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The Technology Behind the National Animal Identification System

By Judith McGeary

August 2006

The government's proposed National Animal Identification System ("NAIS") poses numerous problems: massive government intrusion into our lives, unnecessary and burdensome costs, the lack of a real need for such a program, and the fact that tracking does not solve disease issues. Looking more closely just at the last issue, the USDA's disease control claims rely on the assumption that nationwide tracking is even possible. In truth, the technology is flawed in many ways, ranging from problems with the microchips to problems with the databases.

The USDA and multiple trade associations have repeatedly stated that NAIS is "technology neutral," implying that no particular identification devices have been designated. This is false. Over a year ago, the USDA published Draft Program Standards that specified that cattle should be identified with Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) devices in their ears. 1 The Equine Species Working Group (ESWG) has recommended that horses be identified with RFIDs implanted under the skin of the neck. 2 Although they may allow some other forms of identification in the phase-in period, it is clear that NAIS will ultimately require cattle and horse owners to use electronic devices for identification.

The very nature of RFID technolgy raises questions. Electronic devices become obsolete very quickly. Yesterday's $2,000 personal computer is now a piece of worthless junk that cannot run modern software. Will we have to re-chip our horses every few years? Moreover, RFID technology, like any electronic device, is subject to problems that do not exist with traditional identification methods such as branding or tattoos. Depending on the security of the technology used, one can clone microchips, using a device that can be hidden in someone's hand and passed over the chip in just seconds. 3 And a recent study shows that RFID tags are susceptible to computer viruses. 4 This means that anyone wishing to cause problems (terrorist or not) could not only tamper with tags within their control, but could spread problems to all other tags scanned using the same equipment. Imagine a busy sale barn, with every animal's tag corrupted by the infected scanner....

But the technological problems don't end there. Both the USDA and the ESWG specified the exact type of RFID to be used: the ISO 11784/11785 chip. Insisting on one type of technology may appear reasonable at first. After all, consistency is a good thing, right? But, what if that technology has flaws that make it impossible to achieve the stated goals? ISO 11784/85 chips are not designed to provide unique identification numbers to allow traceback of animals, which is the entire purpose of NAIS. In other words, the government plan, by its own terms, cannot work.

ISO, or the International Organization for Standardization, creates so-called "open standards," essentially a recipe that any manufacturer may follow to create a product that complies with the standard. This approach to standardization works well for modem protocols, paper sizes, and other items of daily life that need to be interchangeable. But the ISO design standards do not guarantee unique ID numbers. Rather, the standards provide for chips that can be programmed in the field before they are applied to the animals, or even reprogrammed after they are in the animal. Manufacturers all over the world have been selling these reprogrammable chips for years. They have also been selling "ISO programming units" that allow any person - you, a thief, or a terrorist - to reprogram the numbers with just a wave of the wand. 5 This problem with the ISO standard is well known in the technology community and has been debated for years. 6

How can you trace an animal if someone can change its identity at any time? These specific RFIDs can be programmed to read any number the customer desires, including ID code duplicates. Using a programming unit - a legally-available device - someone could steal your horse and reprogram the microchip to read the same number as another horse they legitimately own. Or a person with a sick animal could re-program the tag to a non-existent number, or even the ID number of someone else's animal, to shift the blame. The opportunities for avoiding true identification are legion.

You may wonder why this technology is used at all. ISO 11784/85 chips are useful in what's called "closed loop systems." So, for example, they can help a dairy farmer track his own cows, monitor their milk production or weaning weights, etc., precisely because they allow the farmer to reprogram the chips with new information. After all, the farmer wants to be able to change the information on the chip to reflect changes in the animal, and he or she has no reason to reprogram the ID number and exchange identities among his own cows. But the chips will not work for a national identification system.

You will also need an unnecessarily expensive reader to read these microchips. This is because the ISO standard reflects a "compromise" that incorporates two mutually incompatible technologies. This will require two readers in one box. 7

Significantly, the ISO 11784/85 chip is not the type of microchip that has been generally used in horses in the United States for private purposes, and it emits on a different frequency, 134.2 kHz, rather than standard 125 KHz. Thus, most of the scanners and microchip readers in the U.S. today would not read or even detect these ISO chips. Every facility will have to buy expensive new scanners in order to comply with the USDA- and ESWG-recommended technology, which provides less protection for our horses than the currently-used technology.

The existing system for microchipping horses is privately run and represents a choice that horse owners can make. The information is released only with permission of the horse owner. This is a very different thing than a government-mandated program.

The objections to NAIS go far beyond the technology problems, and even if the technology were workable, there are many reasons to oppose NAIS. But the fact that this technology will not work raises some intriguing questions. Why are the government, private companies, and various associations promising traceability that they cannot deliver?

In looking for the answer to that question, it is worth thinking about who will profit from NAIS. Obviously, the companies selling the RFID tags stand to gain a large new market. But NAIS does not stop there; animals must not only be tagged, they must be tracked. This will require huge databases, which will be privately-owned and managed - which in turn means that someone or multiple someones will make a profit on them.

Interestingly, in January of this year, several associations joined together to form the United States Animal Identification Organization (USAIO) to manage the "industry-led animal movement database." 8 The USAIO board of directors is made up of representatives from the Southeastern Livestock Network, the Northwest Pilot Project, the National Bison Association, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, and the American Farm Bureau. Have any of these associations sought your opinion on whether you want NAIS? The profit trail is long and complicated, and will require a separate article. But the next time an association or company tells you NAIS is a good thing, you should consider what their interest is.

Establishing these databases will be a monumental task. There are over a hundred million cattle in the U.S., and millions more horses, chickens, sheep, goats, pigs, deer, elk, bison, and other livestock animals. These animals are taken to local shows, sold in auction houses, sold in private transactions between individuals, slaughtered, and otherwise moved for a multitude of reasons. The technological aspects of setting up such huge databases are daunting. And the databases are only as good as the information that is entered. There will be literally hundreds of millions of opportunities for human error in this system. But regardless of how flawed the databases are, the companies running them will be guaranteed a profit, because everyone will be forced to participate under the threat of government fines or even criminal penalties.

There are many winners under NAIS: the technology companies who will sell the RFID tags and readers; the associations who will run the databases; the government agencies who will grow to oversee this huge program. Notably absent from the list of winners is the average horse owner, who will gain no extra protection for their animals, just extra expense and loss of privacy.

Judith McGeary is an attorney in Austin, Texas, and the Executive Director of the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance (FARFA). For more information about FARFA or NAIS, go to


*. Judith McGeary is an attorney in Austin, Texas, and the Executive Director of the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance (FARFA). For more information about FARFA or NAIS, go to

1. Draft Program Standards, United States Department of Agriculture, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (published Apr. 25, 2005) (hereinafter "Draft Program Standards") at p.20.

2. ESWG Recommendation, Recommendation #13 (May 24, 2005). See also AHC%20ESWG%20Microchip%20Paper%209.23.05.htm

3. See Annalee Newitz, The RFID hacking underground, Wired,

4. See John Markoff, Study says chips in ID Tags are vulnerable to viruses, New York Times (Mar. 15, 2006).

5. For example, an ad in a Swedish newspaper stated: "We offer a new chip service. We will change the ID number of the 'Kennel club' type chip according to your wishes. Inexpensive. Easy. Fast. Total discretion. Also sale of ISO programming units." Sveriges Storsta Morgontidning (Feb. 18, 1998).

6. In 1998, ISO received a formal petition calling for revisions or suspension of the standards, and identifying multiple flaws in the ISO 11784/85 standard, including the lack of unique ID codes. See letter from Gosstandrat of Russia, Committee of Russian Federation for Standardization, Metrology and Certification, to Rudolf Zens, Secretary, SC 19 (Mar.2, 1998) at See also The Controversial ISO 11784/85 Standard, ISO 11784/85: A Short Discussion, at

7. See letter from Gosstandrat of Russia, Committee of Russian Federation for Standardization, Metrology and Certification, to Rudolf Zens, Secretary, SC 19 (Mar. 2, 1998) at:

8. Animal Identification, Government Affairs Center, National Cattlemen's Beef Ass'n (Apr. 3, 2006) at:; USDAsAnimalIDPlanAFBFJoinsUSAIOBoard25452.aspx

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