[Vision2020] renew your passport now!

Mark Solomon msolomon at moscow.com
Sat Sep 16 07:21:24 PDT 2006

The ID Chip You Don't Want in Your Passport

By Bruce Schneier
Washington Post
Saturday, September 16, 2006; Page A21

If you have a passport, now is the time to renew it -- even if it's 
not set to expire anytime soon. If you don't have a passport and 
think you might need one, now is the time to get it. In many 
countries, including the United States, passports will soon be 
equipped with RFID chips. And you don't want one of these chips in 
your passport.

RFID stands for "radio-frequency identification." Passports with RFID 
chips store an electronic copy of the passport information: your 
name, a digitized picture, etc. And in the future, the chip might 
store fingerprints or digital visas from various countries.

By itself, this is no problem. But RFID chips don't have to be 
plugged in to a reader to operate. Like the chips used for automatic 
toll collection on roads or automatic fare collection on subways, 
these chips operate via proximity. The risk to you is the possibility 
of surreptitious access: Your passport information might be read 
without your knowledge or consent by a government trying to track 
your movements, a criminal trying to steal your identity or someone 
just curious about your citizenship.

At first the State Department belittled those risks, but in response 
to criticism from experts it has implemented some security features. 
Passports will come with a shielded cover, making it much harder to 
read the chip when the passport is closed. And there are now 
access-control and encryption mechanisms, making it much harder for 
an unauthorized reader to collect, understand and alter the data.

Although those measures help, they don't go far enough. The shielding 
does no good when the passport is open. Travel abroad and you'll 
notice how often you have to show your passport: at hotels, banks, 
Internet cafes. Anyone intent on harvesting passport data could set 
up a reader at one of those places. And although the State Department 
insists that the chip can be read only by a reader that is inches 
away, the chips have been read from many feet away.

The other security mechanisms are also vulnerable, and several 
security researchers have already discovered flaws. One found that he 
could identify individual chips via unique characteristics of the 
radio transmissions. Another successfully cloned a chip. The State 
Department called this a "meaningless stunt," pointing out that the 
researcher could not read or change the data. But the researcher 
spent only two weeks trying; the security of your passport has to be 
strong enough to last 10 years.

This is perhaps the greatest risk. The security mechanisms on your 
passport chip have to last the lifetime of your passport. It is as 
ridiculous to think that passport security will remain secure for 
that long as it would be to think that you won't see another security 
update for Microsoft Windows in that time. Improvements in antenna 
technology will certainly increase the distance at which they can be 
read and might even allow unauthorized readers to penetrate the 

Whatever happens, if you have a passport with an RFID chip, you're 
stuck. Although popping your passport in the microwave will disable 
the chip, the shielding will cause all kinds of sparking. And 
although the United States has said that a nonworking chip will not 
invalidate a passport, it is unclear if one with a deliberately 
damaged chip will be honored.

The Colorado passport office is already issuing RFID passports, and 
the State Department expects all U.S. passport offices to be doing so 
by the end of the year. Many other countries are in the process of 
changing over. So get a passport before it's too late. With your new 
passport you can wait another 10 years for an RFID passport, when the 
technology will be more mature, when we will have a better 
understanding of the security risks and when there will be other 
technologies we can use to cut the risks. You don't want to be a 
guinea pig on this one.

Bruce Schneier writes often on security subjects.

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