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Last Updated: Friday, 15 December 2006, 17:12 GMT
ePassports 'at risk' from cloning
David Reid
By David Reid
Reporter, BBC Click

Iridian passport reader
US wants visitors to have machine-readable passports

The ePassport is one of the many measures pursued by the United States and governments internationally after the horror of 11 September.

It will, we are promised, keep the unwanted and dangerous outside our borders, while streamlining entry for those welcome to come and visit.

But as the implementation of the scheme gets underway it is becoming clear that there could be serious problems with it.

With the old passport, we knew where we stood. If you lost it you knew you had lost it, but with the new, machine readable passports the story is very different.

When you take a digital photo the image is, in effect, a code, which means that however many prints you make they are all exactly the same.

Five-minute replica

So when Lukas Grunwald and Christian Bottger realised they could clone the new ePassport they were pretty sure it would be identical to the original, and undetectable. So how did they do it?

The chip inside the ePassport is a Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) chip of the type poised to replace the barcode in supermarkets.

A new British biometric European Union passport, which is embedded with a microchip
The 'enhanced' security features of ePassports are being questioned

The good thing about RFID chips is that they emit radio signals that can be read at a short distance by an electronic reader.

But this is also the bad thing about them because, as Lukas demonstrated to me, he can easily download the data from his passport using an RFID reader he got for 200 Euros on eBay.

Lukas is less forthcoming about where he got what is called the Golden Reader Tool, it is the software used by border police and it allows him to read the chip on his ePassport, including the photo.

Now for the clever bit. Thanks to a software he himself has developed, called RFdump, he downloads the passport's data onto his computer and then onto a blank chip.

Using a standard off-the-shelf component you can just buy at a component store you can have a cloned ePassport in less than five minutes.

Security risks

When the cloned ePassport is read and compared to the original one it behaves exactly the same.

The UK Home Office however dismissed the ability to get hold of the information on the chip.

A spokesman said: "It is hard to see why anyone would want to access the information on the chip.

"Other than the photograph, which could be obtained easily by other means, they would gain no information that they did not already have - so the whole exercise would be pointless: the only information stored on the ePassport chip is the basic information you can see on the personal details page."

The spokesman said the chip was one part of the security features of the ePassport.

He said: "Being able to copy this does not mean that the passport can be forged or imitated for illegal or unauthorised use.

"British ePassports are designed in such a way as to make chip substitution virtually impossible and the security features of the passport render the forgery of the complete document impractical."

According to Lukas Grunwald of the consulting company DN-Systems an ePassport holder is more at risk from someone trying to steal their data.

"Nearly every country issuing this passport has a few security experts who are yelling at the top of their lungs and trying to shout out: 'This is not secure. This is not a good idea to use this technology'".

DN-Systems' Christian Böttger also believes the system was set up in a hurry.

"It is much too complicated. It is in places done the wrong way round - reading data first, parsing data, interpreting data, then verifying whether it is right.

"There are lots of technical flaws in it and there are things that have just been forgotten, so it is basically not doing what it is supposed to do. It is supposed to get a higher security level. It is not," he said.


A European Union funded network of IT security experts has also come out against the ePassport scheme.

It is almost like writing your pin number on the back of your cashpoint card.

Researchers working within the Future of Identity in the Information Society (FIDIS) network say European governments have forced a document on its citizens that dramatically decreases security and increases the risk of identity theft.

RFID chips can be read at a short distance and tracked without their owner's knowledge, while the key to unlocking the passport's chip consists of details actually printed on the passport itself.

It is almost like writing your pin number on the back of your cashpoint card.

"The basic access control mechanism works based on information like the number of the passport, the name of the passport holder, the date of birth and then other data which are simply readable by anyone who looks on the passport," said Professor Kai Rannenberg of Frankfurt University.

"If you have that information and put the respective software into the reader, the reader can overcome the basic access control of the passport."

The experts say it is not too late to roll back and rethink the ePassport.

If not, the danger is obvious - that a scheme, the declared aim of which is to increase our security, could well do the exact opposite.

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