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People-chipping tech cloned by hackers

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Hackers demonstrated how to clone a copy of an human-implanted RFID chip at a hacking conference this week. The demonstration goes against claims from people-chipping firm VeriChip that its technology, the subject of the experiment, can uniquely identify an individual.

By cloning a chip it would be possible to assume someone's identity, at least in situations where VeriChip devices are used as the sole means of identification.

The main difficulty against such an attack is that a VeriChip can only be read at a range of less than 30cm.

During a presentation at the HOPE (Hackers on Planet Earth) conference in New York, Jonathan Westhues demonstrated how it was possible to read the ID number of a VeriChip implanted into the arm of his colleague, Annalee Newitz, using a standard RFID reader, an antenna, and a laptop running signal-processing software.

Westhues first held the RFID reader against Newitz's arm. He then scanned the tiny device again using an antenna connected to his laptop in order to record the signal transmitted by the implanted device. Westhues then waved the RFID reader by the antenna, revealing Newitz’s until then "unique" ID. This information is enough to produce a cloned chip, the hackers claim.

"Their [VeriChip's] website claims that it cannot be counterfeited — that is something that Jonathan and I have shown to be untrue," Newitz said, adding that the tiny RFID chip used by VeriChip contains no built-in security (such as a challenge response mechanism) that prevents the attack.

A spokesman for VeriChip, a subsidiary of Applied Digital, said it hadn't had a chance to review the experiment so it wasn't able to comment on the hacker's cloning claim.

"We can't verify what they may or may not have done," a spokesman told Reuters. "We haven't seen any first-hand evidence other than what's been reported in the media.

"It's very difficult to steal a VeriChip… it's much more secure than anything you'd carry around in your wallet," he added.

"VeriChip" is described by its manufacturers as an implantable, passive radio frequency identification device (RFID) about the size of a grain of sand that can be used in a variety of applications such as assessing whether somebody has authority to enter a high-security area.

In medicine (the main market), the idea is that if a patient is unconscious, or otherwise unable to tell doctors about their medical condition, medics can still find out this information using the ID contained on the VeriChip. This number is cross-referenced with hospital databases to give a patient's medical records. ®

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