E-Passport Makers Hail U.S. Retreat - InformationWeek
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E-Passport Makers Hail U.S. Retreat

Global electronic passports suppliers hailed a decision by the U.S. State Department to drop a requirement for additional security measures in next-generation U.S. passports.

PARIS — Global electronic passports suppliers hailed a decision by the U.S. State Department to add a requirement for additional security measures in next-generation U.S. passports. The specifications have yet to be finalized.

Neville Pattinson, director of technology development and government affairs for smart card provider Axalto Americas, said Friday (April 29) that adding security measures such as "Basic Access Control" and a metallic shield cover to U.S. passports could "completely make the information [stored in the e-passport] undetectable."

Pattison originally disclosed the results of a National Institute of Standards and Technology e-passport trial held last summer in which he said NIST testers were able to lift "an exact copy of digitally signed private data" from a contactless e-passport chip 30 feet away.

A State Department official earlier this week acknowledged for the first time that information stored inside an e-passport chip could be read at a distance beyond 10 centimeters.

The U.S. government, however, still has far to go to match European privacy concerns. Several nations, including Germany, have already mandated Basic Access Control in their e-passport spec. Many European governments have demanded barriers that prevent unauthorized "skimming" of passport data, including nationality, name and address.

Under the Basic Access Control scheme, an e-passport must first be physically opened, then scanned or swiped in a reader.

The scheme accomplishes two things, explained Pattinson. First, it offers authentication, and sets up an encrypted communication channel between a reader and a contactless chip embedded in the e-passport. The reader scans the machine-readable text stored in the machine-readable zone (MRZ) on a printed page in an e-passport to obtain "an access code to get into the chip," said Pattisson. "This will prevent skimming."

Second, by using information from the MRZ, the scheme creates a session key to set up an encrypted channel, protecting the information that flows between reader and chip from "eavesdropping," he added.

While some security experts welcomed the U.S. adoption of Basic Access Control, the privacy community remains cautious. Barry Steinhardt, director of the Technology & Liberty Program at the American Civil Liberties Union, asked, "Why do we need to have a contactless circuit at all in an identity document?"

Pattinson noted that a e-passport chips provide a digital data payload, and the digital data is validated against the print page of a passport. Once basic information such as a digital photo is stored electronically, technologies like facial recognition can be used, he added. E-passports "can keep forgers out of the business," Pattinson said.

Bruce Schneier, a security technology expert, noted in his online blog, "The devil is in the details, but this [Basic Access Control] is a great idea. It means that only readers that know a secret data string can query the RFID chip inside the passport."

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