Yesterday at CFP, I saw an interesting panel on the proposed radio-enabled passports. Frank Moss, a State Department employee and accomplished career diplomat, is the U.S. government’s point man on this issue. He had the guts to show up at CFP and face a mostly hostile audience. He clearly believes that he and the government made the right decision, but I’m not convinced.
The new passports, if adopted, will contain a chip that stores everything on the passport’s information page: name, date and place of birth, and digitized photo. This information will be readable by a radio protocol. Many people worry that bad guys will detect and read passports surreptitiously, as people walk down the street.
Mr. Moss said repeatedly that the chip can only be read at a distance of 10 centimeters (four inches, for the metric-impaired), making surreptitious reading unlikely. Later in the panel, Barry Steinhardt of the ACLU did a live demo in which he read information off the proposed radio-chip at a distance of about one meter, using a reader device about the size of a (closed) laptop. I have no doubt that this distance could be increased by engineering the reader more aggressively.
There was lots of back-and-forth about partial safeguards that might be added, such as building some kind of foil or wires into the passport cover so that the chip could only be read when the passport was open. Such steps do reduce the vulnerability of using remotely-readable passports, but they don’t reduce it to zero.
In the Q&A session, I asked Mr. Moss directly why the decision was made to use a remotely readable chip rather than one that can only be read by physical contact. Technically, this decision is nearly indefensible, unless one wants to be able to read passports without notifying their owners – which, officially at least, is not a goal of the U.S. government’s program. Mr. Moss gave a pretty weak answer, which amounted to an assertion that it would have been too difficult to agree on a standard for contact-based reading of passports. This wasn’t very convincing, since the smart-card standard could be applied to passports nearly as-is – the only change necessary would be to specify exactly where on the passport the smart-card contacts would be. The standardization and security problems associated with contactless cards seem to be much more serious.
After the panel, I discussed this issue with Kenn Cukier of The Economist, who has followed the development of this technology for a while and has a good perspective on how we reached the current state. It seems that the decision to use contactless technology was made without fully understanding its consequences, relying on technical assurances from people who had products to sell. Now that the problems with that decision have become obvious, it’s late in the process and would be expensive and embarrassing to back out. In short, this looks like another flawed technology procurement program.