By JOHN MARKOFF
March 15, 2006
A group of European computer researchers have demonstrated that it is
possible to insert a software virus into radio frequency
identification tags, part of a microchip-based tracking technology in
growing use in commercial and security applications.
In a paper to be presented today at an academic computing conference
in Pisa, Italy, the researchers plan to demonstrate how it is possible
to infect a tiny portion of memory in the chip, which can hold as
little as 128 characters of information.
Until now, most computer security experts have discounted the
possibility of using such tags, known as RFID chips, to spread a
computer virus because of the tiny amount of memory on the chips.
The tracking systems are intended to improve the accuracy and lower
the cost of tracking goods in supply chains, warehouses and stores.
Radio tags store far more data about a product than bar codes and can
be read more quickly. They have even been injected into pets and
livestock for identification.
The chips have already prompted debate over privacy and surveillance,
given their tracking ability. Now the researchers have added a series
of worrisome prospects, including the ability of terrorists and
smugglers to evade airport luggage scanning systems that will use RFID
tags in the future.
In the researchers' paper, "Is Your Cat Infected With a Computer
Virus?," the group, affiliated with the computer science department at
Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, also describes how the vulnerability
could be used to undermine a variety of tracking systems.
The researchers said they realized that there are risks associated
with publishing security vulnerabilities in computerized systems. To
head off some of the possible attacks they described, they have also
published a set of steps to help protect RFID chips from such attacks.
The group, led by Andrew S. Tanenbaum, an American computer scientist,
will make the presentation at the annual Pervasive Computing and
Communications Conference sponsored by the Institute of Electrical and
The researchers asserted that the RFID demonstration had not used the
commercial software that collects and organizes information from RFID
readers. Rather, it used software that they designed to replicate
"We have not found specific flaws" in the commercial RFID software,
Mr. Tanenbaum said, but "experience shows that software written by
large companies has errors in it."
The researchers have posted their paper and related materials on
security issues related to RFID systems at www.rfidvirus.org.
The researchers acknowledged that inside information would be required
in many cases to plant a hostile program. But they asserted that the
commercial software developed for RFID applications had the same
potential vulnerabilities that have been exploited by viruses and
other malicious software, or malware, in the rest of the computer
One such standard industry problem is a software coding error referred
to as a buffer overflow. Such errors occur when programmers set aside
memory to receive data temporarily, but fail to require a check on the
size of the value that is moved to the allocated space. A
larger-than-expected value can cause the program to break and trick
the computer operating system into executing a malicious program. "You
should check all of your input all of the time, but experience shows
this isn't the case," Mr. Tanenbaum said.
Independent computer security specialists also said RFID systems were
potential problem areas.
"It shouldn't surprise you that a system that is designed to be
manufactured as cheaply as possible is designed with no security
constraints whatsoever," said Peter Neumann, a computer scientist at
SRI International, a research firm in Menlo Park, Calif.
Mr. Neumann is the co-author of an article to be published in the May
issue of the Communications of the Association for Computing Machinery
on the risks of RFID systems. He said existing RFID systems were a
computer security disaster waiting to happen.
He cited inadequate identification for users, the potential for
counterfeiting or disabling tags, and the problem of weak encryption
in a passport-tracking system being developed in the United States.
But he said he had not previously considered the possibility of
viruses and other malicious software programs.
An industry executive acknowledged that the companies that make
computerized tracking systems faced potential security problems.
"We are very actively looking at the different way the technology is
used," said the executive, Daniel P. Mullen, president of the
Association for Automatic Identification and Mobility, an industry
trade group. "It's an ongoing dialogue about protecting information on
the tag and in the database."
The association has a working group of experts assessing both security
and privacy challenges, he said.
There are many types of RFID tag, and some of the sophisticated
versions include security features like encryption of the identifying
number carried by the chip.
But the Dutch research group warned that in a variety of situations it
is possible for attackers to alter the information in an RFID tag to
subvert its purpose.
"RFID malware is a Pandora's box that has been gathering dust in the
corners of our 'smart' warehouses and homes," they write in their
In one example they offered, a virus from an infected tag on luggage
passing through an airport could be picked up when it is scanned by
the luggage-handling control systems and then spread to tags attached
to other pieces of luggage.
Such an attack, they suggest, might spread luggage contamination to
other airports. It might also be used by a smuggler to cause a piece
of luggage to avoid security systems.
They also described situations of counterfeit RFID tags possibly being
be used to subvert pricing and other aspects of commercial sales
systems, or a virus could be inserted into RFID tags used to identify
Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company
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