Controlling RFID tags to protect privacy

RFID cards with buttons can protect private information, but form factor is large

A researcher is working on technology he hopes will be able to control RFID tags and protect private information.

"We are building our own RFID cards and adding features to them to make it visible and noticeable when someone is accessing the information," Nicolai Marquardt, a Ph.D. student at the University of Calgary said during the Computer Human Interaction conference in Atlanta Wednesday. He said that his project can also make it possible for users to control when the information on the card is being accessed.

With RFID being embedded into everyday items like passports, credit cards and transit passes, security becomes a concern with the always-on technology.

Marquardt is working with Microsoft Research in the U.K. on the project and has four distinct types of RFID controllers.

The first group gives the user direct feedback. There's one that lights up, one that vibrates and one that makes a sound when the tag is being accessed.

The next group has controllable tags. One has a button that needs to be pressed before the RFID becomes active. Another one is touch sensitive so, for example, someone needs to be holding the tag in order to read the information on it.

The third group of tags has sensing properties. One is light sensitive, so data can't be accessed when the card is in a pocket. Another is tilt sensitive so it can only be accessed when pressed flat against a reader.

The last group uses proximity. Some information on the RFID tag will always be accessible, but more private information will only become enabled when it gets closer to the reader.

All of Marquardt's prototypes were relatively large and most of them needed a battery in order to work. Without one, some of the tags, like the vibrating or auditory tags, couldn't work.

Chris Paget, an RFID expert and chief technology officer with a security consultancy called H4rdw4re said that the principle behind Marquardt's idea is sound, but that he's not "tremendously impressed because it's not very practical." Paget said that it would be hard to fit Marquardt's creations into a usable form factor that is reliable and cheap enough for real world deployment.

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