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Black Hat Cancels RFID Demo

Badge, smartcard patent holder threatens lawsuit over cloning presentation

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Black Hat DC -- A presentation that would have exposed potential vulnerabilities in RFID security technology has been pulled from tomorrow's Black Hat conference agenda following threats of a patent lawsuit by the technology's manufacturer.

HID Global Corp., which makes smart cards and proximity badges based on RFID, alleges that the presentation -- which was scheduled to include a demonstration of how to clone an RFID chip -- infringes on its manufacturing patents.

The presentation, which was to be delivered by security research firm IOActive, promised to poke holes in RFID technology by showing how easy it is to duplicate and penetrate.

"Assuming no initial knowledge of electronics, I'll explain everything you need to know in order to build a working cloner, understand how it works, and see exactly why RFID is so insecure and untrustworthy," said Chris Paget, director of research and development at IOActive, in his conference abstract.

Conference organizers and representatives expressed frustration over the squelching of the presentation, which would have exposed flaws in RFID technologies that are already being used in passports, and may soon become standard issue in driver's licenses and other forms of identification.

Nicole Ozer, technology and civil liberties policy director at the ACLU, noted that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is set to introduce its Real ID technology, a federally-approved travel identification card, later this week. As part of the program, the DHS is evaluating RFID technology that may be vulnerable to the flaws outlined in the IOActive presentation.

"This is an important time for this sort of information to be shared right now, when federal and state governments and other organizations are considering using RFID," Ozer said. "This is not the time for the first amendment to be trampled by intellectual property concerns."

A reporter asked Joshua Pennell, president and CEO of IOActive, whether the company could share its findings with the Department of Homeland Security in a private setting. "Absolutely not," he said. IOActive is a small company that doesn't have the legal or financial resources to challenge HID, he said.

HID has not made a public statement about the presentation, and its lawyers have not given IOActive any idea as to when -- if ever -- it will allow the researcher to release its findings, according to Black Hat officials.

The vulnerabilities of RFID technology are not a secret. There have been a number of papers and presentations published over the past two years, including one at the Black Hat conference in Las Vegas last summer, in which a researcher demonstrated a cloned e-passport. The ACLU has been arguing for years that RFID technology might lead to a loss of personal privacy, especially if new laws for authentication and encryption of the RFID data are not passed.

IOActive's Paget says the flaws in RFID technology could be fixed. "It's at least plausible that the tags could be revised," he says. For now, however, Paget's cloner has been placed in trust until the civil litigation can be settled.

The last-minute squelch of the presentation is similar to the one that occurred two years ago, when Cisco threatened researcher Mike Lynn following his discovery of security flaws in its router technology.

"This is not quite a Mike Lynn scenario, but it's similar, with a cease and desist order coming in at the last moment," said Jeff Moss, founder of the Black Hat conference. "I don't like it when really big companies come in and throw their weight around like this. It pisses me off."

— Tim Wilson, Site Editor, Dark Reading

Tim Wilson is Editor in Chief and co-founder of Dark Reading.com, UBM Tech's online community for information security professionals. He is responsible for managing the site, assigning and editing content, and writing breaking news stories. Wilson has been recognized as one ... View Full Bio

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