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.


3 Comments | Read Trying A Bit Too Hard To Convince People That Contactless Is Secure

  1. Sid Sidner Says:

    The difference is subtle but very important right now.

    The U.S. Federal gov’t is going ahead with using RFID style contactless cards instead of smart card contactless cards for security IDs. This alarms everyone in the industry. The Smart Card Alliance has been doing yeoman duty trying to get this changed, including testify before Congress and committees. (Disclaimer: my company, like most of the companies in the payment card business, are members of the SCA.)

    While the radio may be contactless in both, an RFID card is passive while a smart card is active, with a little computer and active cryptography. Granted, the current “mag stripe contactless” protocol used in the U.S. is not as strong as EMV Chip and PIN with dynamic codes, it is still stronger than RFID.

    The PIV II cards used in U.S. government identity systems now is an example of the right way to do it. Unfortunately, so of the Homeland Security border initiatives are using RFID, instead. The SCA Web site has excellent factual material on this.

    In summary, painting all contractless cards with the same security brush is a mistake.

    – Sid

  2. A Reader Says:

    While smart cards are certainly far more secure than RFID tags, which are nothing more than radio frequency bar codes, all contactless devices offer the potential risk of undesirable and unforeseen side effects.

    Researchers have shown that the mere existence of a contactless card (such as the new U.S. passport) can be recognized by hostile persons. An overly-dramatic video demonstrates this with a fake bomb detonated by a passport-carrying dummy passing by. The official U.S. government passport cover wisely incorporates a Faraday cage, but the demo was performed with the card held open by no more than an inch.

    A demonstration video also showed how an attacker with a laptop in a briefcase was able to briefly sit down next to a man on a bench, read the Shell Speedpass token in his pocket, then returned the data to their office and broke the cryptography. They then took their laptop to a Shell station and used their computer driven RF device to purchase gas on the victim’s account.

    Distance is no cure. Published maximum distances that accompany commercial tags and readers are useful for antenna placement to assure high reliability reading, but are not actual physical limits. RFID tags with published ranges of tens of centimeters were read by DEFCON attendees at a distance of over 69 feet.

    Contact smart card readers may require much more frequent maintenance, but contact-based cards cannot be surreptitiously read without the cooperation of the cardholder unless a physical theft takes place.

    Any device that can be invisibly read at even a small distance without the consent of the owner of the device can be misused. We may not know the forms of the attacks that will be mounted tomorrow, but we can be assured that they will be attacked.

  3. Hates Contactless Says:

    Just exactly what is wrong using with “contact-style” smartcards instead of contactless cards? Why is the credit card industry hell-bent on RFID? Is it really so much more time consuming to push a card into a reader than to wave a card near one? The tradeoff in security is about like the difference between getting hit by a car while riding a bicycle (RFID card) vs being inside a truck (contact-style smartcard). Considering all the credit card data that’s being reported stolen almost every day, you would think the credit card industry would be running 180 degrees away from RFID (what part of RADIO in RFID do they not understand???) but for some strange reason they are force-feeding consumers with cards that can be sniffed by anyone within 30 feet instead of moving aggressively to require smartcards, which are virtually fraud-proof, even for eCommerce transactions. Why why why???


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