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Dutch government gags Oyster researchers

Don’t kill the messenger

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The publication of a scientific paper by Radboud University that discusses design flaws of the MIFARE chip in cards such as the Oyster travelcard may be in jeopardy. Dutch secretary of state Tineke Huizinga has urged the university not to publish any secrets that may lead to abuse.

Last week researchers from Radboud University in Nijmegen revealed they had cracked and cloned London's Oyster travel card. Earlier this year the researchers did the same to the Dutch MIFARE travel card. As a result, the introduction of the €1bn transport payment system in the Netherlands has now been postponed.

The Dutch researchers were planning to publish their scientific paper, appropriately named Dismantling MIFARE Classic, at the European Computer Security Conference Esorics in October, but secretary of state Huizinga has called upon the university to exercise responsibility. Radboud is now declining any media request that specifically addresses the vulnerabilities of the MIFARE chip.

Researcher Bart Jacobs admits that the issue is sensitive, but doesn't believe the publication will threaten present installments of the cards. "A mathematical analysis is not the same thing as writing attack code," Jacobs says in an internal memo. "It requires a lot of expert work to transform the analysis from the Esorics paper into a working device for performing attacks on card installations."

However, he warned that other groups may already have started writing tools and released them on the net.

"Killing the messenger does not solve the problem," Jacobs says. "This paper serves the interest of our society. The problems are real and should be addressed on the basis of sound and well-informed judgment." ®

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