November 29, 2007, 11:00 AM — Adam Laurie lived a few Novembers as a dog earlier this year. By duplicating
the RFID tags used to identify pets in the U.K. and sewing it into his watch
strap, Laurie, an independent security researcher, re-created his dog's ID as
a hacking exercise. However, this kind of virtual animal cloning could become
a serious issue as industrialized countries roll out RFID-based systems to keep
track of their livestock.
Japan and the U.K. have led the way, developing so-called source and age-verified
tracking systems that could help contain the damage caused by outbreaks of mad
cow disease, scrapie or Avian flu. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has also
been testing the use of RFID chips as part of a National Animal Identification
These systems are changing the way we purchase meat, notes Sue Brown, a product
manager with Destron Fearing, a maker of RFID tracking chips. In Japan, consumers
can scan a package of beef and have a photo of the people who raised the cow,
along with details on how it entered the country, sent to their mobile phones.
According to Brown, Destron Fearing has taken steps to prevent its tags from
being cloned, including placing the chip in a tamperproof polyurethane casing.
"This is an unalterable means of identification," she says.
But not everyone sees the technology as foolproof. Laurie points out that the
RFID tags communicate without encryption so some of them can be cloned or even
reprogrammed. "If you create another tag that has the same ID, you can
effectively clone the animal." Or at least its identity.
Still, why would someone want to do this? A farmer might want to swap out the
identity of a sick animal in his stock to save an entire herd from being destroyed.
That's why some companies are starting to match DNA samples with existing ID
systems in order to offer a greater level of assurance.
The U.S. has been lucky so far. There hasn't been an outbreak of mad cow disease
like the one that crippled the U.K. beef industry. But that might all change
very quickly, says Brown. "We are probably one disaster away from having
that sort of thing occur in the U.S."