January's spark of genius article

A Stronghold of Ingenuity

James Higgins (Extern) Office of Innovation Development

The inspiration for many great inventions strikes when ordinary people grasp a solution to a common problem. For Walt Augustinowicz, creator of ID Stronghold, his inspiration comes from a relentless drive to protect the personal information of others.

Radio frequency identification (RFID) is now ubiquitous technology. Nearly every credit card has a “smart chip,” and many identification badges use RFID chips to activate entry to buildings rooms. In fact, here at the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), “smart” badges are used by employees. And though all patented technology in the United States ultimately passes through the agency, they don’t often end up being used in the by the office on daily basis. That’s where Walt’s story and the USPTO’s meet.    

As someone who intimately understood the dangers of “wireless pickpocketing,” Walt was concerned when the federal government, among many other entities, began using RFID badges. He immediately began working on a way to defend these types of IDs from third parties who can use sophisticated devices to remotely scan cards and steal the information to gain access to government buildings.

Following 9/11, the U.S. government set a requirement for all agencies to use RFID technology as a way to standardize security screening. Walt knew there was going to be a commercial demand for his product, but more importantly, he knew there would be security risks. The government knew it too.

“When they came out with that card, they issued a mandate saying, ‘We know there's a potential that the radio chip in these cards could be compromised or scanned unintentionally by somebody else.’ So they added a specification for an electromagnetically opaque sleeve.”

Walt was already working on RFID protection. He had created a sleeve that eliminated the risk of RFID interception, a maneuver where someone uses a scanning device (or even a smartphone) to steal credit card information from an oblivious bystander from a few feet away in just a couple of seconds.

The basic concept of Walt’s invention was to function as a Faraday cage, a barrier that shields the RFID chip from the electromagnetic field created by any device trying to activate the chip. The card is protected through capacitive coupling; as metal is put close to the surface of the card, the tiny antenna embedded in the chip is no longer efficient at the correct frequency. With the antenna detuned, the card can never absorb the required energy to broadcast its information.

Walt’s original protective sleeve was designed for everyday consumers and had the appearance of a wallet more than an ID holder, but he pitched it to federal agencies as the answer to their “electromagnetically opaque sleeve” requirement. Feedback from different agencies and private companies made it clear that IDs must be visible while still being protected by the ID holder. So Walt went back to the drawing board and put himself in the shoes of government employees.

“I began to think about the nature of its use. I knew the employees would be walking in and out of buildings all the time, usually with stuff in their hands. They would not want to take the ID card out of a sleeve every time just to walk through a door.”

After brainstorming, Walt came up with a simple “pinch and squeeze” mechanism that allowed the RF antenna to broadcast when the user pinches the springs to open the case. When the cardholder is closed, the private information of the user stays secure. Limiting the shield to one side of the ID would also keep the ID card visible to the rest of the agency but was still sufficient enough to create the Faraday cage necessary for protection.

Although Walt now had the basic idea for the design, he knew he needed to develop the cardholder further.

“The original design of the pinching mechanism was much too big, while the front of the badge holder was too small. The shield ended up being way too heavy, and the card holder was not very comfortable to wear.”

He continued to make adjustments to ensure a better user experience.

“We needed to come up with a way to lighten the fully formed metal plate that was acting as the shield. That is where we were actually able to change the shielding into an adhesively applied label.”

The new design with the protective label was much lighter. He also included an open face for the design, so the card could be easily removed, if it was needed to plug into a computer. The open face was met with skepticism by some agencies at first, but Walt reasoned there would be less wear and tear on the card and less trapped dirt and grime in the case. The open face both kept the card clean and easy to use when removing it from the holder to insert in a computer.

Walt had finally reached an elegant solution, and the government seemed to agree. The final product was sold to multiple agencies including the USPTO and the Executive Office of the President while the patent was still pending. It issued on December 22, 2009, as U.S. patent no. 7,635,089. Today, the vast majority of USPTO employee badges are kept secure in the badge holder.  

Demand for Walt’s holder remains high. Although he had filed and received a patent before (his first for a device that automatically rolls up car windows when rain is detected), this was the first time Walt turned his invention into a company. Today, ID Stronghold has 20 employees and sells a variety of devices and products that ensure greater safety for consumers and government employees alike. In addition to the badge holder, Walt has patents pending on several other inventions, all of which are designed to improve security for RFID and other personal identification devices.

When he’s not running his company, you can find Walt at his home near Sarasota, Florida, where he and his family live on six acres in the country and keep a few laying hens. But just because he enjoys the peace and quiet outside the hustle and bustle of town doesn’t mean Walt turns off his innovative mind.

“I've always been the kind of person that sees a problem and tries to think of, okay, how could I fix that or go around that?”

Case in point: Walt came up with a system for mechanizing a roll of cardboard material to catch chicken droppings in the coop. When it fills up, he cranks the roll and tears off a fresh sheet.

“It probably could be a patent, but we only do it for ourselves so far,” Walt said with a laugh.

From wallets to government badges, the chicken house to the White House, Walt Augustinowicz has made an impact in the market and the area of RFID security as both a small business owner and a true innovator in his field.

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The USPTO gives you useful information and non-legal advice in the areas of patents and trademarks. The patent and trademark statutes and regulations should be consulted before attempting to apply for a patent or register a trademark. These laws and the application process can be complicated. If you have intellectual property that could be patented or registered as a trademark, the use of an attorney or agent who is qualified to represent you in the USPTO is advised.