Crypto boffins urge Belgium to withdraw early ePassports
Second-gen documents also 'flawed'
RFID passports from Belgium remained flawed almost three years into their introduction, according to a study by cryptographic researchers.
The Belgian ePassports, now in their second generation, lack effective security features that would prevent sensitive data on microchips from being read surreptitiously. Analysis by security researchers from the Catholic University of Louvain (UCL) last month established that Belgian passports issued between the end of 2004 and July 2006 fail to include any technology that would prevent them from being read using off-the-shelf kit. The Louvain team uncovered evidence of shortcomings in the security measures included in more recently issued Belgian biometric passports.
The researchers are calling on the Belgian government to withdraw first- generation biometric passports. They are also calling for changes to the security mechanism used by second-generation biometric passports that would make brute force attacks more difficult. The UCL team also wants Belgium and other EU governments to follow the lead of the USA and include a layer of foil that interferes with skimming attempts when the document is closed.
Starting in late 2004, Belgium became one of the first countries to issue biometric passports. Unusually, Belgian passports include signature data as well as the name, date of birth and other sensitive data.
According to International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) standards, two coded lines (Machine Readable Zone) at the bottom of the first page of the passport must be read to get access to the content of the chip. The scheme is designed to prevent biometric passports from being read by anybody who doesn't have the documents in hand.
Gildas Avoine, Kassem Kalach, and Jean-Jacques Quisquater (leader of the crypto group at UCL) found that first-generation Belgian passports fail to include any security mechanism that would ensure the protection of personal data. The researchers carried out a demo that showed it was possible to read first generation passport from a short distance, potentially while it is still in the pocket of a prospective victim.
since July 2006, Belgian passports have been fitted with an ICAO-approved mechanism to protect personal data. In January this year, Karel De Gucht, the Belgian minister for foreign affairs, claimed in response for parliamentary question that these mechanisms made data on the passport secure.
However, UCL researchers discovered that data on the second generation ePassports might still be read, using a form of brute-force attack. This weakness has already been revealed for British and German passports, but is arguably worse in the case of Belgian passports. This is because of the inclusion of signature data and a number of factors that make attacks against Belgian passports more plausible - although, admittedly, still tough.
Would-be hackers need the date of date of birth, the number of the passport and its expiry date to access other information on a Belgian passport.
"It is then possible to 'guess' this information with an exhaustive search on all the possible combinations of birth date, expiry date and passport number," the researchers explain.
"The Belgian passport is less resistant to this attack than the other passports because the passport numbers are given in increasing order at the manufacture and are linked to the reference language of the passport. Moreover, the validity is only five years. All those elements reduce the scope of possible combinations."
Even with the knowledge of a targets date of birth and the expiry date of a passport, it took UCL researchers an hour to read any second-generation passport. By contrast they could read any first-generation passports within seconds.
The UCL team has published its preliminary findings here. They promise conference presentations and more detailed scientific papers to follow. ®
Re: "how can you possibly defend an ePassport with a validity of 10 years"
actually, the correct (but unhelpful) answer to the phrase "how can you possibly defend an ePassport with a validity of 10 years, but a warranty of only 2 years?" is (and I'm typing this from inside an 'RFID' testing laboratory) is that there is a trend to making the documents valid for only 5 years!
The user biometrics are better when consumed fresh.
there is quite a reasonable argument that late 2007 - early 2008 is an ****extremely good time**** to acquire oneself a nice new basic biometric ten year passport, yes it is fractionally invasive in terms of privacy, its a tiny bit hackable with the simple MRZ key, the RFID/NFC might not work after 2 years - but you're currently not (yet) required to replace the ePass (don't use a microwave....) if it stops being an ePass and just becomes a Passport.
However the next generation of ePass is being designed with much better security algorithms, which are needed for the much more detailed user enrollment and advanced biometric content and possibly the 5 year validity will come into play like in Switzerland, Greece, Canada, Hungary......
There is no hope
"For crying out loud - can anyone give us any hope at all (or am I just having a bad Monday?) ?!?"
Hope is for the weak and non thinking voter.
anyone who thinks about anythign realises we have no hope as the government has been allowed to go to far down the we own you route already.
We have very few freedoms left and some shortsighted sheople are already screaming that we should microchip every single kid just incase they want to abandon them so they can go out and get pissed but then it will all be ok because by then they will finally admit big brother is watching.
Technology for technology's sake
I love technology, but I'm old enough to know that sometimes technology does not provide the best answer. There will be a great deal of time, effort and (most importantly) taxpayers' money spent on such white elephant schemes. It's not just the £3bn on the ID card scheme (for example), but the on-going maintenance. I haven't got the figures to hand, but I do know that the cost of a passport has sky-rocketed because of all of the hackable extra technology that's now going into it.
I get the feeling that it's more about people's egos than the efficacy of a particular system or technology: how can you possibly defend an ePassport with a validity of 10 years, but a warranty of only 2 years?
In short; expensive, ineffective and ludicrous. Still, I don't doubt that the 50% of us who do bother voting (without the need for eVoting, mobile phones and yet more hackable technology) will end up electing some other equally ineffective, hypocritical monkeys into power who'll continue with this technological money pit.
For crying out loud - can anyone give us any hope at all (or am I just having a bad Monday?) ?!?