Future Trends in State Courts
Radio-Frequency Identification: Why the Justice System
Should Tune In
J. Douglas Walker, Consultant, Knowledge and Information Services, National Center for
Trends Statement: As both commercial organizations and governments ramp up
their adoption of radio frequency identification (RFID) technology, courts inevitably will
become involved in sorting out privacy issues and acceptable usage policies. Happily,
courts and justice agencies can also benefit from new RFID applications that manage
files, evidence, and exhibits and provide secure access to facilities and computer
q What RFID Is and How It Works
q How RFID Compares with Barcode Technology
q Recent Emergence of RFID
q How RFID Will Affect Courts
q The Future of RFID
q A Few Final Cautions
What RFID Is and How It Works
In its simpler form, an RFID system consists of an electronic tag or label, a reader for the tag,
and the computer hardware and software needed to control the reader, manage the data, and
provide an interface with other application systems. An RFID system uses low-power
electromagnetic waves in the radio-frequency spectrum to transmit information between the tag
The reader contains a transceiver (combination transmitter and receiver) and an antenna. The
tag contains an antenna and a microchip, which includes a transponder (a very simple transmitter
that responds to a radio signal directed toward it) and can store identifying information. When an
RFID tag is brought within the range of a compatible reader, the radio-frequency (RF) signal from
the reader causes the tag to send its data back to the reader.
Active and Passive Systems
Active RFID tags contain a transmitter and a power source (usually a tiny battery) in addition to
the chip circuitry that stores information. The power source runs the chip and the transmitter,
which sends the radio signal carrying the tag’s information to the reader. Typical reading ranges
can be 100 feet or more, but active tags are expensive ($20 or more each). Consequently, active
tags usually are limited to applications where extreme range is essential and the tags can be
Passive tags have no power source of their own. The electromagnetic waves transmitted by the
reader induce a small current in the tag that temporarily powers its chip. The chip circuitry in turn
modulates the waves to “encode” them with the information the chip carries, sending the waves
back through the antenna to the reader. Finally, the reader converts the modulated waves back
to data. Passive tags are the most common and least expensive type (currently approaching 20
to 50 cents each in large quantities), but their range generally is limited to between a few inches
and several feet, depending upon the power level used, radio frequency selected, and many
other factors in the overall system.
Other Design Variations
Developers have several additional design alternatives available beyond the active/passive
decision in shaping the characteristics of RFID tags and designing systems suited for a variety of
applications. Among these sets of alternatives are the choice of radio frequencies to use, read-
write capabilities, and type and design of tag readers.
The primary RFID frequencies are low, high, or ultra-high (microwave frequencies also are used
for a small number of specialized applications). Balancing factors for these alternatives include
cost, reading range, ability to penetrate different substances, effect of surrounding metals or
liquids, and required power. Currently, the most common passive tags use a frequency of 13.56
MHz (in the high-frequency range), which has relatively broad applicability and international
RFID chips may be designed with “read-only,” “write-once,” or full “read-write” capabilities. “Read-
only” tags are the least expensive but contain only a constant serial number or identifier
programmed into the chip during manufacturing. “Write-once-read-many” (WORM) chips enable
the user to add information one time to customize a tag. “Read-write” tags are expensive but
carry a miniature database that can be updated repeatedly throughout an operation or process.
Tag readers may be fixed, such as those mounted at building entry points; tethered, such as a
handheld wand or desktop pad cabled to a PC; or portable and wireless, such as a mobile data-
collection device used for inventorying files in an office or products on a shelf. The type and
design of the reader determine its effective reading range for a given tag type and environment.
How RFID Compares with Barcode Technology
RFID has much in common with barcode technology in its ability to identify and track items. Both
RFID and barcode labels can contain identifying information, be attached to a variety of objects,
and be read at a slight distance by a reader/scanner to retrieve the stored information. However,
there are some important differences.
Barcodes employ optical technology and are, therefore, line-of-sight dependent. The reader/
scanner must have a clear visible path to the barcode, requiring both proximity and proper
orientation. Labels can be torn or smudged relatively easily, making them difficult or impossible to
RFID uses radio rather than light waves to transmit information. It requires proximity but not
orientation and, more important, does not require line-of-sight. RFID tags can be embedded in an
item rather than only on the surface. Items may be in a stack or behind each other, so long as
they remain within range of the reader. In addition, multiple items within range can be read
(essentially) simultaneously without being moved and scanned individually. RFID tags are
relatively durable and unaffected by dirt or spills.
Barcodes are read-only and can store only a small amount of information (although specialized 2-
D codes can store much more). RFID chips potentially have a much higher data capacity (e.g.,
16 bits for low-end chips up to several thousand bits for expensive, high-end chips) and can be
designed with “write” capabilities.
Recent Emergence of RFID
Although the origins of RFID can be traced back to World War II or earlier, the technology long
remained in the infant stage, being relegated to research labs and a small number of highly
specialized applications. Within the past five to six years, however, RFID suddenly caught the
interest of the commercial sector, and development of the technology and its potential uses
accelerated sharply. The ability to track and identify products represents a huge need across a
broad spectrum of the manufacturing, distribution, and retail industries. While barcodes are being
heavily employed to accomplish many of these tasks, their capabilities are limited.
RFID tags can be read through most materials, can be scanned in a group, and can store
enough data to identify individual items and types of products. If a tagged forklift carrying a pallet
of boxes with tagged televisions inside drives past a reader on its way into the warehouse, the
store’s inventory system knows immediately that the product is in stock, how many units arrived
from which distributor, the serial number of each unit, and which forklift transported them to the
storage shelves. Because of these and many related capabilities, Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Target,
and other huge retailers are investing heavily in RFID technology (Wal-Mart alone plans to spend
as much as three billion dollars over the next few years on RFID). Moreover, the merchants are
requiring their top suppliers to become RFID compliant, as well. Worldwide razor-blade leader
Gillette, an early adopter of RFID, has an agreement with a tag manufacturer for purchasing up
to 500 million tags and is working with Wal-Mart and other top retailers on standards and
Fueled by the projected volume of this market, the RFID industry has been rapidly advancing
development and improving the price-performance ratios of RFID products. One result is the
expansion of RFID into many other applications, including credit cards, ID cards, and records
management. While privacy advocates, government agencies, technologists, and politicians
continue to debate and refine the issues surrounding capabilities and acceptable use, few doubt
that RFID technology will be a major player in applications that identify and track products,
records, and people during the next few years.
How RFID Will Affect Courts
It is a foregone conclusion that courts will be drawn into the legal battles surrounding the
deployment of RFID technology as lawsuits involving privacy, identity theft, and other issues are
likely to arise. On the operational side, however, the justice system should pay particular
attention to RFID solutions for 1) personal identification for access control and other purposes
and 2) tracking of an organization’s records and other property. While they may have no choice
regarding some aspects of the former, justice agencies should explore how both types of
applications could help improve their internal operations.
The U.S. government is developing electronic passports equipped with RFID chips for U.S.
citizens, and its visa-waiver program will require participating countries to issue a machine-
readable passport for visits to the United States of less than 90 days. The State Department
recently extended the visa-waiver-passport deadline to October 2006 and is modifying the RFID
microchip design for U.S. e-passports to improve privacy and security. Nevertheless, Germany
has moved ahead and plans to issue its e-passports in November. In addition to other identifying
information, Germany’s RFID chip will store a facial image initially and add digitized fingerprints
Congress, in keeping with this trend, passed the Real ID Act in May 2005, which directly affects
state government and court systems, as part of the military spending bill. Effective in May of
2008, the Real ID Act will require some type of electronic national identification card, probably
issued through state motor-vehicle agencies as a standardized driver’s license. Though nothing
in the act requires that the “machine-readable” technology be RFID, most states and industry
analysts at this point consider RFID to be the most likely candidate, especially in light of its
planned use for electronic passports.
Law-enforcement agencies and, to a lesser degree, courts will need to gear up their technology
systems to handle RFID-based driver’s licenses or identification cards as they come into use.
Among other modifications, this will involve installing compatible RFID readers at appropriate
locations and interfacing with state and national databases. But courts also may tap into RFID
technology to enhance their own security by setting up access control systems for courthouses
and computers similar to those already in use by other public and private organizations. For
example, American Express implemented an access-control system for its worldwide
headquarters in New York that combines an RFID smart card with a fingerprint reader to
authenticate the holder’s identity. No fingerprint database is needed, as the print reader simply
confirms that the card holder’s prints match those stored in the RFID chip on the ID card.
Tracking Records, Evidence, Materials, and Prisoners
RFID technology is proving to be extremely effective in managing and tracking both files and
property such as exhibits or evidence. Information-management vendors, such as Infolinx and
FileTrail, have integrated RFID-tracking systems into their records-management solutions,
employing technology developed by Checkpoint Systems, 3M, and others. Businesses, law firms,
libraries, and other organizations are finding RFID-tracking systems to be even more effective
than barcode systems, and their experiences have encouraged courts and other justice agencies
to adopt the technology.
The DeKalb County Juvenile Court, the second-largest juvenile court in Georgia, is piloting an
RFID record-tracking system for its approximately 12,000 manual files. Each file makes multiple
trips to the courtroom, in addition to circulating among staff. The system uses a passive RFID
tag on each file folder and includes handheld and desktop readers. Total costs were
approximately $42,000, plus $4,000 in annual maintenance expenses. Court officials project that
the system will pay for itself in less than two years through estimated annual savings of up to
$30,000 in lost productivity because of time spent searching for files throughout the three-story
The Marin County District Attorney’s Office in San Rafael, California, implemented a new file-
tracking system using two-inch-square RFID labels with adhesive backing that are applied to the
inside of a file folder. The readers include stationary tracking pads that plug into the office
computer system and are capable of reading a pile of file folders as much as 12 inches thick.
The battery-powered handheld scanners can be carried to offices or other locations to scan files
being used there. The 40-attorney office anticipates saving approximately 2,500 person-hours of
time spent searching for active and misplaced files within its 120 different work and filing areas
and performing related data-entry activities.
The Maricopa County Attorney’s Office in Phoenix, Arizona, has been piloting an RFID-based
tracking, inventory, and archiving system for its records and files. With an annual volume of
approximately 100,000 case files and 45,000 to 50,000 prosecuted cases, tracking files
scattered among staff in a half-dozen buildings has been a significant challenge. The office
estimates that 10 to 40 percent of all files were misplaced at some point in their life cycle—
sometimes permanently. The new RFID system captures a complete file history as records move
from file rooms and offices to other locations. From any computer on the network, staff can
easily view the movement and current location of a particular file.
Since late 2003, state arson investigators in Indiana have been using an RFID-based
evidence-tracking system on a trial basis to replace an existing barcode system. The system
includes around 1,500 passive RFID tags to track materials stored in a number of buildings.
Successful read rates have been 98 to 99 percent with RFID, compared with about 80 percent
for the old barcode system.
Hundreds of public libraries and numerous university libraries already have implemented RFID
systems. Leading vendors offer standard library packages to streamline checkout and return,
while improving tracking, inventory checking, and protection of materials such as books, reports,
and audio and video media. Several law libraries (e.g., the University of Georgia’s Alexander
Campbell King Law Library, C J Koh Law Library in the National University of Singapore, and the
Wierner-Rogers Law Library in the University of Nevada’s William S. Boyd School of Law) have
adopted the technology, and many court law libraries are good candidates as well. Although tags
still cost as much as 50 cents each, they can be used for years in most library situations, thus
making RFID more cost-effective. Courts considering RFID for records management may be
able to add a library application at reduced cost. Privacy concerns may cause some libraries to
delay implementation, but most consider this a manageable issue.
Correctional facilities in Michigan, California, Arizona, Illinois, and Ohio already are using or
piloting RFID-tracking systems. These typically use a tamper-evident wristband for inmates and a
belt-mounted tag for officers. Both are equipped with RFID chips and antennas, but the system
design may be passive or active. Either can detect when an inmate or officer moves through a
portal equipped with a reader and can be read with a handheld reader at any time to confirm an
inmate’s identity. Active systems have the added advantage of periodically (e.g., every few
seconds) emitting a longer-range signal that can be picked up anywhere in the facility, thus
providing nearly continuous prisoner counts in each area plus the ability to locate a particular
inmate or officer at any time and record the location in a database
The Future of RFID
If RFID developments continue on their present course, the technology will become more
pervasive in our lives, providing ample opportunity for discussion of moral and ethical dilemmas
while delivering almost irresistible benefits. In addition to pursuing the elusive goals of homeland
security, RFID dangles the promise of lowering the cost of doing business and improving the
accessibility of information. Consider, for example, the following developments.
Tiny RFID tags already are being implanted under the skin of dogs and cats and were approved
by the U.S. government in October 2004 for human implantation (e.g., to contain an individual’s
health records for easy access by the medical profession in an emergency).
Current RFID chips (not tags) can be as small as 0.4mm square—smaller than a grain of salt.
Advances in nanotechnology promise not only much cheaper but even smaller devices: minute,
complete tags that use ink-based RFID circuits rather than the existing silicon chips. Such
miniature tags could be woven into fabric or paper or applied to most items at almost no extra
A Few Final Cautions
q For certain applications, privacy concerns may require somewhat more
q Global RFID standards are still evolving, especially for particular frequency
q Tags are still relatively expensive and initially may be cost-justifiable in tracking
systems for only very active or important files and objects.
q Although tag reading ranges are improving constantly, interfering radio waves
and metal shelves or nearby objects can reduce performance in real-world
q Finally, courts should never use the advantages of RFID file tracking to delay
the transition to electronic records where appropriate.
Blau, John. “Germany Plans Passports with Biometric Data in November.” Infoworld (June 2,
Collins, Jonathan. “RFID System Keeps Track of Evidence.” RFID Journal (February 23,
“4th Largest County Attorney’s Office Saves Over $200,000 per Year by Tracking and
Managing Critical Files.” 3M Press release dated November 15, 2004.
Kanellos, Michael. “L.A. County Jail Tags Inmates with RFID:” CNET News (May 17, 2005).
Kanellos, Michael. “The Man with the RFID Arm.” CNET News (February 15, 2005).
Larkin, Erik. “Coming Soon: National ID Cards?” PCWorld (May 31, 2005).