> Why require contactless in the first place?
> Is swiping one's card, credit-card style too difficult for the average
> user?  I'm thinking two parallel copper traces on the card could be
> used to power it for the duration of the swipe, with power provided
> by the reader.  Why, in a billion-dollar project, one must use COTS
> RFIDs - with their attendant privacy and security problems - is
> beyond me. 
> A little ingenuity would have gone a long way.
OPs deliberately elided.

This posting (and several others in this thread) disturb me.  Folks on
this list and its progenitors have long noted that cryptography is a
matter of economics.  That is, cryptography and security aren't
absolute goals; rather, they're tools for achieving something else.
The obvious answers in this case are "prevent fare fraud" or "make
money", and even those would suffice.  However, there are other issues
less easily monetized, such as "make the trams and buses run

A security system doesn't have to be perfect.  Rather, it has to be
good enough that you save more than you lose via the holes, including
the holes you know about up front.  Spending more than you have to is
simply bad engineering.  Speaking as an engineer, rather than as a
scientist, the real failure mode is too high a net loss.  As a
cryptographer and security guy, I'd rather there were no loss -- but
that's not real.

A transit system has to move people.  For all that the New York City
Metrocard works, it's slower than a contactless wireless system.  How
much longer will it take people to board trams with a stripe reader
than with a contactless smart card?  What is your power budget (which
affects range)?  Even leaving out the effect that delays have on
ridership, a transit system that wants to move N people needs more
units if the latency per rider is above a certain threshold.

Let's take a closer look at the New York system, since it was touted as
superior.  It's optimized for subways, not buses, which has several
implications.  (Subway ridership in New York is twice bus
ridership -- see
First, subway turnstiles are much more easily used as part of an online
system than are bus fare card readers.  The deployment started in 1994,
when cellular data simply wasn't an option, based on cost, bandwidth,
availability, and much more.  Second, on a subway you use your fare
card well in advance of boarding; there is thus little latency effect
on the system.  Third, wireless is *still* faster -- according to some
reports (http://www.dslreports.com/forum/r19222677-The-Next-MetroCard),
the MTA is considering replacing the current system with a wireless one.

Online systems have another issue: they require constant communication
to a high-availability server.  When that's not an option (i.e., New
York buses, or subway turnstiles when the server is down), the system
has to fall back to some other scheme.  This scheme is more restrictive,
precisely because of the fraud issue.   Back when I was in high school,
some students got bus passes.  I recall a frequent sight: those who had
boarded early moving to the back of the bus and handing their passes to
other students still waiting to board the bus.  Replay worked well
against an overloaded driver...  Metrocards don't have that failure
mode -- but the failure mode they do have is a limitation on how many
times they can be used in a short time interval.  This affects, for
example, a family of five or more trying to travel on a single card,
even on subways.  

How much of this applies to the Dutch farecards?  I have no idea.  But
this group is trying to *engineer* a system without looking at costs
and other constraints.  That leads to security by checklist, an
all-too-common failing.

Systems like this have two primary failure modes -- "failure" in the
sense of losing more money (or time, or what have you) than
anticipated.  First, the designers may not have understood the
available technology and its limitations.  That was certainly the case
with WEP; I suspect it's the case here, but I don't know.  Even so, it
is far from clear that exploitation of the hole will have an economic
impact; that's as much a sociological question as a technical one.
(Maybe the incremental cost per card of better crypto is ?.01.  One
web site I found put tram ridership in Amsterdam at >1,000,000/year
(http://blog.wired.com/cars/2007/10/trams-dominate-.html), which means
that the cost might be ?10,000/year.  How many riders will try to cheat
the system?  Enough that to be an issue?  I don't know -- but that's
precisely my point; I don't know and I doubt very much that most other
posters here know.  That said, I do suspect that stronger crypto would
be economical.)

The second failure mode comes from misunderstanding the threat model.
That's why the old American AMPS cellular phones were subject to
cloning attacks.  It was *not* that the designers didn't anticipate the
problem; they understood perfectly well that something sent in the
clear over radio waves could be intercepted and replayed.  However,
they made three mistakes.  They overestimated the expertise necessary
to exploit the attack (it turned out that test gear was cheap enough
that small businesses could get into the cloning market), they
drastically underestimated how many cell phones would exist (they saw
them as toys for high-level executives and the like, which was false
even by 1990), and they didn't understand why people would want to buy
cloned phones.  (If you think it was to save money, you're just as
wrong as they were -- they assumed that that was the issue, and that
declining costs would prevent the market from taking root.  That wasn't
it at all.)  Given the petty crime rate in, say, Amsterdam, I suspect
that the designers of this system do understand the threat model,
though of course I (and/or they) could be as wrong as the AMPS

As a cryptographer, I'm amused and offended by the design error in the
Dutch system.  As an engineer, though, I want to see some cost
projections before I say how badly they're wrong.  And as an observer
of the human condition and a practical security guy, I'm curious what
the actual loss rate will be due to technical factors, as opposed to
pickpockets, turnstile jumping, and the like.

To replay the line I used a few days ago, "Amateurs talk about
algorithms; pros talk about economics."  (I was asked where that came
from.  I'm told that it's a saying at NSA, but I don't know that

                --Steve Bellovin, http://www.cs.columbia.edu/~smb

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