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NIST Issues Guidelines for Ensuring RFID Security

Gaithersburg, MD – Retailers, manufacturers, hospitals, federal agencies and other organizations planning to use radio frequency identification (RFID) technology to improve their operations should also systematically evaluate the possible security and privacy risks and use best practices to mitigate them, according to a new report* from the Department of Commerce's National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

"RFID tags, commonly referred to as smart tags, have the ability to improve logistics, profoundly change cost structures for business, and improve the current levels of safety and authenticity of the international pharmaceutical supply chain and many other industries," said Under Secretary of Commerce for Technology Robert C. Cresanti. "This important report lays the foundation for addressing potential RFID security risks so that a thoughtful enterprise can launch a smart tag program with confidence." 

RFID devices send and/or receive radio signals to transmit identifying information such as product model or serial numbers. They come in a wide variety of types and sizes, from the size of a grain of rice or printed on paper to much larger devices with built in batteries. Unlike bar coding systems, RFID devices can communicate without requiring a line of sight and over longer distances for faster batch processing of inventory and can be outfitted with sensors to collect data on temperature changes, sudden shocks, humidity or other factors affecting products.

As RFID devices are deployed in more sophisticated applications from matching hospital patients with laboratory test results to tracking systems for dangerous materials, concerns have been raised about protecting such systems against eavesdropping and unauthorized uses.

"The goal of our report," according to lead author Tom Karygiannis of NIST, "is to give organizations practical ways in a structured format with checklists and specific recommendations to address potential RFID security risks."

The new NIST publication focuses on RFID applications for asset management, tracking, matching, and process and supply chain control. Its list of recommended practices for ensuring the security and privacy of RFID systems includes:

  • firewalls that separate RFID databases from an organization's other databases and information technology (IT) systems;
  • encryption of radio signals when feasible;
  • authentication of approved users of RFID systems;
  • shielding RFID tags or tag reading areas with metal screens or films to prevent unauthorized access;
  • audit procedures, logging and time stamping to help in detecting security breaches; and
  • tag disposal and recycling procedures that permanently disable or destroy sensitive data.

NIST prepared the new report as part of its responsibilities under the Federal Information and Security Management Act of 2002 to help federal agencies provide adequate security for their information technology systems. However, its recommendations for selecting appropriate security controls for RFID systems are likely to be useful to other types of organizations as well.

Two case studies—in health care and supply chain settings—provide examples for identifying and minimizing security risks throughout the various stages of an RFID project.

The full report is available at:

T. Karygiannis, B. Eydt, G. Barber, L.Bunn, T. Phillips, Guidelines for Securing Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) Systems (Special Publication 800-98), 154 pages.

Released April 26, 2007, Updated January 23, 2023