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New 'On/Off Switch' Protects RFID Cards From Hacks

Technology would let cardholders activate RFID transmission only when card goes through a reader

A U.K. firm has developed an on/off “switch” for RFID cards that could protect cardholders from being hacked. The cardholder activates the RFID transmission by squeezing the card between his thumb and forefinger when it must be scanned by a reader.

The patented polymer-based technology comprised of metal particles is embedded into a circuit and gets built into a smart card during the lamination process. When compressed, it acts as an RFID signal conductor. “The difference is that RFID is always on and being interrogated, but this is always off until the instant you want it read,” says a spokesman for Peratech, which says it’s currently in discussions with smart card vendors.

RFID hacking has been well-documented, and a popular target for researchers. RFID readers can be easily hacked, and RFID-based cards, cloned with little effort. (See Black Hat Researcher Hacks Credit Cards.) This has made RFID-based building passes, passports, credit cards, and other contactless cards vulnerable to identity theft or other types of fraud. “Your identity and financial information could be stolen by the person sitting behind you on the bus, on the train, in a queue -- even walking down the street -- and you would never know that is was happening,” says David Lussey, CTO of Peratech.

Peratech’s underlying Quantum Tunnelling Composites (QTC) technology itself is used in astronaut spacesuits, robotics, and defense. Its application to RFID cards is not the first attempt to protect RFID from hacks. There are a variety of “shields” and stainless steel wallets that you can slip your RFID-based card into to prevent any tampering, for instance. But unlike some of these more bulky approaches to securing personal information stored on RFID cards, the 70-micron thick switch is rugged and compact. “It’s like a thin piece of paper,” Peratech’s spokesman says.

The concept of an on/off switch to protect user privacy in RFID isn’t new, either. Nate Lawson, principal with Root Labs, who recently reverse-engineered the popular RFID-based FasTrak toll tag that many drivers in the San Francisco Bay Area affix to their windshields for pre-paying highway tolls, is building a prototype on/off switch of sorts for FasTrak users. “You press a button on it so when you near the toll plaza, it activates RFID, and then immediately cuts the power to the whole circuit when it’s done,” Lawson says. (See FasTrak Toll Hacked, Exposing Privacy Dangers.)

Lawson says the Peratech switch concept represents a positive development for RFID security. “It won’t change the world, but overall, this is a [positive] development,” he says.

The key is making it inexpensive enough to attract card manufacturers. “Even a penny difference is something these manufacturers are concerned about,” he says. “That’s why you haven’t seen smart cards replacing mag-stripe” credit cards to date, he says.

Peratech won’t say just what it will cost per card, but that it would be a matter of “cents,” not dollars.

Lawson says an indicator light or auditory beep would be helpful to alert users that the card had successfully been enabled.

Just when Peratech’s RFID on/off switch technology gets incorporated into smart cards is unclear, however. “It’s not in credit cards or door-access cards now… We’re talking to RFID card vendor,” the company spokesman says. “We want to create an awareness that protection for this problem is here.”

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Kelly Jackson Higgins is the Executive Editor of Dark Reading. She is an award-winning veteran technology and business journalist with more than two decades of experience in reporting and editing for various publications, including Network Computing, Secure Enterprise ... View Full Bio

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