A planned talk on RFID security by a security researcher has been pulled from this week's Black Hat Federal security conference after secure card maker HID claimed the talk violated the company's patent rights and threatened to take legal action against Chris Paget, the researcher, and IOActive, Paget's employer, if the talk went forward.
The company decided to cancel the talk after all-night negotiations with HID collapsed, said Josh Pennell, CEO of IOActive. In response, Black Hat organizers were forced to tear materials out of printed show proceedings and will instead present a discussion by a representative of the ACLU on the criticality of RFID security, said Jeff Moss, founder and director of Black Hat.
A spokeswoman for HID did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The incident recalled a 2005 dispute over a presentation at Black Hat in Las Vegas involving Cisco Systems and Michael Lynn, a security researcher who worked for Internet Security Systems at the time.
IOActive's decision to abort their presentation follows days of tense negotiations between the two companies, after HID became alarmed about Paget's discussion, "RFID for beginners," which was to address widespread security issues with the implementation of RFID in proximity cards that are sold by HID and other companies. Paget's RFID cloning device was on display at the recent RSA Security Conference in San Francisco, where he demonstrated for InfoWorld how the device could be used to steal access codes from HID brand proximity cards, store them, then use the stolen codes to fool a HID card reader.
Paget's presentation at Black Hat Federal would have included schematics and source code that attendees could use to create their own cloning device, and a discussion of vulnerable implementations of RFID technology in a wide variety of devices, Paget said at RSA earlier this month.
HID claimed that Paget's talk would infringe upon two patents the company owns, one dating to 1991 and another dating to 1992 . Both cover methods of detecting RFID signals between a transponder embedded in a device and an "interrogator," according to a source familiar with HID's claims.
Pennell and others doubted that such broad patent claims could be used to stifle free speech, but said that the legal pressure mounted by HID, a subsidiary of Swedish firm ASSA ABLOY, was too much for his small, Seattle-based consulting firm to withstand.
"If we say anything, HID will sue. These large companies have lots of resources, so they can find [legal] matter with pretty much anything," Pennell said, admitting disappointment at the failure to reach an agreement with HID.
"It's always been IOActive's intent to help people with security," he said.
Chris Paget said that, unlike Lynn's sophisticated hack of Cisco's IOS operating system, the RFID cloning devices he built were simple devices concocted from around US$20 in off-the-shelf parts purchased on eBay.
"This thing is simpler than a Furbie," he said, referring to the plush electronic play toy of years past. Moreover, the HID patents in question are public documents, containing all the information needed to build the RFID cloner, he said.
"This is not something new that we're doing. HID has known about this for about two years, if not longer," Paget said.