SANS Digital Forensics and Incident Response Blog

Nevada bill would make some security research a felony

by Ira Victor

The 75th Session of Nevada Legislature is taking up a new bill - SB125 - that, if enacted into law as introduced to committee, could make it illegal for information security researchers to do work that shows the vulnerabilities in many types of RFID systems. There are important security research, criminal issues, and some forensic matters related to this bill.

The bill would make it a class C felony (up to 5 years in prison, up to a $10,000 fine) to skim personally identifiable information (PII) from another person's RFID enabled ID or other document, without that person's prior knowledge.

Security researcher Chris Paget, Dr. Katherine Albrecht, and others, have done some excellent work in the area. Some of this research was covered in Episode 40 of The Data Security Podcast. This bill would make some of that research a felony in Nevada.

The Sierra Nevada Chapter of InfraGard opposes the bill as it was introduced, since it could criminalize legitimate security research. The bill could also discourage work at events like Black Hat and DefCon, two very large security events that take place in Las Vegas each summer.

A side bar: The Nevada Legislature only meets once every two years for 120 working days. That means that when the Legislature is in session, there is a mad rush to pass scores of bills. This gives citizens a small window of opportunity to bring up important concerns with a technology bill.

SB 125 was heard by the Nevada Senate Judiciary Committee last week. I attended the hearing, as President of InfraGard Sierra Nevada. First up was the Senator who introduced the legislation, Senator Parks. He expressed concern that the information on certain RFID personal IDs could be used against the owner of that information due to unauthorized skimming.

Next up were lobbyists for the financial services industry. They said they supported the bill, with minor changes. They representatives of cities and law enforcement testified that they supported the bill, but wanted broader powers to sniff RFID information. Finally, citizen-oriented lobbyists took to the microphone.

Many of the citizen groups strongly supported the bill out of fear of all the RFID chips that currently in dash-mounted GPS devices [sic], cattle, and other devices, are allowing people to be tracked from space via RFID[sic].

Some of those that testified in favor of this bill clearly did not understand the technical or legal issues. This bill is about skimming personally identifiable information (PII) from RFID chips. In my opinion, the bill as introduced may actually increase the use of the RFID in the very intrusive and non-secure ways these supporters of the bill fear most.

The bill may serve to pacify the general public's legitimate privacy and security fears about RFID, thereby allowing it's more rapid deployment. The bill as introduced would not increase the security of RFID, nor slow intrusive adoption. If many people knew how weak the security really is on most of the RFID chips that are being used in US Passports, US PassCARDs, and the new Enhanced Drivers' Licenses being introduced by the States, they may put up a real fight.

The Chair of the Committee, Senator Care, asked a very relevant question of law enforcement; exactly how would law enforcement catch someone doing illegal skimming, since it is so hard to know when skimming occurs? The law enforcement official admitted that he was not familiar with the technical issues in this matter, and that most likely the person would be caught doing another crime. This point is critical, and I will come back to it.

Representing InfraGard Sierra Nevada, I was only one of two speaking in opposition to this bill. I was in communications with Lee Tien at the Electronic Frontier Foundation prior to last week's hearings. Lee worked to change a similar anti-RFID skimming bill in California (SB13). That bill contains a provision that allows research and experimentation by those without intent to steal the information. Sierra Nevada InfraGard opposes the bill unless it has a safe-harbor provision for legitimate security research and experimentation, similar to the provision in the California RFID anti-skimming bill.

My arguments were three fold against the bill as introduced:

1. The bill could make felons out of legitimate security researchers. Unlike criminals, security researchers go public with their work. Security researchers would be admitting a felony when they present their work to the security community. This discourages the very work that is needed to show the security flaws in typical RFID systems. It is this work that pushes manufacturers and public policy makers to improve security in RFID technologies and deployments.

2. Research is also critical in Nevada, because Nevada hosts two of the biggest information security events in the US: Black Hat and DefCon. These events bring in important tourist dollars to Nevada. More importantly, these events help improve and foster IT skills for Nevadans, since it's a "local" event for those living in the most populous area of Nevada.

3. Assistance to Law Enforcement: Although it will never be acknowledged, it is rumored that law enforcement uses these events to get intelligence on future attacks. As a matter of fact, one of the most popular events at DefCon each year is called, "Spot The Fed." In this game, attendees are given kudos and prizes for spotting government agents that are "hiding in plain site" as attendees.

Another area to consider is the practical application of this law. By it's very nature, it will be very difficult for law enforcement to catch a criminal in the act of RFID skimming. An attacker can fit a reader in a backback, and just walk down Las Vegas Boulevard picking up the RFID information. On the other hand, security researchers are open about the results of their work. They post it on YouTube and demonstrate it live at events like DefCon. A law like this will hinder important real-world research, but do virtually nothing to deter a bad actor.

Senator Care asked me some very smart questions when I testified. Among them: How does a citizen know when their RFID card is scanned? I responded that there is no way to know with the deployments governments are now using. The current deployments of RFID chips in ID cards has no write facility. Therefore, there is no forensic method to gather information from a victim's perspective. Only the RFID reader could log an entry, and in this case of an illegal skim, the victim is not really left with much forensic information to prove an incident occurred.

Although it's not smart, to the extent that RFID is used in personal identification, information security research needs to focus on RFID firewalls, the use of strong encryption, and a reliable logging facility. These layers of security could protect the PII, and enable the victim to forensically re-create a time line, providing important evidence in stopping a perpetrator of PII theft via RFID.

SB125 bill is still in The Nevada Judiciary Committee. The author of the bill, Senator Parks was generally receptive to amendments, but made no specific commitments regarding any of the testimony at the hearing. If the bill passes out of The Senate, it will go to the Assembly Judiciary Committee for hearings. Hearings are webcast live, and listed by bill number (search for SB125) once they are scheduled.: Anyone may sign up for bill tracking here for SB125 here: .

Ira Victor, GCFA, is the Co-Host of the Data Security Podcast, President of Sierra Nevada InfraGard, and an info sec consultant and forensic analyst with Data Clone Labs.