Chipmaker sues to quash info on smart card security flaws

Researcher says chip hack could crack open 2 billion cards

A semiconductor company is suing a Dutch university to keep its researchers from publishing information about security flaws in the RFID chips used in up to 2 billion smart cards.

The cards are used to open doors in corporate and government buildings, and to board public transportation systems.

NXP Semiconductors filed suit in Court Arnhem in The Netherlands against Radboud University Nijmegen. The company is pushing the courts to keep university researchers from publishing a paper about reported security flaws in the pp=t=pfp,i=41863, an RFID chip manufactured by NXP Semiconductors.

The paper is slated to be presented at the Esorics security conference in Malaga, Spain this October, according to Karsten Nohl, a graduate student who was part of a research group that originally broke the encryption last year. Nohl told Computerworld on Thursday that he gave his research to the Dutch university so they could build on what he had done, and he has been closely following their progress.

"I think it's crucial that it's published in an academic conference where researchers can work on solutions," said Nohl. "I don't think there's any good outcome for NXP. Say they were to win. They'd be keeping information away from the academics who might come up with solutions."

NXP declined to be interviewed for this story but said in an emailed statement, "We cannot give further comments at this time, as it is in the hands of the court and the court has given a confidentiality order."

Representatives from the university did not respond before deadline.

Call out the military

Nohl said the problem lies in what he calls weak encryption in the MiFare Classic smart card. In March, he said that once he had broken the encryption, he would only need a laptop, a scanner and a few minutes to get the cryptographic key to an RFID door lock and create a duplicate card to open it at will.

Since the MiFare Classic smart cards use a radio chip, Nohl said he easily can scan them for information. If someone came out of a building carrying a smart card door key, he could walk past them with a laptop and scanner in a backpack or bag and skim data from their card. He also could walk past the door and scan for data captured to the reader.

Once he's captured information from a smart card and/or the card reader on the door, he would have enough information to find the cryptographic key and duplicate a smart card with the necessary encryption information to open the door. He said the whole process would take him less than two minutes.

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