RFID Passports Less Reliable than Traditional Passports

From EPIC:

A document obtained by EPIC from the State Department reveals that 2004 government tests found passports with radio frequency identification (RFID) chips that are read 27% to 43% less successfully than the previous Machine Readable Zone technology (two lines of text printed at the bottom of the first page of a passport).

I’ve written about RFID passports before.

Posted on November 20, 2006 at 11:38 AM17 Comments


Tim November 20, 2006 12:51 PM

It’s nice to see our government does not allow facts to get in the way of implementing a pet project, no matter how ill-conceived.

Camilo November 20, 2006 1:18 PM

Just a semantic issue: what you call RFID passports are not RFID at all. RFID was designed to be a barcode replacement (just an ID code), and ISO 14443 devices are far more complex. It would be better to call them contact-less, or RF (without the ID) passports.I know it has nothing to do whit the security of this passports, but a miss-named problem is a missleding problem.

Also, does anyone knows where to find the full report? The numbers seems too low for Mifare or Felica chips and I would like to repeat the tests by myself.

Andre LePlume November 20, 2006 1:49 PM

The linked document shows that three units are indeed less reliable.

Without knowing how units A,B, and C were selected for testing (or inclusion in the table), the numbers are hard to interpret beyond that.

Bruce Schneier November 20, 2006 2:41 PM

“Also, this report is a full 2 years old. In other news, broadband internet, sweeping the nation.”

It takes a long time to pry these things out of the government.

Erik N November 20, 2006 4:15 PM

This smells like FUD: Only one page is published and half is blurred. It seems that the page was leaked to support some opinion rather than to provide information.

The page does not show any information about what data is retrieved or how is it compared, or which failures occurred:

  • Did transmission fail?
  • Did transmission succeed but data mismatch?
  • Did re-reading N times succeed?

Reliability kicks in many places, some can be fixed and need not mean that RFID is a bad idea because of these problems – there may be other reasons to discard RFID.

Erik N November 20, 2006 4:26 PM

BTW: The conclusion of the article is obviously wrong:

They claim that RFID passports are LESS reliable, because if failures are too common, officers will ignore them. This is true, but in case of such failures then the backup-procedure is (or should be) to rely on the machine reading and human verification of the passport, as it is now.

In that case, the new passport will be as secure as the old – nothing gained maybe, but nothing lost, except money.

jmr November 20, 2006 7:10 PM

@Erik N:

Your “As secure” statement only discusses the reliability of reading the passport, and ignores other true security issues with RFID passports that make them insecure.

Other things that may be lossed, depending on the implementation: knowledge that your passport wasn’t read by arbitrary individuals, knowledge that information on your passport wasn’t stored for purposes other than intended, the money, well-placed confidence in security procedures (in place of mis-placed confidence that is generated by these systems).

Your earlier statement is accurate, I think, that “there may be other reasons to discard RFID”.

antibozo November 20, 2006 7:26 PM

Erik N> nothing lost, except money.

Money lost is security lost. Just ask whoever manages the budget of any security office…

PcWhiz November 20, 2006 10:28 PM

Why exactly are we doing this again? As with much else in the realm of “security” these days, this seems to be yet another instance of window dressing that wastes money and time, and does nothing at all to enhance real security.

averros November 21, 2006 2:07 AM

It’s nice to see our government does not allow
facts to get in the way of implementing a pet
project, no matter how ill-conceived.

You make an unstated assumption that the government has improving public wellbeing as a goal. In fact, it exists to enrich politicos and their pals at the expense of sheepie^H^H^H^H^H^H^H, er, taxpayers.

Erik N November 21, 2006 4:11 AM


Security here does not refer to the security of the RFID passport but the national security:

When the RFID passport cannot be reliably read, officers will ignore errors so the security benefits in the form of protection against forged passports no longer applies. Hence, the expected added security is not obtained.

I argue, that since the RFID passport is the traditional passport with one added feature, namely the RFID chip, failure of reliability on the RFID technology will not decrease security (national security) as officers will (should) fall back on non-RFID proceedures: manual inspection.

The article does not comment on the security in terms of protection of the data on the RFID chip, and my comment did not refer to this problem. Which is also why I state: There may be other reasons to discard RFID passports.

The register has a quite balanced article on the “insecurity” of RFID passports: http://www.theregister.com/2006/11/17/techie_reads_bio_passport_shock/

Rory A November 21, 2006 6:40 AM

Erik N – I think there is one slight flaw in your argument: the assumption that a failure in one procedure will be compensated by a fall-back to another. There have been a number of well publicised reports (sorry – no links just now…I’m at work) demonstrating that humans love to rely on technical solutions to security but don’t fall back to manual methods, and that any mechanism which relies on technology is pretty much doomed to failure becuase humans are essentially chaotic.

From my perspective, all I see are extra ways to attack the system. I don’t see any security benefits, and even the stated performance benefits are arguable.

Anonymous November 21, 2006 10:07 PM

well thought i might get in trouble if i accidentally microwave my rfid passport. now i see it’ll just fall back to no-rfid data. thx, bruce.

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