Trying A Bit Too Hard To Convince People That Contactless Is Secure

Written by Evan Schuman
March 14th, 2008

One of the non-intuitive truths about marketing is that marketers love to suggest the opposite of what they know to be true. A small startup team will want to reference their global sales offices to make them sound bigger, something that a Microsoft or Wal-Mart would never feel the need to do. Or the product manager for a product that is slower than any of its rivals will want to push that it’s 26 percent faster than its older version.

The small player wants to suggest that it’s big, mostly because it knows it’s not and the slow player wants to suggest that it’s fast, for the same reason. Knowing this, it’s easy to look at advertisements and news releases and figure out where that company believes it is weakest. As the Bard said, "The lady doth protest too much, methinks."

I bring this up because of the stories this week involving some Univ. of Virginia graduate students were able to steal encryption coding and create fake contactless entry cards. Here’s a video of the students explaining their findings with a nice demo.

The Smart Card Alliance quickly issued a statement that lead with: "A recent Associated Press story and subsequent news reports contained an important error and the Smart Card Alliance wants to correct the record. The stories inaccurately linked security questions raised by a University of Virginia graduate student about an RF-enabled chip used primarily in transit applications with the contactless smart card technology used in financial payment cards. The RF-enabled chip used in the U.Va. research is not the same product used in contactless credit/debit cards and electronic passports."

While I try and overpower my desire to nitpick their clarification, the issue is that the reports pointed out that the contactless capabilities in the access cards that were cloned also exists in contactless credit cards, among other places. The stories didn’t say that it was the same manufacturer or imply that.

But at the big-picture level, the stories were essentially saying, "The convenience of contactless comes with potential security problems and these are other places where contactless is being used." By rushing in to deny that that particular chip is in contactless cards, it actually raises the issue in consumers’ minds.

More importantly, it certainly signals that the contactless industry must think it’s in a weak security position to feel the need to issue such a statement. This is also a dangerous path because it’s inching toward the position that contactless cards are safe, that they’re not vulnerable to attack.

The reasonable argument is, "Anything can and will be cracked and certainly contactless cards are no exception. That said, they’re not significantly less secure than their magstripe parents and they sure are more convenient and versatile."

Contactless cards have had their share of problems recently. But you don’t address security concerns by pretending they don’t exist. You acknowledge that everything is relative and that weaknesses are there but there are advantages, too.

I personally don’t see contactless cards as especially not secure, given the huge fraud rates with magstripe cards. But given the statement issued this statement, I think it’s clear that the Smart Card Alliance is apparently a lot more worried about it. And it shows.


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Most Recent Comments

Why Did Gonzales Hackers Like European Cards So Much Better?

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