Stop the RFID Rush

By Jim Rapoza  |  Posted 2006-11-13 Print this article Print

Opinion: Don't let proponents of RFID technology lull you into a false sense of security.

In March 2005, I wrote a column that questioned the rush to put RFID tags in everything from passports to credit cards.

In that column, I wondered about the potential threat to privacy, personal safety and credit lines. Then, as now, I felt that RFID tags—which make it possible to wirelessly read information on everything from identification cards to boarding passes—provide few if any benefits while greatly increasing risk.

As you might expect, I received several angry e-mails from RFID proponents who said that I was downplaying the benefits of RFID tags in personal ID cards while greatly overstating the risks.

Some questioned my claim in the column that it would be possible for a thief in another country to identify American tourists by remotely reading the RFID tag in their passports. The RFID proponents said it was impossible to do this from more than a few inches away and that, even if the thief could, it would require a reader the size of a refrigerator (with a price tag to match).

Others said that I was making much ado about nothing with my concerns that thieves would be able to pull credit card numbers from RFID-enabled cards simply by walking through a crowded public square or room. Again, the proponents said, readers that could do this would be huge and expensive. Besides, they added, all the information on the RFID-enabled cards would be heavily encrypted.

Well, Im a big enough man to admit that there were definitely some mistakes in that 2005 column.

As it turns out, the risks from RFID in ID cards and credit cards are even greater than I imagined at that time. In addition, recent experiments by researchers have shown that it is even easier than I thought to pull information off these RFID "enhanced" cards.

A recent test done by researchers at the University of Massachusetts found that so-called secure credit cards that use RFID, which enables them to be "swipeless," could be read using $150 of equipment the size of a couple of paperback books. And, despite card vendors claims of strong encryption, the researchers were able to use this equipment to read information from the RFID tags, including name, expiration date and credit card number. With this cheap setup, it would be easy to steal the credit card information of everyone in an elevator or standing in line at Starbucks.

Maybe youre thinking that RFID tags are OK as long as you dont get a swipeless card. But if credit card companies keep pushing these cards, you may not have a choice.

And what about forms of ID that you must show if you want to, say, travel abroad or drive a car? The U.S. government is following the lead of several European countries by RFID-enabling all passports, and there is talk that state governments will use RFID technology for drivers licenses.

The main argument in favor of RFID-enabled passports and IDs is that they have the potential to save a lot of time and are difficult to counterfeit.

The time argument makes no sense, as border guards will still need to take a look at the picture on the passport and the person holding the passport. Instead of taking 2 seconds to run the passport over a visual reader, it will take 1 second to wave it by an RFID reader. Big deal. RFID vendors raise the stakes with new products. Click here to read more. As for the counterfeiting argument, German researchers earlier this year demonstrated how easy it is to copy and counterfeit an RFID-enabled German passport.

Even the Department of Homeland Securitys Data Privacy and Integrity Advisory Committee in a draft report has come out against RFID-enabled passports. However, movement on this report has been delayed, and some people feel that the momentum behind RFID passports and IDs is so strong that theyre bound to make their way to your pocket soon.

But I think we need to keep pushing and making sure everyone knows about the risks of RFID because I see a common but unfortunate scenario already playing out.

You know the one: Critics point out a risk or danger in something. The proponents of this something then claim that the critics are blowing things out of proportion and that the dangerous scenarios they paint will never happen. And then when these scenarios do play out, the same proponents get amnesia and say, "No one ever expected that to happen."

Its not too late to refresh the memory of governments and businesses about the unnecessary risk of RFID cards.

Labs Director Jim Rapoza can be reached at

WWWeb Resources

RFID dangers

The University of Massachusetts study on the security risk of RFID-enabled credit cards

Right to privacy

Site of the Department of Homeland Securitys Data Privacy and Integrity Advisory Committee

Check out eWEEK.coms for the latest news, reviews and analysis on mobile and wireless computing.
Jim Rapoza, Chief Technology Analyst, eWEEK.For nearly fifteen years, Jim Rapoza has evaluated products and technologies in almost every technology category for eWEEK. Mr Rapoza's current technology focus is on all categories of emerging information technology though he continues to focus on core technology areas that include: content management systems, portal applications, Web publishing tools and security. Mr. Rapoza has coordinated several evaluations at enterprise organizations, including USA Today and The Prudential, to measure the capability of products and services under real-world conditions and against real-world criteria. Jim Rapoza's award-winning weekly column, Tech Directions, delves into all areas of technologies and the challenges of managing and deploying technology today.

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