RSA looks ahead on RFID security

R.A. Hettinga rah at
Sun Feb 20 14:10:18 PST 2005


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RSA looks ahead on RFID security
By John Leyden (john.leyden at
Published Friday 18th February 2005 21:16 GMT

RSA 2005 Cryptographic researchers are working out ways to make RFID
technology more palatable to consumers ahead of its expected widespread
deployment over the coming years.

RFID tags are small silicon microchips attached to an antenna which emit a
unique serial number by radio over short distances. Miniature RFID tags can
be embedded in all kinds of consumer products and scanned from between two
to three metres away, revealing information about the product and
(potentially) its owner. Critics say the technology could reduce or
eliminate purchasing anonymity and could even threaten civil liberties. The
issue becomes even more acute with plans to put RFID tags into identity

Burt Kaliski, director and chief scientist of RSA Laboratories, said RFID
technologies promise to become the most pervasive deployment of technology
ever, but little attention has been paid so far to security and privacy
issues. "The level of security and privacy needs to grow in proportion with
deployment," he said.

RSA is concerned that information stored on RFID tags could be read by
anyone with an RFID reader - data thieves, hackers - or worse. Right now,
this isn't much of a threat; but once the technology becomes widely adopted
readers will drop in price. Over time, readers are likely to be built into
mobile phones to facilitate applications such as comparison shopping.

Such an application could take 10 years to hit the streets, but security
researchers need to think of the issues it raises now before standards
become "baked in", according to Kaliski. "Technology can help maintain the
balance between those concerned about business efficiency and those
concerned about privacy," he said.

Traditionally, security systems are based on the premise that a system is
trustworthy and it's up to the user to establish his credentials. With the
possibility of rogue RFID readers, this premise no longer holds true and a
different approach is needed. One approach is to change the IDs of tags
from one interaction to the next. "The authentication process needs some
kind of dynamic interaction and not just the assertion of identity,"
Kaliski told El Reg.

<pHe revealed his thoughts RFID security during a meeting at this week's
RSA Conference in San Francisco. Scientists from RSA have been studying the
issue for several years. Earlier this month researchers from Johns Hopkins
University and RSA Laboratories announced the discovery of cryptographic
vulnerabilities in the RFID technology used in high-security car keys and
petrol pump payment systems.

The attack against Texas Instruments DST tags used in vehicle immobilisers
and ExxonMobil's SpeedPass system discovered by researchers worked because
of the use of a 40-bit key in TI's technology.

"The design was a good attempt, given the constraints," Kaliski told us. .

R. A. Hettinga <mailto: rah at>
The Internet Bearer Underwriting Corporation <>
44 Farquhar Street, Boston, MA 02131 USA
"... however it may deserve respect for its usefulness and antiquity,
[predicting the end of the world] has not been found agreeable to
experience." -- Edward Gibbon, 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'

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