James Van Bokkelen is about to be robbed. A wealthy software entrepreneur, Van Bokkelen will be the latest victim of some punk with a laptop. But this won't be an email scam or bank account hack. A skinny 23-year-old named Jonathan Westhues plans to use a cheap, homemade USB device to swipe the office key out of Van Bokkelen's back pocket.
"I just need to bump into James and get my hand within a few inches of him," Westhues says. We're shivering in the early spring air outside the offices of Sandstorm, the Internet security company Van Bokkelen runs north of Boston. As Van Bokkelen approaches from the parking lot, Westhues brushes past him. A coil of copper wire flashes briefly in Westhues' palm, then disappears.
Van Bokkelen enters the building, and Westhues returns to me. "Let's see if I've got his keys," he says, meaning the signal from Van Bokkelen's smartcard badge. The card contains an RFID sensor chip, which emits a short burst of radio waves when activated by the reader next to Sandstorm's door. If the signal translates into an authorized ID number, the door unlocks.
The coil in Westhues' hand is the antenna for the wallet-sized device he calls a cloner, which is currently shoved up his sleeve. The cloner can elicit, record, and mimic signals from smartcard RFID chips. Westhues takes out the device and, using a USB cable, connects it to his laptop and downloads the data from Van Bokkelen's card for processing. Then, satisfied that he has retrieved the code, Westhues switches the cloner from Record mode to Emit. We head to the locked door.
"Want me to let you in?" Westhues asks. I nod.
He waves the cloner's antenna in front of a black box attached to the wall. The single red LED blinks green. The lock clicks. We walk in and find Van Bokkelen waiting.
"See? I just broke into your office!" Westhues says gleefully. "It's so simple." Van Bokkelen, who arranged the robbery "just to see how it works," stares at the antenna in Westhues' hand. He knows that Westhues could have performed his wireless pickpocket maneuver and then returned with the cloner after hours. Westhues could have walked off with tens of thousands of dollars' worth of computer equipment - and possibly source code worth even more. Van Bokkelen mutters, "I always thought this might be a lousy security system."
RFID chips are everywhere - companies and labs use them as access keys, Prius owners use them to start their cars, and retail giants like Wal-Mart have deployed them as inventory tracking devices. Drug manufacturers like Pfizer rely on chips to track pharmaceuticals. The tags are also about to get a lot more personal: Next-gen US passports and credit cards will contain RFIDs, and the medical industry is exploring the use of implantable chips to manage patients. According to the RFID market analysis firm IDTechEx, the push for digital inventory tracking and personal ID systems will expand the current annual market for RFIDs from $2.7 billion to as much as $26 billion by 2016.
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