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RSA shows RFID tag blocker

Tinfoil hat technology waits on a market

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RSA RSA Security is building an RFID tag blocker which may allay privacy concerns over Radio-Frequency Identification technology.

The RSA Blocker Tag is an RFID tag which prevents readers from scanning and tracking people or goods after purchases have been made -without disrupting normal RFID operation.

Devised by RSA Laboratories, in conjunction with Ronald Rivest (the 'R' in RSA), the patent-pending RSA Blocker Tag is technically elegant. But will the technology find a market when it addresses - in its present form - only one aspect of the privacy concerns generated by RFID technology.

Next generation bar code

RFID tags are small silicon microchips attached to an antenna which emits a unique serial number by radio over short distances.

Miniature RFID tags can be embedded in all kinds of consumer products and scanned from between two to three metres away, revealing information about the product and (potentially) its owner. Critics say the technology could reduce or eliminate purchasing anonymity and could even threaten civil liberties.

Tesco ended a tagging trial at a Cambridge store in August, 2003 following a consumer boycott.

Prescription for privacy?
RSA is more worried that information stored on RFID tags can be read by anyone with an RFID reader - data thieves, hackers or worse.

At this week's RSA Conference, RSA Laboratories demonstrated its prototype RSA Blocker Tag in "RXA Pharmacy".

People entering the RXA Pharmacy filled out mock prescription forms and selected a "medication" type – Wisdom, Tranquillity or Happiness pills. These "medications" (jelly beans) are supplied in a prescription bottle bearing a RFID tag. This links the RFID tag to a specific customer record, and also records that a bottle has been purchased and therefore should not trigger theft-control systems in the pharmacy.

Upon checkout, RSA Laboratories "pharmacists" gave attendees paper blocker bags with their purchases. Each bag contains an RSA Blocker Tag to shield the contents of the bag from scanning.

That's the theory - in practice the technology didn't consistently work as advertised. This isn't entirely surprising, as RSA clearly says the technology is at prototype stage.

A fully developed RSA Blocker Tag would work by spamming any RFID reader that attempts to scan tags without the right authorization, thereby "creating a hostile environment for the reader". RSA Blocker Tag helps prevent unwanted scanning of purchased items, without interfering with the normal operation of RFID systems.

"RSA Blocker Tags cannot be used, for example, to circumvent theft-control systems or mount denial-of-service attacks – only to protect the privacy of law-abiding consumers," said Burt Kaliski, director and chief scientist of RSA Laboratories.

RSA Security reckons that RFID tags are unlikely to become widespread in individual retail items for at least several years. When they do, RSA Blocker Tags will be there to help protect consumer privacy.

The technology is just one example of the new RFID privacy and security technologies – for tags, readers and RFID backend infrastructure – under development at RSA Laboratories and RSA Security. ®

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