Mythbusters Blocked From Revealing RFID Myths

If you were ever hoping to see an episode of Mythbusters busting the myths behind RFID security, you might be saddened to hear it looks like that will never happen, and not due to a lack of interest either.

Adam Savage of Mythbusters, when speaking to the audience of The Last HOPE hacker conference, revealed why RFID has become a bit of a taboo topic at Discovery Channel. In response to an audience question about revisiting RFID as an episode, Adam responds, “Dude, the RFID thing. I’m sorry. It just is not going to happen. ... Here’s what happened. I’m not sure how much of this story I’m allowed to tell, but I’ll tell you what I know.” Mythbusters did cover RFID in an episode last January, but did not focus on RFID security concerns.

After some cheers from the audience, Adam says, “We were going to do RFID and on several levels, you know, how hackable, how reliable, how trackable, etc., etc., and one of our researchers called up Texas Instruments and they arranged a conference call between, I think, Tory and the head producer over there for the other team, Linda Wolkovitch, and one of the technicians at Texas Instruments. We were supposed to have a conference call to talk about the technology on like Tuesday at 10 am and Tuesday at 10 am, Linda and Tori get on the phone and they.. uh.. Texas Instruments comes on, along with the chief legal council for American Express, Visa, Discover, and everybody else.”

Adam continues, “I got chills just as I described it. They were way way out-gunned and they absolutely made it clear to Discovery they were not going to air this episode talking about how hackable this stuff was and Discovery backed way down, being a large corporation who depends upon the revenue of the advertisers. Uh, and now it’s on Discovery’s radar and they won’t let us go near it. So I’m sorry. It’s just one of those things, but man, that was.. Tory still gets a little white when he describes that phone conversation.”

On one episode of Mythbusters, biometric security is visited and attempts are made to see if fingerprint scanners, for example, could be bypassed easily. Sure enough, the Mythbusters were able to beat the fingerprint scanners, several ways. It is not surprising that such a popular show, attempting to publicize possible faults in RFID technology, would garner the attention of certain companies. With RFID chips finding their way into our credit cards, passports, and many other aspects of our lives, trusting the technology with our security and privacy is becoming an everyday scenario.

As Adam stated, some of the aspects of RFID that would be covered by Mythbusters, if they had their way, would include how hackable they are, how reliable they are, and how easy they are to track. Some security experts fear information stored on RFID chips could be read remotely by strangers, such as the personal information stored on credit cards or passports that use vulnerable RFID chips. While typically an RFID chip used in a credit card, for example, is designed to be read from only a short distance away, some believe as far as 40-feet away is possible. There are also concerns that the data encryption and other means of added security given to some RFID chips may be vulnerable.

It seems RFID-related myths regarding whether a person should be worried about the having their credit cards cloned, having their identity stolen, or just having a store know who they are and what is in their wallet when they walk in will just have to remain myths on Mythbusters.

[Update: September 3, 2008]

It appears Adam Savage of Mythbusters is retracting his statements made at The Last Hope conference, according to a statement issued to CNET News on Wednesday.

Adam Savage says in the issued statement, "There’s been a lot of talk about this RFID thing, and I have to admit that I got some of my facts wrong, as I wasn’t on that story, and as I said on the video, I wasn’t actually in on the call."

He continues, "Texas Instruments’ account of their call with Grant and our producer is factually correct. If I went into the detail of exactly why this story didn’t get filmed, it’s so bizarre and convoluted that no one would believe me, but suffice to say...the decision not to continue on with the RFID story was made by our production company, Beyond Productions, and had nothing to do with Discovery, or their ad sales department."

Adam Savage’s statement follows a previous statement issued to CNET News the day before from Texas Instruments stating things did not go exactly as Adam Savage described at The Last Hope conference. According to Texas Instruments, during the phone call technical questions were asked and answered, only a single legal council member was present on behalf of a contactless payment company and it sounds as if Mythbusters was not told they could not air the episode.

Does that mean it is okay to take off our tinfoil hats now?