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Why your passport should wear a tin hat

There’s little doubt that RFID tags are revolutionising security practice in airports. From merchandise to baggage to passports, RFID chips are becoming an essential part of the security matrix. They are relatively cheap to manufacture, easy to deploy and can also carry details about an item or individual.

Take, for instance, e-passports with embedded RFID chips that contain digital versions of the information on the passport. They usually store data such as a biometric signature, which could be a retinal scan or photograph of the face. This means the passport acts in much the same way as another secure token. RFID chips are, therefore, a key target for the hacker.

RFID readers work by sending out a signal that is picked up by an antenna. The signal provides the power that the chip needs in order to run a defined process or series of processes and send a response back. The problem is that as passive RFID chips have no power of their own, and the querying signal usually can’t provide enough power to allow strong encryption, they are weak from a security perspective. Is it possible to crack RFID encryption? Sometimes, given enough time.

The main problem at the moment is that RFID can be susceptible to skimming. Recent research work has shown that it is possible to skim a passport while it is in the envelope in which it is delivered to the new owner. Anyone close to an RFID passport can skim information from the passport or card. Research has shown that takes about four hours to complete the skim, but with refinement it may be possible to reduce this time dramatically. The potential for identity theft by those involved in the delivery of passports is a concern, and as techniques advance I’m certain that it will become possible to skim a passport just by walking past the holder.

There is one more worrying issue. The passport is effectively ‘locked’ using an encryption key and the skimming process involves cracking (or ‘brute forcing’) part of this key. However government agencies need to have the keys to the passport in order to read it in valid situations, such as at passport control!

So, while I’m certain that no government would ever track an individual’s movements, it’s not hard to see how these keys could conceivably be used to track passport holders using long range RFID readers. And what about when driving licences include RFID chips? Or clothing? All these technologies are already in use in some regions. It sounds like Big Brother, but it’s real.

Fortunately there is a simply way to ensure your privacy. It’s possible to shield the chip to make illicit or covert reading impossible – simply make an aluminium foil envelope for it. A reader can’t penetrate the metal, so it can’t read any data. US passports already incorporate a metal layer to prevent just this style of skimming; UK passports don’t.

Ken Munro
managing director
SecureTest (



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