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Mythbusters RFID episode axed after 'pressure' from credit card firms

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Update: Since we published this story MythBusters host Adam Savage has backtracked on claims that Discovery Channel caved into commercial pressure in canceling a planned show on RFID technology. See new story here.

Discovery Channel prevented the exploration of RFID security by Mythbusters, the popular science television show, after allegedly coming under pressure from credit card companies.

Mythbusters co-host Adam Savage said a planned segment of the program was going to look at how hackable, reliable and trackable RFID technology might be. A researcher for the show called up Texas Instruments to arrange a conference call to talk about the technology.

But when the call took place, Texas Instruments brought along big legal guns from the credit card industry.

"Texas Instruments comes on along with chief legal counsel for American Express, Visa, Discover, and everybody else," Savage told delegates at the recent HOPE (Hackers on Planet Earth) conference.

"They [MythBusters production team] were way, way outgunned and they [lawyers] made it really clear to Discovery that they were not going to air this episode talking about how hackable this stuff was. Discovery backed down being a large corporation that depends upon the revenue of the advertisers. Now it's on Discovery's radar and they won't let us go near it."

Texas Instruments has responded to these accusations by saying that only one lawyer took part in the conference call, and that technical questions were explored. It said that it wasn't involved in putting pressure on Mythbusters or Discovery to drop the segment, suggesting it got credit card firms involved because they were more familiar with contactless payment technologies.

"Technical questions were asked and answered and we were to wait for MythBusters to let us know when they were planning on showing the segment. A few weeks later, Texas Instruments was told by MythBusters that the storyline had changed and they were pursuing a different angle which did not require our help," TI told CNET in a statement.

Savage's completely different take on this conversation can be found in a clip posted on YouTube:

The use of RFID technology in passports and credit cards has increased the profile of the technology. Security researchers have demonstrated a variety of techniques for snooping on data held on RFID chips, created cloned chips and other exploits.

Advertisers, credit card companies may have been able to apply commercial pressure to make sure Mythbusters was prevented from exploring the issue, but the wider debate will go on regardless. ®

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