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Crypto boffins urge Belgium to withdraw early ePassports

Second-gen documents also 'flawed'

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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.

Walk-by skimming

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. ®

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