A U.K. firm has developed an on/off â€œswitchâ€ for RFID cards that could protect cardholders from being hacked. The cardholder activates the RFID transmission by squeezing the card between his thumb and forefinger when it must be scanned by a reader.
The patented polymer-based technology comprised of metal particles is embedded into a circuit and gets built into a smart card during the lamination process. When compressed, it acts as an RFID signal conductor. â€œThe difference is that RFID is always on and being interrogated, but this is always off until the instant you want it read,â€ says a spokesman for Peratech, which says itâ€™s currently in discussions with smart card vendors.
RFID hacking has been well-documented, and a popular target for researchers. RFID readers can be easily hacked, and RFID-based cards, cloned with little effort. This has made RFID-based building passes, passports, credit cards, and other contactless cards vulnerable to identity theft or other types of fraud. â€œYour identity and financial information could be stolen by the person sitting behind you on the bus, on the train, in a queue — even walking down the street — and you would never know that is was happening,â€ says David Lussey, CTO of Peratech.
Peratechâ€™s underlying Quantum Tunnelling Composites (QTC) technology itself is used in astronaut spacesuits, robotics, and defense. Its application to RFID cards is not the first attempt to protect RFID from hacks. There are a variety of â€œshieldsâ€ and stainless steel wallets that you can slip your RFID-based card into to prevent any tampering, for instance. But unlike some of these more bulky approaches to securing personal information stored on RFID cards, the 70-micron thick switch is rugged and compact. â€œItâ€™s like a thin piece of paper,â€ Peratechâ€™s spokesman says.
The concept of an on/off switch to protect user privacy in RFID isnâ€™t new, either. Nate Lawson, principal with Root Labs, who recently reverse-engineered the popular RFID-based FasTrak toll tag that many drivers in the San Francisco Bay Area affix to their windshields for pre-paying highway tolls, is building a prototype on/off switch of sorts for FasTrak users. â€œYou press a button on it so when you near the toll plaza, it activates RFID, and then immediately cuts the power to the whole circuit when itâ€™s done,â€ Lawson says.
Lawson says the Peratech switch concept represents a positive development for RFID security. â€œIt wonâ€™t change the world, but overall, this is a [positive] development,â€ he says.
The key is making it inexpensive enough to attract card manufacturers. â€œEven a penny difference is something these manufacturers are concerned about,â€ he says. â€œThatâ€™s why you havenâ€™t seen smart cards replacing mag-stripeâ€ credit cards to date, he says.
Peratech wonâ€™t say just what it will cost per card, but that it would be a matter of â€œcents,â€ not dollars.
Lawson says an indicator light or auditory beep would be helpful to alert users that the card had successfully been enabled.
Just when Peratechâ€™s RFID on/off switch technology gets incorporated into smart cards is unclear, however. â€œItâ€™s not in credit cards or door-access cards nowâ€¦ Weâ€™re talking to RFID card vendor,â€ the company spokesman says. â€œWe want to create an awareness that protection for this problem is here.â€
The RFID Cloning Kit pictured above can be found at ThinkGeek.
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