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Battle brewing over RFID chip-hacking demo

By Paul F. Roberts, InfoWorld
February 27, 2007 07:59 AM ET

InfoWorld - Secure card maker HID is objecting to a demonstration of a hacking tool at this week's Black Hat Federal security conference in Washington, D.C. that could make it easy to clone a wide range of so-called "proximity" door access cards.

HID has sent a letter to IOActive, a security consulting firm, accusing Chris Paget, IOActive's director of research and development, of possible patent infringement over a planned presentation, "RFID for beginners," on Wednesday, a move that could lead to legal action should the talk go forward, according to Jeff Moss, founder and director of Black Hat.

IOActive will hold a press conference Tuesday at 9:00AM to discuss the issue, according to Joshua Pennell, IOActive's CEO told InfoWorld.

Paget's talk will address widespread security issues with the implementation of RFID in proximity cards that are sold by HID and other companies and that are widely used for building access. His RFID cloner was on display at the recent RSA Security Conference in San Francisco, where he demonstrated for InfoWorld how the device could be used to steal access codes from HID brand proximity cards, store them, then use the stolen codes to fool a HID card reader.

Paget's presentation at Black Hat Federal will go deeper, providing schematics and source code that attendees could use to create their own cloning device, and discussing vulnerable implementations of RFID technology in a wide variety of devices, Paget told InfoWorld at RSA earlier this month.

"Hopefully I'll be able to give people some information about RFID and get some pressure on vendors to fix these lousy RFID implementations," Paget said. "As it stands, I can walk up to someone on the street or maybe stand next to them in an elevator, grab their card ID and get into the building," he said.

So far, Black Hat organizers have not been contacted or asked to cancel Paget's presentation, but lawyers representing Black Hat, which was purchased by CMP, are ready should that happen, Moss said.

"We're prepared for the worst," Moss said.

The incident between HID and IOActive recalls a 2005 imbroglio between researcher Michael Lynn and Cisco Systems over a presentation of a flaw in Cisco's IOS at a Black Hat event in Las Vegas.

In that incident, Cisco attorneys demanded that Lynn's presentation be torn out of the printed conference proceedings and that Lynn be blocked from giving his talk. Lynn ultimately resigned his position at Internet Security Systems (ISS) and gave the talk anyway, spawning lawsuits and even an FBI investigation of him.

Lynn now works as a researcher at Cisco competitor, Juniper Networks.

Whereas Lynn's hack of IOS was considered novel, however, the IOActive demonstration of RFID vulnerabilities is largely a rehash of known issues, intended more as an introduction, Moss said.

"They've known about this for years and years," Moss said.

Kathleen Carroll, a spokeswoman for HID's Government Relations group acknowledged that a letter was sent to IOActive but that it did not mention patent infringement. She said that the company has long been aware that its proximity cards are vulnerable to hacking but does not believe that the cards are as vulnerable as Paget suggests.

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