News Analysis

RFID faces security probe

A group of US university computer scientists is launching a research project to protect data stored in radio frequency identification (RFID) smart tags.

The project's goal is to prevent criminals cracking the tags and stealing personal data. RFID tags are being used in a growing number of applications, including automatic vehicle toll collection, accessing medical records, the prevention of counterfeiting and for traceability in the retail sector.

The four-year project is funded by the National Science Foundation, which awarded $1.1m to a team of researchers from the University of Massachusetts, Johns Hopkins University and the security specialist, RSA Laboratories.

The research will focus on the way radio tags and readers talk to each other and the steps involved in a specific transaction. The idea, according to a Johns Hopkins statement, is to preserve users' privacy by making it more difficult for unauthorised readers to find and talk to radio tags.

RFID technology is already generating widespread fears over privacy violations and other security risks, though some would argue the privacy fears are groundless. One security concern to be investigated by the project is that a thief could use a radio device of some kind to read a tag in a wallet or purse, leaving the tag owner unaware of anything amiss.

There is a lot of hogwash talked over RFID privacy, usually by consumer organisations that will always smell a rat, no matter how effective the technology. RFID security, however, is another story. The RFID phenomenon is still in the early stages of development, and the so-called Internet of Things is an enticing prospect, but more work needs to be done to separate out real security concerns from imagined privacy fears.


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