Passport to a Void Promise

By Peter Coffee  |  Posted 2006-08-28 Print this article Print

Analysis: Solving the wrong problem in the wrong way is a stupid tech trick.

A U.S. Government order for "several million" RFID chips puts Infineon Technologies on the pointy end of the international push for standardized electronic passports. Infineons Aug. 21 announcement has driven home the scale of this massive rollout, with 15 million logo-bearing U.S. e-passports expected to be issued in their first year of general use.

The potential benefits and risks of e-passports must be weighed against their certain cost—$97 each. Proponents claim greater speed and certainty of identification. A chip will store an encrypted digital photo, enabling comparison against the face of the bearer. Printed data will also be digitally encoded, signed to prevent alteration.

Drawbacks include possible ease of reading the digital information surreptitiously. The intended maximum reading distance is on the order of 4 inches, suggesting that the data could be accessed through clothing.
We commend the need to scan a printed code in the passport before its on-chip information can be used. We note, though, that multistage attacks combining a long-lensed camera and RFID (radio-frequency identification) reader are all too plausible.

We also note that a passport may be false rather than forged. A genuine passport may be obtained using a fake birth certificate, for example. A passport with a failed e-chip remains a valid travel document, making claims of added security moot if a miscreant has the wit to disable the RFID device.

Designers of security systems must not assume that crackers will play by the rules. Its pointless to have the equivalent of a locked front door if an attacker can cut a hole in the roof.

Technology Editor Peter Coffee can be reached at

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Peter Coffee is Director of Platform Research at, where he serves as a liaison with the developer community to define the opportunity and clarify developers' technical requirements on the company's evolving Apex Platform. Peter previously spent 18 years with eWEEK (formerly PC Week), the national news magazine of enterprise technology practice, where he reviewed software development tools and methods and wrote regular columns on emerging technologies and professional community issues.Before he began writing full-time in 1989, Peter spent eleven years in technical and management positions at Exxon and The Aerospace Corporation, including management of the latter company's first desktop computing planning team and applied research in applications of artificial intelligence techniques. He holds an engineering degree from MIT and an MBA from Pepperdine University, he has held teaching appointments in computer science, business analytics and information systems management at Pepperdine, UCLA, and Chapman College.

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