Saturday, March 18, 2006

Honey, I Forgot to Remember: DoD Second Order Transformation With RFID Tags

A central element in Rumsfeld's "transformation" process at the Pentagon is immediately recognizable to anyone outside the security politics circuit as management professionalization. And Pentagon undoubtedly spends copius amounts on well-deserved consultant fees (see, that sounded almost non-jalous) who take good looks at the "business processes" of the Big Machine. A huge chunk of the QDR was dedicated to the organizational trimming perspective. From a viewpoint of "organization philosophy" Rumsfeld tries to enable "second order management", i.e. achieve control of the elements that controls the controls; organize the organization of the organization, etc.

In that sense, "Transformation" is a wholly common sense project, because it basically tries to institutionalize modernization and organizational renewal instead of having to reinvent it with every coming crisis. It is very appropriate that DoD, with its extensive responsibilities, attempts to implement the "learning organization". This general -- and positively inclined -- reflection goes to underscore the astonishment produced by the incompetence with which the whole thing is sometimes implemented. Take this UPI story, which is not only illustrative, but also nerdishly hilarious: "DOD not reusing $100 cargo tracking tags":
The Defense Department may be wasting more than $100 million by failing to reuse electronic shipping tags on cargo which are designed for multiple uses. A new Government Accountability Office report says the Pentagon has spent more than $110 million on radio-frequency identification tags since 1997. Of those, more than 514,000 have been used only once or twice between 2002 and 2005. Just over 100,000 tags have been reused more than twice. The active electronic tags -- which allow cargo to be tracked in transit -- cost about $100 each, and are designed for reuse. RFID systems employ a microchip and an antenna, which transmits and receives radio waves from government receiving systems. (...)

Despite the tag's cost and design for reuse, the Defense Department's policy issued July 30, 2004, does not require components to return active RFID tags, or demand their reuse. The official policy only "encourages" the services to reuse the tags. Ironically, there is no mechanism for tracking the tags -- used for tracking cargo -- once they are used. "Officials from the Army and DLA -- the largest purchasers of active RFID tags -- informed us that they are unaware of the status or location of the majority of previously used tags," the GAO reported.

A part from being funny, the fact of not knowing what is known is exactly an example of a lack of second order management. The RFIDs are the perfect carrier of its philosophy in both primary practice (as tracking devices) and in secondary practice (as producers of centralized, productive knowledge) -- see e.g. this 2003 Economist coverage.

Not knowing where the instruments of empowerment-through-locational-knowledge-production are is not only
an organizational semiotic brainteaser -- it is also more moronic than ironic.

Later UPDATE: Wired Magazine runs a fine piece on security issues related to the more and more widespread use of RFID tags; see: "The RFID Hacking Underground" by Annalee Newitz.

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