By Steve Boggan
November 17, 2006
Six months ago, with the help of a rather scary computer expert, I
deconstructed the life of an airline passenger simply by using
information garnered from a boarding-pass stub he had thrown into a
dustbin on the Heathrow Express. By using his British Airways
frequent-flyer number and buying a ticket in his name on the airline's
website, we were able to access his personal data, passport number, date
of birth and nationality. Based on this information, using publicly
available databases, we found out where he lived, his profession, all
his academic qualifications and even how much his house was worth.
It would have been only a short hop to stealing his identity,
committing fraud in his name and generally ruining his life.
Great news then, we thought, that the UK had just begun to issue new,
ultra-secure passports, incorporating tiny microchips to store the
holder's details and a digital description of their physical features
(known in the jargon as biometrics). These, the argument went, would
make identity theft much more difficult and pave the way for the
government's proposed ID cards in 2008 or 2009.
Today, some three million such passports have been issued, and they
don't look so secure. I am sitting with my scary computer man and we
have just sucked out all the supposedly secure data and biometric
information from three new passports and displayed it all on a laptop
The UK Identity and Passport Service website says the new documents are
protected by "an advanced digital encryption technique". So how come we
have the information? What could criminals or terrorists do with it? And
what could it mean for the passports and the ID cards that are meant to
First it is necessary to explain why the new passports were introduced,
and how they work.After the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Centre, in
which fake passports were used, the US decided it wanted foreign
citizens who presented themselves at its borders to have more secure
"machine-readable" identity documents. It told 27 countries that
participated in a visa waiver programme that citizens with passports
issued after the 26th of last month must have micro-chipped biometric
passports or would have to apply for a US visa. Among those 27 countries
are the major EU members, and other friendly nations ranging from
Andorra and Iceland to Singapore, Japan and Brunei. The UK, of course,
is also included.
Standards for the new passports were set by the International Civil
Aviation Organisation (ICAO) in 2003 and adopted by the waiver countries
and the US. The ICAO recommended that passports should contain facial
biometrics, though countries could introduce fingerprints at a later
date. All these would be stored on a Radio Frequency Identification
(RFID) microchip, which can be accessed from a short distance using
radio waves. Similar chips are commonly found in retail, where they are
used for stock control.
Fatally, however, the ICAO suggested that the key needed to access the
data on the chips should be comprised of, in the following order, the
passport number, the holder's date of birth and the passport expiry
date, all of which are contained on the printed page of the passport on
a "machine readable zone." When an immigration official swipes the
passport through a reader, this feeds in the key, which allows a
microchip reader to communicate with the RFID chip. The data this
contains, including the holder's picture, is then displayed on the
official's screen. The assumption at this stage is that this document is
as authentic as it is super-secure. And, as we shall see later, this
could be highly significant.
Once the passports began to be issued in the UK in March, we began
laying the foundations for examining them. Phil Booth, national
coordinator of the campaign group NO2ID, suggested to his members that
they apply for a new passport. Anyone who gets one before ID cards are
rolled out will not have to register for a card until their passports
expire in 10 years' time, and this appealed to Booth.
At the same time, Adam Laurie, my computer expert and technical director
of the Bunker Secure Hosting, a Kent-based computer security company,
and I began laying plans to examine the new passports. Laurie is
actually not a scary individual - he is regarded in the industry as a
technical wizard who cares about privacy and civil rights - but much of
the electronic information he uncovers is. Two years ago, he revealed
that Bluetooth mobile phones could be accessed remotely, drained of
their contact details, diary entries and pictures, and manipulated to
act as bugging devices. The cellphone industry spent millions of pounds
plugging the gaps he exposed.
By last month, Booth, Laurie and I each had access to a new biometric
chipped passport and were ready to begin testing them. Laurie's first
port of call was the ICAO's website, where the organisation had
published specifications for the new travel documents. This is where he
learned that the key to opening up the secure chip was contained in the
passports themselves - passport number, date of birth and expiry date.
"I was amazed that they made it so easy," Laurie says. "The information
contained in the chip is not encrypted, but to access it you have to
start up an encrypted conversation between the reader and the RFID chip
in the passport.
"The reader - I bought one for 250 - has to say hello to the chip and
tell it that it is authorised to make contact. The key to that is in the
date of birth, etc. Once they communicate, the conversation is
encrypted, but I wrote some software in about 48 hours that made sense
"The Home Office has adopted a very high encryption technology called
3DES - that is, to a military-level data-encryption standard times
three. So they are using strong cryptography to prevent conversations
between the passport and the reader being eavesdropped, but they are
then breaking one of the fundamental principles of encryption by using
non-secret information actually published in the passport to create a
'secret key'. That is the equivalent of installing a solid steel front
door to your house and then putting the key under the mat."
Within minutes of applying the three passports to the reader, the
information from all of them has been copied and the holders' images
appear on the screen of Laurie's laptop. The passports belong to Booth,
and to Laurie's son, Max, and my partner, who have all given their
Booth is staggered. He has undercut Laurie by finding an RFID reader for
174, which also works. "This is simply not supposed to happen," Booth
says. "This could provide a bonanza for counterfeiters because drawing
the information from the chip, complete with the digital signature it
contains, could result in a passport being passed off as the real
article. You could make a perfect clone of the passport."
But could you - and what use would my passport be to you? A security
feature of the chip ensures that information cannot be added or altered,
so you couldn't put your picture on my chip. So is our attack really so
The Home Office thinks not. It correctly points out that the information
sucked out of the chip is only the same as that which appears on the
page, readable with the human eye. And to obtain the key in the first
place, you would need to have access to the passport to read (with the
naked eye) its number, expiry date and the date of birth of its holder.
"This doesn't matter," says a Home Office spokesman. "By the time you
have accessed the information on the chip, you have already seen it on
the passport. What use would my biometric image be to you? And even if
you had the information, you would still have to counterfeit the new
passport - and it has lots of new security features. If you were a
criminal, you might as well just steal a passport."
However, some computer experts believe the Home Office is being
dangerously naive. Several months ago, Lukas Grunwald, founder of
DN-Systems Enterprise Solutions in Germany, conducted a similar attack
to ours on a German biometric passport and succeeded in cloning its RFID
chip. He believes unscrupulous criminals or terrorists would find this
technology very useful.
"If you can read the chip, then you can clone it," he says. "You could
use this to clone a passport that would exploit the system to illegally
enter another country." (We did not clone any of our passport chips on
the assumption that to do so would be illegal.)
Grunwald adds: "The problems could get worse when they put fingerprint
biometrics on to the passports. There are established ways of making
forged fingerprints. In the future, the authorities would like to have
automated border controls, and such forged fingerprints [stuck on to
fingers] would probably fool them."
But what about facial recognition systems (your biometric passport
contains precise measurements of key points on your face and head)?
"Yes," says Grunwald, "but they are not yet in operation at airports and
the technology throws up between 20 and 25% false negatives or false
positives. It isn't reliable."
Neither is the human eye, according to research conducted by a team of
psychologists from the University of Westminster in 1996. Remember,
information - such as a new picture - cannot be added to a cloned chip,
so anyone using it to make a counterfeit passport would have to use one
that bore a reasonable resemblance to themselves.
But during Westminster University's study, which examined whether
putting people's images on credit cards might reduce fraud, supermarket
staff drafted in for tests had great difficulty matching faces to
pictures. The conclusion was that pictures would not improve security
and they were never introduced on credit cards. This means that each
time you hand over your passport at, say, a hotel reception or
car-rental office abroad to be "photocopied", it could be cloned with
equipment like ours. This could have been done with an old passport, but
since the new biometric passports are supposed to be secure they are
more likely to be accepted without question at borders.
Given the results of the Westminster study, if a terrorist bore a slight
resemblance to you - and grew a beard, perhaps - he would have a good
chance of getting through a border. Because his chip is cloned, with the
necessary digital signatures, and because you have not reported your
passport stolen - you still have it! - his machine-readable travel
document will get him wherever he wants to go, using your identity.
What about the technical difficulties? The government claims the new
biometric passport chips can be read over a distance of just 2cm, but
researchers all over the world claim to have read them from further. The
physics governing those in British passports says they could be read
over a metre, but no one has yet done that. A Dutch team claims to have
contacted chips at 30cm.
Laurie has, however, rigged up a piece of equipment that can connect to
a passport over 7.5cm. That isn't as far as the Dutch 30cm, but it is
enough if your target subject is sitting next to you on the London
Underground or crushed up against you on the Gatwick Airport monorail,
his pocketed passport next to the reader you have hidden in a bag.
It takes around four seconds to suck out the information with a reader;
then it can be relayed and unscrambled by an accomplice with a laptop up
to 1km away. With a Heath Robinson device we built on Tuesday using a
Bluetooth antenna connected to an RFID reader, Laurie relayed details of
his son's passport over a distance of 10 metres and through two walls to
Ah, the Home Office will say, but you still need to see the information
in the passport that will form the key needed for connection. Well, not
necessarily. Consider this scenario: A postman involved with organised
crime knows he has a passport to deliver to your home. He already knows
your name and address from the envelope. He can get your date of birth
by several means, including credit-reference agencies or from the
register of births, marriages and deaths (and, let's face it, he
delivers all your birthday cards anyway).
He knows the expiry date - 10 years from yesterday, give or take a day,
when the passport was mailed to you. That leaves the nine-digit passport
number. NO2ID says reports from its 30,000 members up and down the
country are throwing up a number of similarities in the first four
digits of the passport number, so that reduces the number of
permutations, potentially leaving five purely random numbers to
"If the rogue postman were to take your passport home, without opening
the envelope he could put it against a reader and begin a 'brute force'
attack in which your computer tries 12 different permutations every
second until it has the right access codes," says Laurie. "A five-digit
number would take 23 hours to crack at the most. Once all those numbers
were established, you could communicate with the RFID chip and steal all
the information. And your passport could be delivered to you, unopened
and just a day late."
But is this really credible? Would criminals or terrorists really go to
such lengths? Ross Anderson, professor of security engineering at the
University of Cambridge computer laboratory, believes they would. "The
point is that once you have extracted the data from the chip you can
have a forged passport that contains not just forged physical stuff," he
says. "You also have the digital bit-stream so the digital signature of
the passport checks out. That makes it possible to travel through
borders with it.
"What concerns me is that this demonstrates bad design on the part of
the Home Office, and we know that government IT projects have a habit of
going terribly wrong. There is a lack of security in what we can see -
so what about the 90% of the iceberg in the system that we can't see?
"There isn't even a defence against the brute-force attack. In much the
same way as you are only allowed three attempts to feed in your PIN
number at an ATM, the passport chip could have been made to stop
allowing repeated incorrect attempts to contact it. As things stand, a
computer can keep trying until it gets the numbers right. To say this
doesn't matter displays a cavalier lack of concern."
The problems we have identified with RFID chips in passports raise all
sorts of questions about the UK's proposed ID card scheme, which will
use the same technology. The government has not said exactly what will
be contained in the ID card's chip, but there will be a National
Identity Register that could contain around 50 pieces of information
about you, ranging from your name, age, and all your addresses, to your
national insurance number and biometric details. Eventually, you may
need one to access healthcare. It could even replace the passport.
Already, then, criminals and terrorists will have identified just how
useful cloned ID cards might be. It would be folly to think their best
minds are not on the case.
The Home Office insists that UK passports are secure and among the best
in the world, but not everyone agrees. Last week, an EU-funded body
entitled the Future of Identity in the Information Society (Fidis)
issued a declaration on machine-readable travel documents such as
RFID-chipped passports and ID cards. It said the technology was "poorly
conceived" and added: "European governments have effectively forced
citizens to adopt new ... documents which dramatically decrease their
security and privacy and increase risk of identity theft."
The government is now facing demands from the Liberal Democrats and
anti-ID card groups for a recall of the passports so that simple devices
such as foil covers can be installed - at enormous cost. Such covers
would at least stop chips being scanned remotely, though they wouldn't
prevent an unscrupulous hotel receptionist from opening the passport and
sucking out its contents the way we did.
It may be that at some point in the future the government will accept
that putting RFID chips in to passports is ill-conceived and
unnecessary. Until then, the only people likely to embrace this kind of
technology are those with mischief in mind.
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