PBS NewsHour Misinforms Viewers on RFID

In a segment that was part of a cyber-security series, the vaunted news show reports inaccurately about radio frequency identification.
Published: August 16, 2010

I received an e-mail from a reader who caught a segment on PBS NewsHour about cyber-security. Most of the piece is about phishing and problems with online banking, but at the very end, the report touches on radio frequency identification, and offers a wildly inaccurate view based on comments from self-described hacker Chris Paget (see Online Crime a Cat-and-Mouse Game for Hackers, Security Companies).

Toward the end of the segment, NewsHour reporter Spencer Michaels says, “Chris Paget showed another way thieves get information and eventually money. He set up antennas on a 29th-floor Las Vegas hotel balcony to demonstrate how credit cards and passports embedded with wireless transponders called RFID tags can be read by crooks.”

Paget is then shown on screen. He says, “These things can be read at very long distances. People can be tracked. They can be identified. You can find out all kinds of information about them from these RFID tags that are being issued to you by the government, by stores, and products you buy all over the place.”

Paget recently demonstrated how he was able to use high-powered antennas typically used for ham radios to increase the read range of passive ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) tags well beyond the normal 20 to 30 feet, and those reports might have been what led PBS to him. In a YouTube video, Paget claims he has read UHF tags from as far away as 217 feet (see Chris Paget talks about long-range RFID tag reading).

So, let’s examine his claims, which PBS broadcast without qualification. First, he says tags can be read at “very long distances.” This is extremely—and probably deliberately—vague. An average consumer might assume the phrase means several miles. I doubt most viewers would think of 200 feet as being a very long distance, unless they are snails trying to cross a busy highway on a hot summer day.

Next, he says, “People can be tracked.” Really? How, exactly? By setting up RFID readers every 200 feet? That hardly seems feasible or realistic.

He also claims, “They can be identified.” Again, how would you do that? If I walked by with a shirt I just purchased at Walmart, and Paget read the serial number in the transponder in the shirt’s hangtag (which I would throw away when I got home), how would he identify me?

Even if he read the tag in my government-issued driver’s license or PASS Card, that would still not tell him who I am. Obviously, a government agent with access to the PASS Card database would be able to identify me—but again, the government would have to set up readers every 200 feet, all over the country, in order to identify anyone at any time. If NewsHour explained that to its viewers, I doubt they would be very concerned about it.

Lastly, Paget says, “You can find out all kinds of information about [people] from these RFID tags that are being issued to you by the government, by stores, and products you buy all over the place.”

Nowhere in the news segment is this backed up with any facts. What can you find out about people? I sure would like to know.

Paget, like many anti-RFID people, makes it appear that reading a tag containing a serial number automatically yields important information. In fact, all he has proven is that he can read a serial number from a longer distance. So far, I’ve yet to see anything in his videos that shows any real data being captured.

The NewsHours team should know better than this. But it appears they aren’t interested in presenting objective facts. Unfortunately, like Scientific American (see An Unscientific Article on RFID and Privacy), ABC News (see ABC Eyewitness News Presents Selective Facts About RFID Credit Cards) and other once-reputable news organization we’ve written about, it seems that NewsHour has succumbed as well to the temptation to scare viewers in order to maintain them.

OK, PBS NewsHour, if your ratings are what you want them to be and you are prepared to mislead people to obtain them, then please don’t say, on the “About Us” portion of your Web site, that you are “one of the most trusted news programs in television.” Instead, say something more accurate, like “We ascribe to the National Enquirer standards of journalism.”

Mark Roberti is the founder and editor of RFID Journal. If you would like to comment on this article, click on the link below. To read more of Mark’s opinions, visit the RFID Journal Blog or the Editor’s Note archive.