As throngs of shoppers prepare to descend on shopping malls and retail stores during the holiday period, it's important to remember to be safe with your wallet. In the modern world, keeping safe is now evolving from just keeping an eye on your purchases and your physical wallet to being aware of unseen digital risks too. I recently saw a wallet in a retail store that included a feature I had never before seen: radio frequency identification (RFID) protection.
On the side of the wallet's box was a description of what this RFID protection is all about:
"This item is made with a special lining that acts as a protective shield for ID and credit cards. It can help to prevent hackers from accessing the information contained on the microchip."
Modern passports and credit cards now have RFID chips in them that are used for identification and payment. At the Black Hat USA security event this past summer, there was an interesting presentation on RFID hacking that demonstrated how easy it is to exploit RFID-enabled cards. At the time, Francis Brown, managing partner at security firm Bishop Fox, told eWEEK that one of the only ways to be protected against RFID hacking is by using an RFID sleeve that can keep information safe, simply by placing the RFID card into the sleeve, blocking any potential signal theft activities. Brown's presentation was specifically about RFID badges that are used by many companies for secure access to facilities, but the same basic idea likely holds true for credit cards and passports too.
I also saw famed security researcher Charlie Miller talk about RFID and Near Field Communications (NFC) hacking at Black Hat USA this past summer. In a humorous presentation, Miller played a video where he tried to steal information from unsuspecting associates by literally bumping into them—as a ploy to steal their information over RFID and NFC.
This is the modern world we now live in, so instead of the regular pickpockets that we used to have to be vigilant against who would physically lift the wallets out of our pockets, there is now potentially a new breed of digital pickpocket.
To be fair, actually bumping into someone with some kind of device that somehow can steal information from a credit card is not a simple or easy task. I also strongly suspect that normal pickpocket attacks vastly outnumber any type of risk that RFID presents to payment cards.
That said, there is a risk. Whether or not that risk is truly material or is simply just theoretical is subject to debate, but it's still there.
So if you're wondering what I did after I saw that RFID wallet, here's the answer: I bought it. As it turns out, I needed a new wallet anyway, and it's no more expensive to buy a wallet with RFID protection than it is to buy one without it. Time will tell whether or not the risk of RFID credit card hacking is real or not, but if the cost for protecting against it is so low, why not get RFID protection and eliminate the risk altogether?
Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at eWEEK and InternetNews.com. Follow him on Twitter @TechJournalist.