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Did Major Credit Card Companies Shut Down Investigation Into RFID security?

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Discovery Channel backed down on airing RFID episode of Mythbusters

Steve Watson
Monday, Sept 29, 2008

The Discovery Channel, in conjunction with top officials for the major credit card companies, shut down an episode of the popular sci-tech series Mythbusters which was due to contain a segment showing how easily RFID technology can be hacked and tracked, according to the co-host.

Adam Savage, co-host of the popular TV show which uses scientific method to test the validity of rumors, urban legends, myths and news stories in popular culture, revealed the details behind the RFID episode that never was in a question and answer session at the annual Hackers On Planet Earth (HOPE) conference this past July.

Savage described how the credit card giants used their power to force the Discovery Channel to steer clear of the issue:

“It’s not going to happen… I’m not sure how much of the story I’m allowed to tell but I’ll tell you what I know.” Savage told an attentive audience.

“We were gonna do RFID, and on several levels, how hackable, how reliable, how trackable etc etc, and we called up Texas Instruments and the arranged a conference call…”

“Then Texas Instruments comes on, along with chief legal council for American Express, Visa, Discover, and everbody else. I get chills just as I describe it… They absolutely made it clear to Discovery that they were not going to air this episode talking about how hackable this stuff was and Discovery backed way down, being a large corporation that depends upon the revenue of the advertisers.” Savage stated.

“It is on Discovery’s radar but they won’t let us go near it.” he concluded.

The question begins at 44.50 mins into the video below:


A recent CNet article contained a response from Texas Instruments, major manufacturers of RFID:

(Article continues below)

TI said lawyers were hardly to blame for MythBusters dropping the RFID episode.

“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,” TI spokesperson Cindy Huff said. “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 they were planning on showing the segment. 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.”

Clearly, TI’s memory of what happened is at odds with that of Savage.

RFID technology, supposedly designed to be foolproof against identity theft and now used in credit cards, driving licenses and passports, has been heavily criticized for being easy to manipulate and clone.

Critics have charged that the technology has been designed with security back doors specifically for the purpose of manipulation and tracking.

RFID manufacturers, as well as governments and companies that have adopted the technology, have said that there is no credible evidence that the technology is hackable.

In any case, it seems clear that some do not want the public knowing one way or another.

This article was posted: Monday, September 29, 2008 at 12:03 pm

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