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Replace your broken biometric passport? Just say no...

How can they tell with no readers, anyway?

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Analysis Widespread reports (proving at least that the press and opposition parties can speed read executive summaries) damn the Identity & Passport Service for only securing a two year warranty for a product with a ten year lifespan. Ah, but that's by no means the only thing about the project that's broken.

The National Audit Office report on the introduction of biometric passports, aka ePassports, is favourable in that it notes that the project came in on budget and on time. But the report nevertheless paints a picture of a project that hasn't been particularly well planned, and that faces numerous potential pitfalls as it develops. The warranty on the chip is just one of the problems - but it's a good place for us to start. Welcome to the wonderful world of consumer electronics vendors, IPS.

IPS initially secured a warranty of 12 months from the chip vendor, Philips Semiconductors, but this was subsequently extended to 24 months. This isn't wildly out of line for something that's supposed to go into a smartcard, given that the likely lifespan of these tends to be estimated in the three to five year range. IPS however has a product, the passport, that's warranted for ten years, and therefore IPS has a need to believe fervently that the chip will last for ten years.

So what happens if it doesn't? Well, says the Home Office in today's Times, "if it's a manufacturer's fault, the passport holder will not have to pay for a new passport." And if not...? Note that Philips will simply be warranting that the chips in the passport are manufactured to specification; it is unlikely to have any exposure to defects, flaws and failures in the design and operation of the complete product. So Philips picks up the tab (but probably still only for the chips rather than consequential loss or damage) in the unlikely event of a serious manufacturing glitch, otherwise it's nothing to do with Philips and nothing to do with that 24 month warranty.

It is something to do with IPS, the new consumer electronics device vendor (annual shipments around 7 million units) on the block. The NAO report tells us something The Register's been pointing out for some time: "An ePassport remains a valid travel document even if the electronic chip fails." This is an ICAO requirement, and it means a passport with a bust chip is still a passport that you can use to cross borders, and that they have no right to stop you because your passport is 'broken' - it isn't. So what do they do? According to the NAO: "If failure is detected at border control, the holder will be issued with a letter advising them to contact the issuing authority. The Identity and Passport Service will examine any faulty ePassports returned to it and, where it concludes the chip unit contains a manufacturing fault, the ePassport will be replaced free of charge."

Which is where we came in. Suckers who've acted on the letter by allowing IPS to take their passport hostage will be forced to cough up for a new one, except in the unlikely event that Philips screwed up. So if you're handed that letter, don't act on it. And if thousands, or tens of thousands of people are handed that letter, IPS will have a problem that it's not going to be able to park with Philips.

But it could well have problems with Philips. Among the "risks and uncertainties" flagged up by the NAO we have the possibility of IPS having to fund "patent costs to secure the use of certain intellectual property." As yet, however, it is by no means certain what this intellectual property might be. "Owing to its development of the chip and involvement in the international committees that set technical standards," says the report, "Philips Semiconductors holds many of the intellectual property rights in the chip unit. The Identity and Passport Service has been aware of this issue since the outset and has sought to pinpoint where intellectual property rights and patents reside given the evolving nature of requirements."

One might say, were one to attempt a free translation of this into English, that IPS hopes it has a fair grasp of who owns the technology it's shipping, but that it's not entirely sure who it might get sued by, and it's rather keen to find out. "The Identity and Passport Service is employing legal advice to assess its position on this issue. In particular, the Identity and Passport Service is seeking to quantify the risk of possible patent infringement and assess any possible costs arising." The "evolving nature of the requirements" is also likely to take IPS deeper into IP minefields, because as the biometric technology gets more sophisticated, the number of IP players decreases, and price tags and exposures rise.

Remember the days when a certain foolish Home Secretary was boasting about the benefits of putting the UK at the cutting edge of ID technology? Within a few short years this has mysteriously resulted in the UK trying to figure out how much it's in for, if the cutting edge of ID technology decides to sue the crap out of it. Funny old world.

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