LONDON . The trade association for automatic identification and
mobility, AIM Global, attempted to refute key findings of an IEEE
conference paper presented this week that suggested RFID tags could be
used to corrupt databases and even spread computer viruses.
The paper, by Melanie Rieback, a third-year PhD student at Amsterdam's
Vrije University, was presented at the IEEE conference in Pisa, Italy,
on Wednesday (March 15), sent shock waves through the RFID industry.
Titled "Is Your Cat Infected with a Computer Virus?" the paper
suggested computer viruses could spread from RFID tags through readers
into poorly written middleware applications and backend systems and
"Many of the basic assumptions in the paper overlook a number of
fundamental design features necessary in automatic data collection
systems and good database design," asserted AIM Global President Dan
Mullen suggested that researchers built a system with a weakness and
then proceeded to show how the weakness could be exploited. "Not
surprisingly, poor system design, whether capturing RFID tag
information, bar code information or keyboard-entered data, will
The association said it recognizes the efforts of university
researchers is designed to highlight RFID security issues. "But the
methodology of this particular research is questionable,. added
Responding to the paper, RFID experts and International Organization
for Standardization scientists, meeting this week in Kyoto, Japan, to
debate RFID standards, emphasized that fixed data RFID tags, such as
those used to identify pets, cannot be changed and therefore are
immune to infection by a virus.
They skirted the issue of whether other types of tags, such as those
where data can be changed, are prone to attacks. The experts did note
that specific attributes in RFID systems can protect the overall
For instance, they stressed that most RFID applications, including EPC
Gen2, look for specific kinds of data. Poor reader design might allow
detection of a "rogue" tag, but a secure system will verify data
against predefined parameters, as do current bar code systems.
The ability to insert a virus implies that a tag contains executable
code that is recognized by software. This, they assured, is impossible
with most RFID applications since specific kinds of data are sought
and systems will either flag or reject anything that doesn't fit the
Other industry reaction to the paper was mixed, but many agree it
presented a wake-up call.
"With respect to the students involved, the paper as presented is
rather weak," said Kevin Ashton, ThingMagic Inc. vice president, and
co-founder of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Auto-ID
Center. "The 'real' virus they claim to demonstrate in the paper is
not a virus, just a self-replicating piece of SQL code."
The paper, however, does call attention to an obvious problem the
software industry has faced for years, suggested Julie England, vice
president at Texas Instruments. "Companies need to provide multilevel
security and take responsibility for testing before releasing
applications to the market," said England.
Last month, cryptographers reported weaknesses in the underlying RFID
chips and hashing algorithms. In a panel discussion during the RSA
Conference, Adi Shamir, professor of computer science at the Weizmann
Institute, disclosed that he had recently applied power analysis
techniques to crack passwords for the most popular brand of RFID tags.
At the same panel, Ron Rivest, who co-developed the RSA algorithms
with Shamir, called for an industry effort to create a next-generation
hashing algorithm to replace SHA-1, which is used broadly for computer
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