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Dutch chipmaker sues to silence security researchers

Smart card security research lands Dutch University in court on Thursday as NXP Semiconductors attempts to keep details of its products' security holes private.


Dutch chipmaker NXP Semiconductors has sued a university in The Netherlands to block publication of research that details security flaws in NXP's Mifare Classic wireless smart cards, which are used in transit and building entry systems around the world.

NXP, formerly Philips Semiconductors, sued to prevent Radboud University Nijmegen from publishing a scientific paper on the technology in October. A hearing is scheduled for Thursday in the Dutch court, Rechtbank Arnhem.

"We feel the publication would not be responsible," NXP said in an e-mail statement when asked to comment for this article on Wednesday. "We cannot give further comments at this time, as it is in the hands of the court and the court has given a confidentiality order."

A court decision on the matter is expected next week, according to Karsten Nohl, a University of Virginia graduate student who worked with others to break the crypto algorithm last year and has been closely following the case.

The Dutch university's research builds upon Nohl's work. Nohl said he plans to publish his research in August and that NXP has not sued him to halt publication of his work.

"NXP spent most of this year defending the technology," Nohl told CNET News in a phone interview this week. "Only recently have they started admitting that the security is flawed, but they are still not ready for this to leak into the public domain."

"The only thing NXP would achieve if they win the lawsuit is prevent information from getting to other research groups that might very well be looking for solutions to this problem," Nohl said. Meanwhile, information on how to break the cryptography on the smart cards is already available to criminals who are willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars, he added.

A statement issued by the Dutch University in March says: "Because some cards can be cloned, it is in principle possible to access buildings and facilities with a stolen identity. This has been demonstrated on an actual system."

Dr. Bart Jacobs of Radboud University Nijmegen demonstrated last month how he could ride the London transit system for free. Once he obtained the key used by the London transit system, he then brushed up aside passengers carrying the Oyster transit cards and was able to collect their card information on his laptop and make a clone of it.

This YouTube video shows how it is done:

In addition to the transit system in The Netherlands, the technology is used in the subway systems in London, Hong Kong and Boston, as well as in cards for accessing buildings and facilities. The Mifare technology is used in more than 80 percent of the market, Nohl said.

The university defended its plans to publish the research in a statement released Monday in Dutch, saying it has a duty to research and publish data on security technology flaws so that they can be fixed.