Proximity Card Vulnerabilities

By: Brian Rhodes, Published on Aug 22, 2012

Even though it is the most common credential in access control today, proximity cards face notable security problems. The effort to move end users to newer card technologies is no accident; technology vendors are not only trying to sell new readers, but they are trying to mitigate the risk inherent in every single one of these older cards.

What are these risks, and what can be done to make them more secure short of overhauling all the readers and cards in an access control system? In this note, we dig in to this issue and provide our recommendations.

Weaknesses

It is surprising for some to realize that 'proximity cards' have been in use for over 30 years. Like many technologies, the more widely it is used, the less protected it becomes against exploitation. After so many years, the methods of compromising proximity cards are common knowledge:

  • Easy to Spoof & Clone: the Internet is full of websites [link no longer available], videos, and ready-to-build kits designed to illegally copy or duplicate credential cards.
  • Easy to Intercept: This is a specific element of spoofing, that introduces a 'passive reader' near a security card reader that scans cards as they are presented. Unlike 'contact credentials' or short-range proximity technologies like NFC, proximity cards can be read without card holder knowledge by fifty or more feet away. Activities like spoofing and cloning can happen without the end user ever being physically separated from their credentials.
  • Widely Available in Distribution: Obtaining 'blank' proximity cards is easy and cheap [link no longer available]. If an unauthorized user knows just a few basic details about the cards in use, they can procure 'exact matches' of active cards at most facilities with little effort. While mechanical keyblanks are commonly available, they still require additional cutting before being used improperly. In many cases, buying exact copies of active cards is less difficult.
  • Credentials Often Not Securely Stored: While end users never leave keys or wallets unattended, credential cards are often hung from lanyards around rear-view mirrors or stuffed into duffel bags after work, and can be easily stolen or 'read' for the purposes of cloning. Cards are commonly lost or misplaced and many users do not recognize the security vulnerability introduced when this happens.

The Scope of the Threat

Since it's introduction to the security market in the 1980's, contactless RFID has been the standard method of delivering credentials into physical access control systems. Not only do users find Proximity (Prox) Cards easy to use - wave a card in front of a reader - it requires special equipment to read or emit the information it uses. However, the security was largely assured by 'security through obscurity'.

While the technology is still fairly uncommon, it is by no means 'protected' or 'restricted'. An individual with a modest amount of proximity card/reader knowledge can find a number of exploits and procure equipment to take advantage of them. In recent years, a sure way to be noticed at hacker conventions, electronic hobbyist projects, or to have an engineering paper recognized [link no longer available] is to publish methods on how cheaply and easily prox card weaknesses can be taken advantage of. However, despite the buzz, most of these methods remain out of the reach of common criminals.

Really a Problem?

Evaluating these vulnerabilities in terms of actual risk is difficult. It is unlikely that an individual intent on unauthorized entry will be patient enough and have the specialized knowledge required to take advantage of these exploits. Very few examples exist in the public domain of someone entering a facility via Prox card vulnerabilities, and most end users may still find their biggest access risk comes from guys with sledgehammers less sophisticated threats. A risk assessment simply reveals that the chance of someone spoofing or cloning an access card is unlikely and security is not practically effected.

However, many government and 'high security' installations find prox card vulnerabilities too big and expensive to defend against. Security protocol in these facilities means active risk mitigation must take place as soon as it is recognized. In many cases, this means that proximity cards have been prohibited from use in those facilities. For example, with the advent of HSPD-12, the US Government has adopted FIPS-201 PIV standards that eliminate use of prox cards entirely, in part to eliminate these vulnerabilities.

Mitigating the Risk

Manufacturing often suggest replacing reader with new technology, and even incentivize doing so. For example, iClass is cheaper than Prox II. However, massive credential and reader replacement is not always necessary to increase the security of a system. For those end users not in position to pay for upgrades, here are some practical steps to consider with existing equipment:

  • Two-Factor Authentication: A simple step to take follows the "Something You Have AND Something You Know" verification path. In real terms, this means requiring both a card credential and a PIN to access an opening. While the next effect might be slowing down the credential process, it condenses spoofing or cloning a card only half the effort needed to gain access.
  • Tighten down Access Levels: This is an often overlooked, but perhaps most critical aspect, of managing an electronic access control system. This step requires configuring the system to permit card holders access only during certain times and on certain days. In other words, first-shift employees only have access during first shift periods on workdays, and so on. Rather, many access system managers 'balance' the matter of convenience versus security by simply permitting a card holder access any time on any day. However, while tightening down access permissions may increase inconvenience during 'non-standard' circumstances, it can significantly increase overall security by reducing the utility of faked access cards.
  • Use uncommon 'facility codes': A critical piece of information most access systems use to define credentials is the 'facility code'. Most systems require this code to be a certain value in order for a card to even be 'read' by the system. However, many end users do not realize the importance of this code, and just use whatever their system is defaulted to use. In the same way that a 'restricted keyway' limits the number of keyblanks that can be used to make a illegal keys, using a unique set of 'factory codes' limits the potential number of blank prox cards to use against a system. While this step will not prevent sophisticated spoofers from reading this code, it is easy layer of security to add to these systems.
  • Layer Video Surveillance with Access: Aside from the value of having visual records entry to a facility, adding cameras at doors, and integrating video with access systems will reveal tampering and unauthorized entry attempts. Even the most sophisticated exploits may take more than one effort, and validating entry records against specific people can uncover problems before they become serious.
  • Encourage carriers to treat credentials as keys: Many credential carriers see cards as a picture ID badge rather than an opportunity for someone to gain unauthorized access. In the same way that users would not store key rings in an insecure manner, it is important to reinforce prox cards in a safe, secure spot when not being used. Stressing the importance of keeping prox credential badges on their person or securely stored at all times will significantly reduce the risk of unauthorized entry.

1 report cite this report:

Paxton Access Control Company Profile on Dec 07, 2015
This note profiles access company Paxton, our 3rd installment in an ongoing series, following our profiles of Tyco Kantech and DSX. Inside we...
Comments : Members only. Login. or Join.

Related Reports

Access Control Course Fall 2019 - Last Chance on Oct 17, 2019
Register Now - Fall 2019 Access Control Course. Thursday, October 17th is the last day to register. IPVM offers the most comprehensive access...
2020 Access Control Book Released on Dec 19, 2019
This is the best, most comprehensive access control book in the world, based on our unprecedented research and testing has been significantly...
Designing Access Control Guide on Jan 30, 2019
Designing an access control solution requires decisions on 8 fundamental questions. This in-depth guide helps you understand the options and...
Startup GateKeeper Aims For Unified Physical / Logical Access Token on Apr 04, 2019
This startup's product claims to 'Kill the Password' you use to keep your computers safe. They have already released their Gatekeeper Halberd...
OSDP Access Control Guide on Jun 04, 2019
Access control readers and controllers need to communicate. While Wiegand has been the de facto standard for decades, OSDP aims to solve major...
Mobile Access Control Guide on Aug 28, 2019
One of the biggest trends in access for the last few years has been the marriage of mobile phones and access cards. But how does this...
Access Control Time & Attendance Guide on Sep 24, 2019
Access control systems can do more than lock doors. With little or no extra equipment, they can be used to track labor hours for employees...
Access Control Mustering Guide on Sep 30, 2019
In emergencies, determining where employees are located can be critical for knowing whether they are in danger. Access systems can be used for...
Directory of Access Reader Manufacturers on Nov 27, 2019
Credential Readers are one of the most visible and noticeable parts of access systems, but installers often stick with only the brand they always...
Hotel Access Control Explained on Dec 23, 2019
Hotel access control does not work like typical commercial access control because doors in hotels are not typically directly connected to a central...

Most Recent Industry Reports

Every VMS Will Become a VSaaS on Feb 21, 2020
VMS is ending. Soon every VMS will be a VSaaS. Competitive dynamics will be redrawn. What does this mean? VMS Historically...
Video Surveillance 101 Course - Last Chance on Feb 20, 2020
This is the last chance to join IPVM's first Video Surveillance 101 course, designed to help those new to the industry to quickly understand the...
Vulnerability Directory For Access Credentials on Feb 20, 2020
Knowing which access credentials are insecure can be difficult to see, especially because most look and feel the same. Even insecure 125 kHz...
AI/Smart Camera Tutorial on Feb 20, 2020
Cameras with video analytics, sometimes called 'Smart' camera or 'AI' cameras, etc. are one of the most promising growth areas of video...
China Manufacturer Suffers Coronavirus Scare on Feb 20, 2020
Uniview suffered a significant health scare last week after one of its employees reported a fever and initially tested positive for coronavirus....
Cheap Camera Problems at Night on Feb 19, 2020
Cheap cameras generally have problems at night, despite the common perception that integrated IR makes cameras mostly the same, according to new...
Milestone Launches Multiple Cloud Solutions on Feb 18, 2020
Milestone is going to the cloud, becoming one of the last prominent VMSes to do so. Milestone is clearly late but how competitive do these new...
Video Surveillance Architecture 101 on Feb 18, 2020
Video surveillance can be designed and deployed in a number of ways. This 101 examines the most common options and architectures used in...
UK Stands Behind Hikvision But Controversy Continues on Feb 18, 2020
Hikvision is exhibiting at a UK government conference for law enforcement, provoking controversy from the press, politicians, and activists due to...
IronYun AI Analytics Tested on Feb 17, 2020
Taiwan startup IronYun has raised tens of millions for its "mission to be the leading Artificial Intelligence, big data video software as a service...