RSA looks ahead on RFID security

Trust but verify

RSA 2005 Cryptographic researchers are working out ways to make RFID technology more palatable to consumers ahead of its expected widespread deployment over the coming years.

RFID tags are small silicon microchips attached to an antenna which emit 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. The issue becomes even more acute with plans to put RFID tags into identity cards.

Burt Kaliski, director and chief scientist of RSA Laboratories, said RFID technologies promise to become the most pervasive deployment of technology ever, but little attention has been paid so far to security and privacy issues. "The level of security and privacy needs to grow in proportion with deployment," he said.

RSA is concerned that information stored on RFID tags could be read by anyone with an RFID reader - data thieves, hackers - or worse. Right now, this isn't much of a threat; but once the technology becomes widely adopted readers will drop in price. Over time, readers are likely to be built into mobile phones to facilitate applications such as comparison shopping.

Such an application could take 10 years to hit the streets, but security researchers need to think of the issues it raises now before standards become "baked in", according to Kaliski. "Technology can help maintain the balance between those concerned about business efficiency and those concerned about privacy," he said.

Traditionally, security systems are based on the premise that a system is trustworthy and it’s up to the user to establish his credentials. With the possibility of rogue RFID readers, this premise no longer holds true and a different approach is needed. One approach is to change the IDs of tags from one interaction to the next. "The authentication process needs some kind of dynamic interaction and not just the assertion of identity," Kaliski told El Reg.

He revealed his thoughts RFID security during a meeting at this week's RSA Conference in San Francisco. Scientists from RSA have been studying the issue for several years. Earlier this month researchers from Johns Hopkins University and RSA Laboratories announced the discovery of cryptographic vulnerabilities in the RFID technology used in high-security car keys and petrol pump payment systems.

The attack against Texas Instruments DST tags used in vehicle immobilisers and ExxonMobil's SpeedPass system discovered by researchers worked because of the use of a 40-bit key in TI's technology.

"The design was a good attempt, given the constraints," Kaliski told us. ®

Related stories

RSA shows RFID tag blocker
Tinfoil hats to retail with RFID tags?
German revolt against RFID
Technology credited with cutting retail theft
'Thiefproof' car key cracked

RSA 2005

All the Reg stories from this year's conference

Sponsored: Driving business with continuous operational intelligence