We noticed you're blocking ads.

Keep supporting great journalism by turning off your ad blocker.

Questions about why you are seeing this? Contact us

Font Size

- Aa +

Tue 6 Jan 2009 04:00 AM

Font Size

- Aa +

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.

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.

Staking a claim

According to vendors, adoption of their products has gradually become more widespread and they are seeing a real move towards the technologies.

Systems integrators, like Depco Systems, are especially seeing increasing traction. Depco claims it is involved in a number of RFID implementations, deploying solutions across various verticals.

The solution we have developed is open architecture based and because of that we have been able to develop very simple functions that would retag, close the door, set the time or protect the location. We can service a number of different verticals because of our open service architecture," says Edwin Chikhani, chief operating officer of Depco Systems.

"While we are still not where we would like to be we have definitely begun to see more and more people approach us and it's a case of things picking up month after month," says Al Amri.

Al Amri has seen the number of implementations his company is involved in increasing over the last four years. "In the first year of operations, we implemented one project; the second year that number increased to three, and the third year we completed 20 implementations, while in 2008 we closed 50 deals," he says.

"I would say that adoption is accelerating, and there is clearly momentum behind this for a couple of reasons. Over the past three years more vendors have emerged, which has presented users with more options. This has improved the offerings as well as the ability for the customer to put together a low cost and effective solution," says Meranda.

"Secondly, within the Middle East there is a lot of infrastructure-building going on and RFID is great for infrastructure if you can implement it during the building process. These two factors are big drivers in the adoption cycle" states Tagstone's Meranda.

Users, like Nagarajan, are expanding their usage of RFID based on initial success. Nagarajan, who used the technology for over two years to manage his staff's attendance as well as access to critical areas, has branched out with the technology to monitor the firm's assets.

"Our ongoing project is a yard management system that will allow us to monitor the vehicles entering and leaving the premises. This means increased efficiency, increased security and ultimately better customer service," says Nagarajan.

"While we currently use RFID and biometrics on a limited scale we plan on increasing the deployment. We have seen a lot of applications that could help us particularly in terms of the creation of a smart building to house our headquarters," says Indranil Guha, manager of IT infrastructure management at Dubai's Roads and Transport Authority (RTA).

To derive a quantifiable return on the investment has proved difficult for end-users, but they are unequivocal in their opinion that the technologies have proved a worthwhile investment.

Aboukhater states, "You can't really put a number on the value. What price tag would you put on securing a confidentiality agreement with a big client?"

"There are tangible and intangible benefits. Like getting the staff in on time, being able to keep a record of our inventory and securing our critical IT environments," says Nagarajan.

"Since implementing the RFID solution at the beginning of the year, there have been no internal thefts; this is the best return on investment imaginable. Business functions are better as we can now track which pieces are proving most popular," says Jade Jewellery's Mackie.

Connecting the dots

While these two niche technologies are finding their way into mainstream physical security and access layers there remains some scepticism as to their ability to be integrated into the existing security systems.

Meranda disagrees with this negativity arguing for the viability of a greater tie-in. "An RFID tag can serve as a basis to understand all types of conditions that exist in a datacentre."

"Our solutions have been designed with the ability to work inside any background or system. We believe that the beauty of RFID is that it can work in any situation or environment," says Al Amri.

Meanwhile, enterprises continue to face challenges internally, especially with the amalgamation of the two technologies into the overall security environment.

"In my opinion, the best combination for a truly secure environment is achieved by a mix of the IT team and security team. The security team is in charge of security, so in many ways the IT team reports to them, but I see it as a collaboration in which they look after the human element while IT takes care of the technology," notes Nagarajan.

RFID and biometrics offer enterprises unique and innovative options to assist them in physically securing their environments. It appears that while they are progressively finding a wider audience only time will tell if they will find themselves joining mainstream security technologies or remain niche solutions for specific industries.

Jade Jewellery: A brief case study in RFID technologyJade Jewellery is a Saudi Arabia-based jewellery company that operates four stores across the Kingdom, specialising in European jewellery and also trading in diamonds.

In the past, Jade Jewellery experienced substantial financial losses as a result of missing jewellery attributed to internal theft. Close to a million Saudi Arabian Riyals (approximately US$267,000) worth of jewellery had been written off.

Following the recent RFID implementation, each piece of jewellery in the shop is now fixed with a passive tag before being placed on display. The RFID tags carry stored data and use radio waves to automatically identify items.

RFID readers are installed within the shelves, at the entry and exit points of the shop, and in front of the safe door. A complete system including the hardware, the asset trail application and integration with existing proprietary ERP software, was customised to monitor, track and control all items within the store based on company policies. The system reacts and responds to the behaviour of employees, and alerts the manager if company policies in handling goods are not met.

To further improve security measures, each employee is issued with an RFID badge, which is used to log their activities on the main server and enables them to access the jewellery without setting off any alarms.

The system is programmed to give Jade Jewellery employees one minute to transfer an item of jewellery from its case to the customer display tray or any other display. When a mobile display tray is put on the viewing table, it is monitored by an antenna installed in its mid-section until it is returned back to the shelf or display case. Any abnormal behaviour in handling the goods while executing operations such as sales, transfers, consignments or safe replenishment will set off an alarm.

"The RFID implementation has made Jade Jewellery the first and only ‘intelligent store' of its kind in Saudi Arabia. The RFID system monitors our daily operations in real time and allows us to apply company policies in handling goods, which has greatly improved our operational efficiency. We are looking to implement this system in all our stores following the successful pilot project," says Jade Jewellery owner Sukaina Mackie.

As a result of the successful implementation, Jade Jewellery is now looking at additional ways to improve the systems as well as to deploy it across all four stores. It is investigating solutions to make the current RFID tags more resilient and create a mobile solution for road shows.

Arabian Business: why we're going behind a paywall

For all the latest tech news from the UAE and Gulf countries, follow us on Twitter and Linkedin, like us on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube page, which is updated daily.
Real news, real analysis and real insight have real value – especially at a time like this. Unlimited access ArabianBusiness.com can be unlocked for as little as $4.75 per month. Click here for more details.