Department of Computer Science and Technology

Technical reports

Security of proximity identification systems

Gerhard P. Hancke

July 2009, 161 pages

This technical report is based on a dissertation submitted February 2008 by the author for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy to the University of Cambridge, Wolfson College.

DOI: 10.48456/tr-752


RFID technology is the prevalent method for implementing proximity identification in a number of security sensitive applications. The perceived proximity of a token serves as a measure of trust and is often used as a basis for granting certain privileges or services. Ensuring that a token is located within a specified distance of the reader is therefore an important security requirement. In the case of high-frequency RFID systems the limited operational range of the near-field communication channel is accepted as implicit proof that a token is in close proximity to a reader. In some instances, it is also presumed that this limitation can provide further security services.

The first part of this dissertation presents attacks against current proximity identification systems. It documents how eavesdropping, skimming and relay attacks can be implemented against HF RFID systems. Experimental setups and practical results are provided for eavesdropping and skimming attacks performed against RFID systems adhering to the ISO 14443 and ISO 15693 standards. These attacks illustrate that the limited operational range cannot prevent unauthorised access to stored information on the token, or ensure that transmitted data remains confidential. The practical implementation of passive and active relay attacks against an ISO 14443 RFID system is also described. The relay attack illustrates that proximity identification should not rely solely on the physical characteristics of the communication channel, even if it could be shown to be location-limited. As a result, it is proposed that additional security measures, such as distance-bounding protocols, should be incorporated to verify proximity claims. A new method, using cover noise, is also proposed to make the backward communication channel more resistant to eavesdropping attacks.

The second part of this dissertation discusses distance-bounding protocols. These protocols determine an upper bound for the physical distance between two parties. A detailed survey of current proposals, investigating their respective merits and weaknesses, identifies general principles governing secure distance-bounding implementations. It is practically shown that an attacker can circumvent the distance bound by implementing attacks at the packet and physical layer of conventional communication channels. For this reason the security of a distance bound depends not only on the cryptographic protocol, but also on the time measurement provided by the underlying communication. Distance-bounding protocols therefore require special channels. Finally, a new distance-bounding protocol and a practical implementation of a suitable distance-bounding channel for HF RFID systems are proposed.

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BibTeX record

  author =	 {Hancke, Gerhard P.},
  title = 	 {{Security of proximity identification systems}},
  year = 	 2009,
  month = 	 jul,
  url = 	 {},
  institution =  {University of Cambridge, Computer Laboratory},
  doi = 	 {10.48456/tr-752},
  number = 	 {UCAM-CL-TR-752}