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Did corporate lawyers put kibosh on 'Mythbusters' RFID episode?

According to co-host Adam Savage, legal counsel from the largest credit card companies told Discovery Channel not to air an episode on RFID hackability.

'MythBusters' co-host Adam Savage, right, told a conference audience recently that Discovery Channel was convinced by legal counsel from Texas Instruments and several large credit card companies not to do an episode on the hackability of RFID. Daniel Terdiman/CNET News

Update (Wednesday, 10:58 a.m.): This story now has a link to a new post on this with a statement from MythBusters co-host Adam Savage.

One of the great things about the Discovery Channel show, Mythbusters is that it confronts the realities behind some of the most interesting phenomenons and technologies around.

That's why, reported the Consumerist blog, at a recent conference--it's not clear which one--Mythbusters co-host Adam Savage was asked why the show hasn't tackled the technology behind the security limitations of RFID.

His eyes lighting up at the chance to talk about something that clearly was a memorable experience for him, Savage said the show had actually set out to do an episode on the vulnerabilities of RFID but encountered some very powerful resistance.

In the video, Savage says that a conference call was arranged between co-host Tory Belleci and Texas Instruments to talk about the RFID vulnerabilities. But when Bellici and a MythBusters producer got on the call at the appointed time, "Texas Instruments comes on along with chief legal counsel for American Express, Visa, Discover, and everybody else....(Bellici and the MythBusters producer) were way, way out-gunned and (the lawyers) absolutely made it really clear to Discovery that they were not going to air this episode talking about how hackable this stuff was, and Discovery backed way down, being a large corporation that depends upon the revenue of the advertisers. Now it's on Discovery's radar and they won't let us go near it."

Savage also said he got chills just from describing the encounter.

I sent a message to Discovery Channel to see if it would confirm Savage's account, but didn't get an immediate response. I will update this entry when I hear from them.

Note: Discovery Channel provided me with a statement from Savage Wednesday. You can read about it here.

For its part, Texas Instruments said things went a little different than the way Savage remembers it.

In a statement provided to CNET News, TI said lawyers were hardly to blame for MythBusters dropping the RFID episode.

"In June 2007, MythBusters was interested in pursuing some great myth-busting ideas for RFID. While in pursuit, they contacted Texas Instruments' RFID Systems, who is a pioneer of RFID and contactless technology, for technical help and understanding of RFID in the contactless payments space," TI spokesperson Cindy Huff said. "Some of the information that was needed to pursue the program required further support from the contactless payment companies as they construct their own proprietary systems for security to protect their customers. To move the process along, Texas Instruments coordinated a conversation with Smart Card Alliance (SCA) who invited MasterCard and Visa, on contactless payments to help MythBusters get the right information. Of the handful of people on the call, there were mostly product managers and only one contactless payment company's legal counsel member. Technical questions were asked and answered and we were to wait for MythBusters to let us know when they were planning on showing the segment. A few weeks later, Texas Instruments was told by MythBusters that the storyline had changed and they were pursuing a different angle which did not require our help."

Clearly, TI's memory of what happened is at odds with that of Savage.

Still, this is a very strange situation. If Savage is recalling things correctly, it indicates that the credit card companies may be very nervous about people learning how fragile the security is on cards that have RFID. Or maybe it's for other reasons. Either way, if true, it's revealing that those corporate giants would want to shut down such a public and prominent examination of the limitations of the technology.

If it's not true, one would wonder why Savage would have told the story he did.

And such muffling of investigation or research, in this case or others, often has the unintended consequence of stoking more interest in precisely the subject that is presumably taboo.

For example, after Savage finished his explanation, the gentleman in the audience who asked him the question said, to much applause and laughter, "Well, you do have about 3,000 people in the room who aren't under such legal arrangements."

Via TechDirt.