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Mythbusters busted over RFID gagging

Host backtracks on corporate pressure claims

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The co-host of popular science television show Mythbusters has backtracked on claims that the Discovery Channel spiked a planned exploration of RFID security after coming under commercial pressure from credit card companies.

Previously, Mythbusters co-host Adam Savage told delegates at the Hackers on Planet Earth conference in no uncertain terms that a planned segment of the reliability, security and trackability of RFID had been pulled by Discovery. According to this version of events, lawyers for credit card firms jumped on board a conference call to discuss the technology between the Mythbusters team and made it "clear to Discovery that they were not going to air this episode talking about how hackable this [RFID card] stuff was".

Texas Instruments (TI) responded to these charges by saying that the conference call was technical in nature. One lawyer for a credit card firm was involved, and he was only there as a representative of the contactless payment industry. TI denies any suggestion that any pressure was applied on the Mythbusters team.

"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 said.

Savage took no part in the now famous conference call with TI and has since been obliged to perform a volte face. In a statement, issued through the Discovery Channel, Savage said he got his facts all wrong, CNET reports.

"Texas Instruments' account of their call with Grant and our producer is factually correct. If I went into the detail of exactly why this story didn't get filmed, it's so bizarre and convoluted that no one would believe me, but suffice to say... the decision not to continue on with the RFID story was made by our production company, Beyond Productions, and had nothing to do with Discovery, or their ad sales department."

Which leaves the question of why, if not because of commercial pressure, Mythbusters hasn't tackled RFID security. Security researchers have developed plenty of techniques for snooping on data held on RFID chips and creating cloned chips. The technology is becoming more and more widely used in passports and credit cards. How much a threat all this might pose is the ideal fodder for a Mythbusters episode. But it seems the technology has been declared off bounds for reasons that remain unclear.

We dropped Savage a note to his personal email account asking for clarification why the story was dropped, but aren't holding our breath waiting for a reply.

More controversy may yet flow from Savage's July appearance at HOPE. He also claimed that Discovery spiked a planned segment on teeth-whitening products, again allegedly over concerns that advertisers would object. The myth that advertisers can apply commercial pressure on journalists clearly needs exploring.

Though perhaps not by MythBusters. ®

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