Mythbuster busts his own tale of show's cowardly cave-in to RFID heavyweights

Controversy swirls around 'lost' episode

Adam Savage's widely circulated YouTube video account of a pack of credit card industry giants pummeling Discovery Channel into deep-sixing a Mythbusters investigation aimed at RFID is now taking more of a beating than Buster the dummy absorbs on a typical episode of the show.

And the knockout blow of that beating is coming from Savage himself.

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In the video taken at a July hacker conference, 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 ... with one of the technicians at Texas Instruments. ... 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 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.

Now it's beginning to appear as though 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 (in which I'll indulge shortly).

Here's a statement today from Savage:

"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," he said in the statement CNET reported was provided by the Discovery Channel. "Texas Instruments' account of their call with Grant and our producer is factually correct. 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."

Discovery Channel has failed to respond to repeated e-mail and phone inquiries. (Update 10:51 p.m.: Discovery Channel just got around to sending me the same statement ... Do I sound happy?)

The Texas Instruments account Savage refers to in his statement was also offered in response to my Tuesday inquiry by that company's public relations department ... and portions of it can be read below. But first there are apparently other details that Savage got wrong, namely the players involved in the allegedly nefarious phone call.

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. We would appreciate it if you could correct the record in your article, especially since your blog is bound to increase views of that footage."

An American Express spokesperson reacted similarly: "We looked into it and we did not participate in the meeting described by Mr. Savage."

According to Texas Instruments, the Smart Card Alliance did participate in that call, and I asked its executive director, Randy Vanderhoof, whether his group or a member of it put pressure on Discovery Channel. He says in an e-mail reply (necessitated by my commitment to a meeting):

"The Smart Card Alliance was enthusiastic and the industry was ready to support the program.  We want people to feel comfortable with the security of RF-enabled contactless payments and having an independent body like Mythbusters test it was a great opportunity.  The technical phone call that we had to scope out the project with payments industry members from the Smart Card Alliance answered questions and discussed contactless payment security at the card and at the system level."

And here's what Texas Instruments sent in response to my questions to them on Tuesday:

"In June 2007, MythBusters was interested in pursuing some great myth busting ideas for RFID.  While in pursuit, they contacted Texas Instruments' RFID Systems, who is a pioneer of RFID and contactless technology, 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) who 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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