By Paul F. Roberts
February 27, 2007
A planned talk on RFID security by a security researcher has been pulled
from this week's Black Hat Federal security conference after secure card
maker HID claimed the talk violated the company's patent rights and
threatened to take legal action against Chris Paget, the researcher, and
IOActive, Paget's employer, if the talk went forward.
The company decided to cancel the talk after all-night negotiations with
HID collapsed, said Josh Pennell, CEO of IOActive. In response, Black
Hat organizers were forced to tear materials out of printed show
proceedings and will instead present a discussion by a representative of
the ACLU on the criticality of RFID security, said Jeff Moss, founder
and director of Black Hat.
A spokeswoman for HID did not immediately respond to a request for
The incident recalled a 2005 dispute over a presentation at Black Hat in
Las Vegas involving Cisco Systems and Michael Lynn, a security
researcher who worked for Internet Security Systems at the time.
IOActive's decision to abort their presentation follows days of tense
negotiations between the two companies, after HID became alarmed about
Paget's discussion, "RFID for beginners," which was to address
widespread security issues with the implementation of RFID in proximity
cards that are sold by HID and other companies. Paget's RFID cloning
device 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 would have included schematics
and source code that attendees could use to create their own cloning
device, and a discussion of vulnerable implementations of RFID
technology in a wide variety of devices, Paget told InfoWorld at RSA
earlier this month.
HID claimed that Paget's talk would infringe upon two patents the
company owns, one dating to 1991 and another dating to 1992. Both cover
methods of detecting RFID signals between a transponder embedded in a
device and an "interrogator," according to a source familiar with HID's
Pennell and others doubted that such broad patent claims could be used
to stifle free speech, but said that the legal pressure mounted by HID,
a subsidiary of Swedish firm ASSA ABLOY, was too much for his small,
Seattle-based consulting firm to withstand.
"If we say anything, HID will sue. These large companies have lots of
resources, so they can find [legal] matter with pretty much anything,"
Pennell said, admitting disappointment at the failure to reach an
agreement with HID.
"It's always been IOActive's intent to help people with security," he
Chris Paget said that, unlike Lynn's sophisticated hack of Cisco's IOS
operating system, the RFID cloning devices he built were simple devices
concocted from around $20 in off-the-shelf parts purchased on eBay.
"This thing is simpler than a Furbie," he said, referring to the plush
electronic play toy of years past. Moreover, the HID patents in question
are public documents, containing all the information needed to build the
RFID cloner, he said.
"This is not something new that we're doing. HID has known about this
for about two years, if not longer," Paget said.
Indeed, HID marketing materials for its Smart Card technology notes that
"by using diversified unique keys and industry standard encryption
techniques, the risk of compromised data or duplicated (smart) cards is
reduced," and that "these security measures are not implemented in
proximity cards, giving contactless smart cards a significant security
While it's possible to make secure RFID devices that can store sensitive
information, the HID proximity cards that use it are not secure, and
customers who use the cards need to know that, Paget said.
"Our intent was to disseminate information so people could make informed
decisions about RFID technology they're deploying. For example, whether
to deploy a proximity card with a secondary factor like a biometric or
PIN [personal ID number]. But we've been prevented by HID from
discussing that, and we believe it's detrimental to the security
community," he said.
Nicole Ozer, technology & civil liberties policy director at the ACLU of
Northern California, said that the work IOActive was doing was vital and
that, while the group supports the enforcement of patent law, "free
speech must be protected and not "trampled by the overzealous use of
Government agencies, including the Government Accountability Office and
the Department of Homeland Security, have all raised concerns about RFID
security, even as they issue guidelines for using RFID in passports and
other documents, she said.
"It's particularly important that the government and the public have all
the information on RFID technology. The use of RFID without the proper
protections could jeopardize privacy, security, and public safety," she
For Moss and Black Hat, which is now part of CMP, the decision by
IOActive to cancel Paget's talk was a discouraging reprise of the
controversy two years ago over Michael Lynn's talk in Las Vegas. Show
organizers, once again ripping pages out of conference proceedings at
the request of IOActive, and recalling CDs containing copies of Paget's
"We're supporting IOActive," Moss said, noting that CMP had its legal
team working on behalf of IOActive to see if a solution could be
"I'm not sure if it was part of HID's strategy to drop a bomb at the
last minute, but it really screwed up our conference strategy," he said.
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