Entries Tagged "passports"

Page 4 of 4

RFID Zapper

This is an interesting demonstration project: a hand-held device that disables passive RFID tags.

There are several ways to deactivate RFID-Tags. One that might be offered by the industries are RFID-deactivators, which will send the RFID-Tag to sleep. A problem with this method is, that it is not permanent, the RFID-Tag can be reactivated (probably without your knowledge). Several ways of permanently deactivating RFID-Tags are know, e.g. cutting off the antenna from the actual microchip or overloading and literally frying the RFID-Tag by placing it in a common microwave-oven for even very short periods of time. Unfortunately both methods aren’t suitable for the destruction of RFID-Tags in clothes: cutting off the antenna would require to damage the piece of cloth, while frying the chips is likely to cause a short but potent flame, which would damage most textiles or even set them on fire.

The RFID-Zapper solves this dilemma. Basically it copies the mircowave-oven-method, but in a much smaller scale. It generates a strong electromagnetic field with a coil, which should be placed as near to the target-RFID-Tag as possible. The RFID-Tag then will recive a strong shock of energy comparable with an EMP and some part of it will blow, most likely the capacitator, thus deactivating the chip forever.

An obvious application would be to disable the RFID chip on your passport, but this kind of thing will probably be more popular with professional shoplifters.

Posted on January 4, 2006 at 6:35 AMView Comments

The Security of RFID Passports

My fifth column for Wired:

The State Department has done a great job addressing specific security and privacy concerns, but its lack of technical skills is hurting it. The collision-avoidance ID is just one example of where, apparently, the State Department didn’t have enough of the expertise it needed to do this right.

Of course it can fix the problem, but the real issue is how many other problems like this are lurking in the details of its design? We don’t know, and I doubt the State Department knows either. The only way to vet its design, and to convince us that RFID is necessary, would be to open it up to public scrutiny.

The State Department’s plan to issue RFID passports by October 2006 is both precipitous and risky. It made a mistake designing this behind closed doors. There needs to be some pretty serious quality assurance and testing before deploying this system, and this includes careful security evaluations by independent security experts. Right now the State Department has no intention of doing that; it’s already committed to a scheme before knowing if it even works or if it protects privacy.

My previous entries on RFID passports are here, here, and here.

Posted on November 3, 2005 at 8:30 AMView Comments

RFID Passport Security Revisited

I’ve written previously (including this op ed in the International Herald Tribune) about RFID chips in passports. An article in today’s USA Today (the paper version has a really good graphic) summarizes the latest State Department proposal, and it looks pretty good. They’re addressing privacy concerns, and they’re doing it right.

The most important feature they’ve included is an access-control system for the RFID chip. The data on the chip is encrypted, and the key is printed on the passport. The officer swipes the passport through an optical reader to get the key, and then the RFID reader uses the key to communicate with the RFID chip. This means that the passport-holder can control who has access to the information on the chip; someone cannot skim information from the passport without first opening it up and reading the information inside. Good security.

The new design also includes a thin radio shield in the cover, protecting the chip when the passport is closed. More good security.

Assuming that the RFID passport works as advertised (a big “if,” I grant you), then I am no longer opposed to the idea. And, more importantly, we have an example of an RFID identification system with good privacy safeguards. We should demand that any other RFID identification cards have similar privacy safeguards.

EDITED TO ADD: There’s more information in a Wired story:

The 64-KB chips store a copy of the information from a passport’s data page, including name, date of birth and a digitized version of the passport photo. To prevent counterfeiting or alterations, the chips are digitally signed….

“We are seriously considering the adoption of basic access control,” [Frank] Moss [the State Department’s deputy assistant secretary for passport services] said, referring to a process where chips remain locked until a code on the data page is first read by an optical scanner. The chip would then also transmit only encrypted data in order to prevent eavesdropping.

So it sounds like this access-control mechanism is not definite. In any case, I believe the system described in the USA Today article is a good one.

Posted on August 9, 2005 at 1:27 PMView Comments

RFID Passport Security

According to a Wired article, the State Department is reconsidering a security measure to protect privacy that it previously rejected.

The solution would require an RFID reader to provide a key or password before it could read data embedded on an RFID passport’s chip. It would also encrypt data as it’s transmitted from the chip to a reader so that no one could read the data if they intercepted it in transit.

The devil is in the details, but this is a great idea. It means that only readers that know a secret data string can query the RFID chip inside the passport. Of course, this is a systemwide global secret and will be in the hands of every country, but it’s still a great idea.

It’s nice to read that the State Department is taking privacy concerns seriously.

Frank Moss, deputy assistant secretary for passport services, told Wired News on Monday that the government was “taking a very serious look” at the privacy solution in light of the 2,400-plus comments the department received about the e-passport rule and concerns expressed last week in Seattle by
participants at the Computers, Freedom and Privacy conference. Moss said recent work on the passports conducted with the National Institute of Standards and Technology had also led him to rethink the issue.

“Basically what changed my mind was a recognition that the read rates may have actually been able to be more than 10 centimeters, and also recognition that we had to do everything possible to protect the security of people,” Moss said.

The next step is for them to actually implement this countermeasure, and not just consider it. And the step after that is for us to get our hands on some test passports to see if they’ve implemented it well.

Posted on April 28, 2005 at 8:30 AMView Comments

Biometric Passports in the UK

The UK government tried, and failed, to get a national ID. Now they’re adding biometrics to their passports.

Financing for the Passport Office is planned to rise from £182 million a year to £415 million a year by 2008 to cope with the introduction of biometric information such as fingerprints.

A Home Office spokesman said the aim was to cut out the 1,500 fraudulent applications found through the postal system last year alone.

Okay, let’s do the math. Eliminating 1,500 instances of fraud will cost £233 million a year. That comes to £155,000 per instance of fraud.

Does this kind of security trade-off make sense to anyone? Is there absolutely nothing better the UK government can do to ensure security and safety with £233 million a year?

Yes, adding additional biometrics to passports — there’s already a picture — will make them more secure. But I don’t think that the additional security is worth the money and the additional risks. It’s a bad security trade-off.

And I’m not a fan of national IDs.

Posted on April 21, 2005 at 1:18 PMView Comments

RFID Passports

Since the terrorist attacks of 2001, the Bush administration–specifically, the Department of Homeland Security–has wanted the world to agree on a standard for machine-readable passports. Countries whose citizens currently do not have visa requirements to enter the United States will have to issue passports that conform to the standard or risk losing their nonvisa status.

These future passports, currently being tested, will include an embedded computer chip. This chip will allow the passport to contain much more information than a simple machine-readable character font, and will allow passport officials to quickly and easily read that information. That is a reasonable requirement and a good idea for bringing passport technology into the 21st century.

But the Bush administration is advocating radio frequency identification (RFID) chips for both U.S. and foreign passports, and that’s a very bad thing.

These chips are like smart cards, but they can be read from a distance. A receiving device can “talk” to the chip remotely, without any need for physical contact, and get whatever information is on it. Passport officials envision being able to download the information on the chip simply by bringing it within a few centimeters of an electronic reader.

Unfortunately, RFID chips can be read by any reader, not just the ones at passport control. The upshot of this is that travelers carrying around RFID passports are broadcasting their identity.

Think about what that means for a minute. It means that passport holders are continuously broadcasting their name, nationality, age, address and whatever else is on the RFID chip. It means that anyone with a reader can learn that information, without the passport holder’s knowledge or consent. It means that pickpockets, kidnappers and terrorists can easily–and surreptitiously–pick Americans or nationals of other participating countries out of a crowd.

It is a clear threat to both privacy and personal safety, and quite simply, that is why it is bad idea. Proponents of the system claim that the chips can be read only from within a distance of a few centimeters, so there is no potential for abuse. This is a spectacularly naïve claim. All wireless protocols can work at much longer ranges than specified. In tests, RFID chips have been read by receivers 20 meters away. Improvements in technology are inevitable.

Security is always a trade-off. If the benefits of RFID outweighed the risks, then maybe it would be worth it. Certainly, there isn’t a significant benefit when people present their passport to a customs official. If that customs official is going to take the passport and bring it near a reader, why can’t he go those extra few centimeters that a contact chip–one the reader must actually touch–would require?

The Bush administration is deliberately choosing a less secure technology without justification. If there were a good offsetting reason to choose that technology over a contact chip, then the choice might make sense.

Unfortunately, there is only one possible reason: The administration wants surreptitious access themselves. It wants to be able to identify people in crowds. It wants to surreptitiously pick out the Americans, and pick out the foreigners. It wants to do the very thing that it insists, despite demonstrations to the contrary, can’t be done.

Normally I am very careful before I ascribe such sinister motives to a government agency. Incompetence is the norm, and malevolence is much rarer. But this seems like a clear case of the Bush administration putting its own interests above the security and privacy of its citizens, and then lying about it.

This article originally appeared in the 4 October 2004 edition of the International Herald Tribune.

Posted on October 4, 2004 at 7:20 PMView Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.