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ePassport tests put biometrics through their paces

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Results have emerged from tests held in Prague last week designed to put 'second-generation' electronic passports through their paces, and guess what - no-one failed.

The tests are partly designed to address recent security and privacy concerns about electronic passports that feature RFID chips containing biometric data. The ePassports Extended Access control (EAC) Conformity and Interoperability Tests (official website here) aim to verify that participating countries are on the right track in creating harder-to-forge travel documents that meet international standards.

Following pressure from the US in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the European Commission launched a large-scale project in 2004 designed to pave the way for the introduction of electronic passports containing RFID chips that store the identity of the holder as well as biometric information.

All 27 EU member states have since introduced passports featuring Basic Access Control (BAC), designed to ensure that forged or modified examples do not pass muster at a border inspection. These first-generation electronic passports typically contain an RFID chip which stores a simple biometric (usually a photo of the passport holder), along with the holder's personal details.

European countries are working to a June 2009 deadline for the incorporation of fingerprint data or other more complex biometrics into second-generation electronic passports.

This second-generation framework, known as Extended Access Control (EAC), is intended to combat impersonation as well as forgery through the addition of biometrics such as a finger print or iris scan. This biometric data is then digitally signed and included in an ePassport.

Here are the results of the Czech jury...

The Prague conference was designed to put these ePassport technologies to the test. In addition to conformance tests to establish that second-generation passports matched international standards, the Prague tests included checks on how well the passports interoperated with inspection systems, as well as PKI trials. The PKI element of the tests was the first to put Extended Access Control (EAC) PKI, including the bilateral exchange of EAC certificate credentials, through its paces. Twelve of the 27 participating countries completed the first PKI test round, with four countries showcasing a complete end-to-end system.

Security vendor Entrust demoed a successful PKI certificate exchange using the UK and Slovenian systems, which both use its encryption framework technology. Entrust also demoed integration with ePassport equipment vendors, including L-1 and 3M. The next-generation ePassports are designed to be more secure by incorporating technology that ensures passport readers authenticate themselves to the chip on a passport before it hands over its data.

Entrust PKI product manager Mark Joynes explained that while the first generation of electronic passports was designed to prevent forgeries, the second is designed to prevent impersonation.

Security researchers have demonstrated how it might be possible to obtain the data from first-generation passport and make cloned copies. Detecting such forgeries would involve vigilance by border passport inspection staff in noticing flaws in counterfeit documents.

Dr Tim Moses, senior director at the advanced security technology group at Entrust, said that even if hackers were able to read the data from second-generation passport they would not be able to get at the private key a second-generation passport contains. Because of this, second-generation ePassports provide a technical defence against impersonation.

Joynes explained that the move to more advanced biometrics - such as fingerprints - was the main reason to switch to second-generation passports. "With a photo you can wear wigs and makeup to defeat the technology. That's not possible with higher-entropy biometrics, such as fingerprints, and is the real motivation for the move," he explained.

Although the process of issuing second-generation passports may be more complicated the technology itself is essentially comes at the same price as earlier-generation kit, according to Entrust.

Lifting data from electronic passports for the purposes of identity theft or other malfeasance has also cropped up as a concern. In response, US passport issuing authorities have incorporated electronic shielding so that data on ePassports can only be read when they are open. European countries have yet to introduce similar protection. Dr Moses argued that cryptographic safeguards provide better protection than simply screening.

Testing times ahead

A further round of tests is expected before the June 2009 deadline for the introduction of fingerprint scans into passports. Even after that the technology doesn't come into its own until terminal equipment has been upgraded, a process that might take years even in Europe. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has set a 2015 deadline for introducing first-generation inspection systems worldwide. "You can't use the improvements without upgrades. Some countries will lag in issuing next-generation electronic passports", Dr Moses told El Reg

Even though the timescales for rolling out electronic passport technology are very long PKI experts at Entrust are beginning to think about third-generation systems. These systems would incorporate the ability to write visa information onto RFID chips and password-based encryption. Entrust is keen to adapt EAC technology to other applications, such as national identity cards and access control. ®

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