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Schneier on Security: Battlefield RFID Listening Rocks

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June 02, 2005

Battlefield RFID Listening Rocks

From the Financial Times:

The US military is developing miniature electronic sensors disguised as rocks that can be dropped from an aircraft and used to help detect the sound of approaching enemy combatants.

The devices, which would be no larger than a golf ball, could be ready for use in about 18 months. They use tiny silicon chips and radio frequency identification (RFID) technology that is so sensitive that it can detect the sound of a human footfall at 20ft to 30ft. The project is being carried out by scientists at North Dakota State University, which has licensed nano-technology processes from Alien Technology, a California-based commercial manufacturer of RFID tags for supermarkets.

This kind of thing has been discussed for a while. One of the best discussions is still Martin Libicki's paper from the mid-1990s, "The Mesh and the Net: Speculations on Armed Conflict in a Time of Free Silicon." (It's available as a book, and online.)

Posted on June 02, 2005 at 08:14 AM

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Comments

"Intelligence nets" are only limited by the technology applied. The idea is to remove the human from being exposed to danger while at the same time gathering as much intelligence as possible on a mass scale.

The vulnerability here is that if these rocks are giving out beacons the adversaries can build detectors to know these intel-zones exist and avoid them or maybe even override them.

Rock-driving (C) anyone? ;)

Israel Torres

Posted by: Israel Torres at June 2, 2005 08:45 AM


These may be RF, but are they RFID? Sounds like not (the description they give would be more applicable to an exciting new device called a "microphone") - so even though the original article used the term "RFID", I'm surprised you reproduced it in your headline.

Posted by: Matthew Skala at June 2, 2005 09:02 AM


I agree that the RFID term is very confusing to a non-technical audience. Soon we will have accounts of RFID tags shooting lasers and reading minds. The chips may have RFID technology, but they certainly don't use it to detect noise. And I hope they aren't using RFID to pass the information back to the army, as any user close enough to read the RFID tags doesn't need the chips as he can see the approaching army.

Posted by: Joe Milner at June 2, 2005 09:48 AM


-----"The vulnerability here is that if these rocks are giving out beacons the adversaries can build detectors to know these intel-zones exist and avoid them or maybe even override them."

If the 'rocks' surround a military installation, anything capable of detecting your beacons is likely more than capable of detecting the installation too. The intended defence is approach-detection, not obscurity. If the 'rocks' carpet the entire battlefield/DMZ/border/etc, knowledge of their presence is again moot (for avoidance purposes anyway: who knows what RF interference may be possible).

-----"These may be RF, but are they RFID? Sounds like not (the description they give would be more applicable to an exciting new device called a "microphone") - so even though the original article used the term "RFID", I'm surprised you reproduced it in your headline."

-----" [...] any user close enough to read the RFID tags doesn't need the chips as he can see the approaching army"

Though sound detection is very likely only one of a few sensors involved (vibration, motion, etc), it's almost certain to be RFID based. Many tiny, low-power, sensors talking only to it's nearest neighbours, and only when it has something to say. Then the neighbouring sensors pass it on, until home base (potentially many miles away) is reached. Wireless Motes. Smart Dust. :-

[web.archive.org]

"Alien Technology recently won a $120 million contract from the Department of Defense to combine RFID tags with other types of sensors to pick up vibrations or detect the presence of chemicals or biological agents. The U.S. military wants to drop so-called "smart dust" sensors on a battlefield, and by picking up vibrations and knowing the exact location of a specific tag, generals could know how many enemies are hiding in a location or whether chemical or biological weapons are being stored there. RFID tags may even be combined with tiny microphones that look like seed burrs that could attach themselves to someone's socks, so the military could listen in on conversations."

[web.archive.org]

[web.archive.org]

[web.archive.org]

Looking wider than the FT hook of military 'rocks', it's inevitable that all too soon everyone's vicinity of interest will be carpeted with smart dust, rendering current 'safeguards' based on the low range of RFID largely moot. Bought some RFID'd goods? The whole mall/high street/more is part of a smart dust mesh. Got RFID in your Passport or ID Card? The whole airport/station/border crossing/Government building/more is part of a smart dust mesh ...

Milly

Posted by: Milly at June 2, 2005 10:07 AM


I think the real name of these little sensor s is sensor motes. Something along the line of what has been done for monitoring the habitat of animals (see [web.archive.org] for details.

Posted by: Jó Bitsch at June 2, 2005 10:07 AM


But they do! Never go to Walmart! They use all those RFID tags in a sophistocated net to map your entire brain structure for replication in the clones!

Flee! Flee the planet before it's too late!

On a slightly more serious note, this is something that might not work against a relatively high-tech military like those of NATO, Israel, or a handful of others, but might work very well against nations like North Korea, China, Iran, or various African nations. Think about forces deployed, either in war or as peacekeepers, who use this to assist a rapid-reaction force covering a larger area than it might otherwise be able. UN missions, which are usually undermanned, could benefit significantly from something like this.

As for hiding the signal, randomized timing within a maximum span using some kind of microburst on random frequencies could hide things enough to make them difficult to find. It only takes a few of these to be effective for larger forces.

Posted by: Jarrod at June 2, 2005 10:07 AM


I think that what the author meant when he or she mentioned RFID in the first place is that these microphones (like RFID tags) will not be powered by a self-contained power source, but rather by RF radiation. This way they don't expire, and you can deactivate them and reactivate them whenever you wish by flooding the area with RF energy.

-- Arik

Posted by: Arik at June 2, 2005 10:08 AM


Folks, for a paper that describes in quite a good way the problems of setting up these Ad-hoc nets in a secure way (and answers quite a few of the problems possed above) have a look at Ross J Andersons paper on the subject,

[web.archive.org]

Posted by: Clive Robinson at June 2, 2005 10:29 AM


"These may be RF, but are they RFID? Sounds like not (the description they give would be more applicable to an exciting new device called a "microphone") - so even though the original article used the term 'RFID', I'm surprised you reproduced it in your headline."

I wasn't thinking. You're right, of course.

Posted by: Bruce Schneier at June 2, 2005 01:29 PM


-----"I think that what the author meant when he or she mentioned RFID in the first place is that these microphones (like RFID tags) will not be powered by a self-contained power source, but rather by RF radiation. This way they don't expire, and you can deactivate them and reactivate them whenever you wish by flooding the area with RF energy."

RFID tags can be passive, as you describe, or active. A golf ball sized package is plenty big enough to house an active RFID with microphone, maybe motion and vibration sensors, and a battery sufficient to power it's (boosted) response for a few years.

-----""These may be RF, but are they RFID? Sounds like not (the description they give would be more applicable to an exciting new device called a "microphone") - so even though the original article used the term 'RFID', I'm surprised you reproduced it in your headline."

I wasn't thinking. You're right, of course."

Huh? What are you thinking isn't RFIDish about them? I suppose RF may always be semantically interchangeable with RFID (if not always the other way round), but everything we can glean about *this* implementation is *entirely* within the ambit of practical, current usage of the term 'RFID'. Join sensors to RFID tags; have the tags store and transmit sensor readings; network the tags. That isn't news for RFID. Only wrapping them in fake rocks and having the Army drop them from planes is news.

Milly

Posted by: Milly at June 2, 2005 04:57 PM


This isn't really new. Similar technology was used during the Vietnam War, and has continued to be standard equipment for all modern armies since. The generic term is actually UGS, for "unattended ground sensors". The most common are seismic, other types include acoustic, magnetic and PIR.

The only difference here--at least, so far as I can gather from the limited info here and at the NDSU site--is that these devices are networked in some way. The more traditional system just had several devices feeding back to one control unit.

Until demonstrated otherwise, I'll be skeptical of the idea that networking them is an improvement. The main problem with existing UGS is that it is very difficult to distinguish between humans and wildlife, and impossible to distinguish between friendly combatants, enemy combatants, and noncombatants [1]. Consequently you need a man on the ground to verify the alert before responding. This makes them excellent for giving a "heads up" to a sentry, but worse than useless (i.e., useless + dangerous) for remote fire control. Being able to get unreliable information back to the Pentagon faster than ever before is *not* how I would have tried to improve UGS.

Note 1: Actually, they can unambiguously identify concentrations of armoured vehicles. But then, there's a whole *bunch* of ways to unambiguously identify concentrations of armoured vehicles.

Posted by: Roger at June 2, 2005 09:39 PM


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