Passport RFIDs cloned wholesale by $250 eBay auction spree
Video demo shows you how
Using inexpensive off-the-shelf components, an information security expert has built a mobile platform that can clone large numbers of the unique electronic identifiers used in US passport cards and next generation drivers licenses.
The $250 proof-of-concept device - which researcher Chris Paget built in his spare time - operates out of his vehicle and contains everything needed to sniff and then clone RFID, or radio frequency identification, tags. During a recent 20-minute drive in downtown San Francisco, it successfully copied the RFID tags of two passport cards without the knowledge of their owners.
Paget's contraption builds off the work of researchers at RSA and the University of Washington, which last year found weaknesses in US passport cards and so-called EDLs, or enhanced drivers' licenses. So far, about 750,000 people have applied for the passport cards, which are credit card-sized alternatives to passports for travel between the US and Mexico, Canada, the Caribbean, and Bermuda. EDLs are currently offered by Washington and New York states.
"It's one thing to say that something can be done, it's another thing completely to actually do it," Paget said in explaining why he built the device. "It's mainly to defeat the argument that you can't do it in the real world, that there's no real-world attack here, that it's all theoretical."
Use of the cards is expected to rise as US officials continue to encourage their adoption. Civil liberties groups have criticized the cards and a travel industry association has called on the federal government to suspend their use until the risks can be better understood.
The cards make use of the RFID equivalent of optical barcodes known as electronic product code tags, which are widely used to track cattle and merchandise as it's shipped and then stored in warehouses. Because the technology employs no encryption and can be read from distances of more than a mile, the tags are highly susceptible (PDF) to cloning and tracking, researchers have concluded.
Paget's device consists of a Symbol XR400 RFID reader (now manufactured by Motorola), a Motorola AN400 patch antenna mounted to the side of his Volvo XC90, and a Dell 710m that's connected to the RFID reader by ethernet cable. The laptop runs a Windows application Paget developed that continuously prompts the RFID reader to look for tags and logs the serial number each time one is detected. He bought most of the gear via auctions listed on eBay.
And if you read on, we'll show you video proof that the thing actually works.
Caught on Video
He plans to release the software's source code during a demonstration at the Shmoocon hacker convention to be held later this month in Washington.
Paget's device has a range of about 30 feet, making it ideal for discretely skimming the EDL and passport card tags of people who pass by his vehicle. With modifications, Paget says his device could read RFID identifiers that are more than a mile away. The antenna was concealed by the vehicle's tinted window, and the PC and RFID reader fit well below the eye line, making it virtually undetectable by passersby.
To be sure, the RFID tags contain no personally identifiable information, but rather what amounts to a record pointer to a secure Department of Homeland Security database. But because the pointer is a unique number, the American Civil Liberties Union and other civil libertarians warn the cards are still susceptible to abuse, especially if their RFID tags can be read and captured in large numbers. Cloning the unique electronic identifier is the first step in creating fraudulent passport cards, they say.
The cards also amount to electronic license plates that could be used to conduct clandestine surveillance. Law enforcement officials could scan them at political rallies and then store them in databases. The tags could also be correlated to other signals, such as electronic toll-booth payment systems or RFID-based credit cards, to track the detailed movements of their holders.
Not that the Feds Care
Officials with the US Customs and Border Protection Department say they have no plans to overhaul the technology used in passport cards. RFID signals allow border agents to process travelers more quickly and bring an added level of security to the process, spokeswoman Kelly Ivahnenko said. The cards come with protective sleeves that prevent the RFID tags from being readable, she added, and even if they are captured, she said there is little anyone can do with the information.
"From our standpoint the privacy issues have been misrepresented and blown out of proportion," she told The Reg. "Anytime that you have a new technology and use it in a new way, there are always going to be far-out ways to use information nefariously. We want travelers to be aware of the technology and to know how it works so that they can be comfortable using it."
A spokesman from the US State Department - which processes applications for passport cards and then issues them - declined to comment.
But critics contend the risks are real, especially if RFID-enable identification becomes universal.
"Just like a social security number, the unique identifier number on this document must be properly safeguarded," said Nicole Ozer, Technology and Civil Liberties policy director of the ACLU of Northern California. "If it falls into the wrong hands, it can be used for tracking, stalking, identity theft, and counterfeiting. If the government continues to stick its head in the sand and ignore the very real privacy and security threats that researchers, civil liberties organizations, and even industry groups have repeatedly brought to its attention, the American people will pay a very high price." ®