Don’t Put Too Much Faith in High-Tech Passports

Two European researchers have found a way to defeat the chips being placed in passports to eliminate fraud. It’s another reminder never to place blind faith in technology.

Adam Laurie and Jeroen van Beek, at the Black Hat security conference in Las Vegas, showed the Business Technology Blog how to capture and change information stored on chips included in new passports from many countries. The chips–based on a technology called RFID, for radio frequency identification–are intended to improve border security. Instead of just relying on the photograph and other information printed in a passport, such chips store a digital photograph of the traveler and more extensive personal information that a border official can match to what’s printed.

Laurie showed us his son’s British passport, in which he embedded a chip that displays Osama Bin Laden’s photograph. The passports have a key needed to access the electronic information, but it is taken from information found in the passport like the date of birth. Laurie was able in about four hours to decipher the key and use an RFID scanner to steal the digital information from a passport contained in a sealed envelope.

We’re not drawing attention to this story to raise an alarm about passports. The technique is pretty complicated, involving sophisticated software and know-how. It’s a sure bet that the chips make it significantly harder to make counterfeit passports. But would anyone be foolish enough to suggest that the new technology makes passport security infallible?

Turns out the British government would. When 3,000 blank passports were stolen there two weeks ago, the passport office said that “the stolen documents could not be used by thieves because of their hi-tech embedded chip security features,” the BBC reports.

Comments like this make Laurie furious. He’s spent much of the last year going back and forth with the British government about just what exactly is and isn’t secure with the new passports.
“Every time they’ve said something is infallible we’ve proved them wrong,” he tells us.
When people place 100% trust in technology, they run the risk of making serious mistakes.

We’ve written in the past about computer errors that result in negative bank balances greater than the national debt or ludicrous energy bills. Laurie is worried that blind faith in the passport system could result in more serious problems, including false arrests.

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[via wsj]

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