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E-passport Demo Shows Weaknesses in New Border Controls

The data on the radio chips in so-called e-passports can be cloned and modified without detection, representing a gaping security hole in next-generation border control systems, according to security researchers.

Upwards of 50 countries are rolling out passports with embedded RFID (radio frequency identification) chips containing biometric and personal data. The move is intended to cut down on fraudulent passports and strengthen border screenings, but security experts say the systems have several weaknesses.

Dutch researcher Jeroen van Beek has released a software toolkit that can be used to encode RFID chips with false information. In a demonstration video, van Beek shows how a scanner at Amsterdam's airport reads a passport chip he encoded with Elvis Presley's information and photograph.

It means that a fraudster could potentially create a fake passport with an RFID chip that would appear legitimate. The reason the data looks legitimate is due to a fundamental problem in how governments are setting up systems to handle e-passports, said Adam Laurie, a freelance security researcher who worked with van Beek on the demonstration.

Passport data on RFID chips is signed with a digital certificate belonging to the country to which the passport was issued. E-passport systems are supposed to verify that certificate when scanning a passport, Laurie said.

All countries issuing e-passports are supposed to upload their digital certificate to the Public Key Directory (PKD), a database that should be queried to ensure the certificate is correct, Laurie said.

But only 10 of the 50 or so countries have agreed to upload those certificates to the PKD, Laurie said. Only five countries are contributing to the database, he said.

"Basically, the whole thing falls down," Laurie said. The e-passport system's security is rooted in the back-end database checks of those certificates, he said.

In van Beek's demonstration, the passport chip containing fraudulent data presents its own certificate that appears to be from a legitimate authority but isn't. Since the Netherlands doesn't use PKD to verify passport certificates, the certificate is accepted, Laurie said.

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