, including military applications as well as datacentres and IT installations.

"Biometrics fits very well inside datacentres for several reasons. Number one, the assets housed inside are increasingly more critical for business operations. Two, these assets are quite expensive and can easily be put out onto the black market and so protecting them is very important.

Thirdly, the risk of a datacentre going down, either intentionally or accidentally, is so great right now that companies are willing to protect them and make sure that the people entering them are only the people authorised to do so," Meranda goes on to explain.

Meranda has observed a growing convergence between RFID and biometrics where both are used for access and asset management. He believes that where previously the two had been seen as separate concepts changes in IT and mobile devices have lead to this convergence.

Hurdles to adoption

As with the majority of unfamiliar technologies introduced to the region, RFID and biometric vendors have experienced a number of challenges and obstacles as they try to create traction. Amongst these obstacles is the issue of misunderstanding surrounding the technologies.

"The knowledge surrounding RFID was almost non-existent, and we faced a lot of difficulty in explaining what the technology does, especially if our partner did not have an IT background. It was a real challenge and we had to do a lot of education through seminars and road shows and via physical visits to users to promote the solution," says Moosa Al Amri, chairman of Amricon.

"We found a few obstacles to adoption such as the initial cost of the solution together with customer misperceptions as well as a lack of reference materials in the Middle East," weighs in Emad Jweid, network and security team lead at Emitac.

"Over the last few years I have seen some spectacularly unsuccessful RFID implementations. It's when a company half-heartedly introduced the technology that it did not work out. They need to fully commit to it for the value to justify the cost," says Meranda.

Meranda also stresses on the need to educate users in order to develop understanding and credibility around the products, saying that once clients understand the technology the adoption becomes widespread.

From a user perspective, Aboukhater emphasises the need to plan exhaustively for RFID and biometrics before implementation in order to not be unnecessarily restricted by various infrastructure requirements.

Nagarajan says, "The obstacles we faced initially were a result of our location in Qatar, which meant that there was not a lot of local support or expertise available. This has changed very quickly and now we have a number of partners and people in the country to advise and assist us."

Saudi Arabia based Jade Jewellery, which introduced an RFID solution, has proved to be one of the more recent success stories. "There were some growing pains but we were able to solve them quite quickly and easily," says Sukaina Mackie, owner of Jade Jewellery.

Some uses of RFID and biometrics

• Both RFID and biometrics are used to secure access to datacentres and restricted areas.

• The technologies can be implemented in order to monitor employee attendance and log working hours.

• RFID can be used in asset tracking applications, for instance the tagging of baggage in airports, in order to be able to track and locate lost luggage.

• Biometric scanning is increasingly used in order to streamline and automate border control.

• Biometrics can also be used for passenger handling at check-in bag drop points, boarding and other air travel applications.

• RFID is widely used in supply chain applications across the world in order to track inventory and stock numbers.

• Car dealerships and workshops are able to attach an RFID tag to every vehicle entering the premises, which is then linked to electronic job sheets.

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