Was MythBuster's RFID tale only a myth?

It all started when Adam Savage of Mythbusters fame told a convention audience that legal bullies from the credit card industry had cowed Discovery Channel into scotching an episode of the show that was to have taken on RFID.

It all started when Adam Savage of MythBusters fame told a convention audience that legal bullies from the credit card industry had cowed Discovery Channel into scotching an episode of the show that was to have taken on RFID.

In the video, Savage says: "Here's what happened -- I'm not sure how much of this story I'm allowed to tell -- but I'll tell you what I know. We were going to do RFID -- on several levels: how reliable, how hackable, how trackable, etc. -- and one of our researchers called up Texas Instruments and they arranged a conference call."

He wasn't on the call himself, but continues: "Texas Instruments comes on along with chief legal counsel for American Express, VISA, Discover [Card], and everybody else. They absolutely made it really clear to Discovery [Channel] that they were not going to air this episode talking about how hackable this stuff was. Discovery backed way down, being a large corporation that depends upon the revenue of the advertisers. Now that [topic is] on Discovery's radar and they won't let us go near it. I'm sorry, it's just one of those things."

Savage's incendiary accusation went relatively unnoticed at the time, but caught fire on the Internet over the Labor Day weekend fanned by prominent placement on forums such as Slashdot and Digg. Days later it became clear Savage was considerably less knowledgeable about what transpired than he let on, although how much of his backtracking is backside-covering will be left open to speculation.

Here's his statement from last week as provided by Discovery Channel: "There's been a lot of talk about this RFID thing, and I have to admit that I got some of my facts wrong, as I wasn't on that story, and as I said on the video, I wasn't actually in on the call. . . . If I went into the detail of exactly why this story didn't get filmed, it's so bizarre and convoluted that no one would believe me, but suffice to say . . . the decision not to continue on with the RFID story was made by our production company, Beyond Productions, and had nothing to do with Discovery or their ad sales department."

That's not all that Savage got wrong. Jon Drummond, a PR guy at Discover Financial Services, tells me: "The statement that Discover participated in the call that was mentioned in the video is incorrect. Discover legal counsel did not participate in any such call." American Express told me the same thing.

And here's what Texas Instruments sent: "In June 2007, MythBusters was interested in pursuing some great myth-busting ideas for RFID. While in pursuit, they contacted Texas Instruments’ RFID Systems . . . for technical help and understanding of RFID in the contactless payments space. Some of the information that was needed to pursue the program required further support from the contactless payment companies, as they construct their own proprietary systems for security to protect their customers. To move the process along, Texas Instruments coordinated a conversation with Smart Card Alliance (SCA) which invited MasterCard and Visa, on contactless payments to help MythBusters get the right information.

"Of the handful of people on the call, there were mostly product managers and only one contactless payment company's legal counsel member. Technical questions were asked and answered, and we were to wait for MythBusters to let us know when the segment would air. A few weeks later, Texas Instruments was told by MythBusters that the storyline had changed and they were pursuing a different angle which did not require our help."

So what really happened? You can take the corporate spokespeople at their words . . . no, really, you can, since Savage has all but said he suffered some sort of brain cramp.

However, having spent 30 years in the news business, I'm not quite so sure that the funnyman MythBuster simply woke up on the wrong side of the bed the day he spilled his guts to a roomful of geeks while a video camera rolled. Wouldn't surprise me in the least if the truth actually lies somewhere between Savage's moment of unguarded/ill-informed candor and subsequent change of tune.

It's exactly the kind of mystery that MythBusters might … uh, never mind.

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