LAS VEGAS — It’s one of the most hostile hacker environments in the country –- the DefCon hacker conference held every summer in Las Vegas.
But despite the fact that attendees know they should take precautions to protect their data, federal agents at the conference got a scare on Friday when they were told they might have been caught in the sights of an RFID reader.
The reader, connected to a web camera, sniffed data from RFID-enabled ID cards and other documents carried by attendees in pockets and backpacks as they passed a table where the equipment was stationed in full view.
It was part of a security-awareness project set up by a group of security researchers and consultants to highlight privacy issues around RFID. When the reader caught an RFID chip in its sights — embedded in a company or government agency access card, for example — it grabbed data from the card, and the camera snapped the card holder’s picture.
But the device, which had a read range of 2 to 3 feet, caught only five people carrying RFID cards before Feds attending the conference got wind of the project and were concerned they might have been scanned.
Kevin Manson, a former senior instructor at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Florida, was sitting on the “Meet the Fed” panel when a DefCon staffer known as “Priest,” who prefers not to be identified by his real name, entered the room and told panelists about the reader.
“I saw a few jaws drop when he said that,” Manson told Threat Level.
“There was a lot of surprise,” Priest says. “It really was a ‘holy shit,’ we didn’t think about that [moment].”
Law enforcement and intelligence agents attend DefCon each year to garner intelligence about the latest cyber vulnerabilities and the hackers who exploit them. Some attend under their real name and affiliation, but many attend undercover.
Although corporate- and government-issued ID cards embedded with RFID chips don’t reveal a card holder’s name or company — the chip stores only a site number and unique ID number tied to a company or agency’s database where the card holder’s details are stored — it’s not impossible to deduce the company or agency from the site number. It’s possible the researchers might also have been able to identify a Fed through the photo snapped with the captured card data or through information stored on other RFID-embedded documents in his wallet. For example, badges issued to attendees at the Black Hat conference that preceded DefCon in Las Vegas were embedded with RFID chips that contained the attendee’s name and affiliation. Many of the same people attended both conferences, and some still had their Black Hat cards with them at DefCon.
But an attacker wouldn’t need the name of a card holder to cause harm. In the case of employee access cards, a chip that contained only the employee’s card number could still be cloned to allow someone to impersonate the employee and gain access to his company or government office without knowing the employee’s name.
Since employee access card numbers are generally sequential, Priest says an attacker could simply change a few digits on his cloned card to find the number of a random employee who might have higher access privileges in a facility.