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Drive-By 'War Cloning' Attack Hacks Electronic Passports, Driver's Licenses

Researcher demonstrates the ease of scanning and cloning new Homeland Security-issued ID cards

With a $250 used RFID scanner he purchased on eBay and a low-profile antenna tucked away in his car, a security researcher recently cruised the streets along Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco, where he captured -- and cloned -- a half-dozen electronic passports within an hour.

Chris Paget, who will demonstrate the privacy risks with these IDs at the Shmoocon hacker confab later this week in Washington, D.C., coined this newest RFID attack "war cloning" given its similarity to war-driving, or wireless sniffing. "War cloning -- it's the new hacker sport," he says.

The security weaknesses of the EPC Gen 2 RFID tags, which lack encryption and true authentication, have been well-known and of concern to privacy advocates for some time. These tags are being used in the new wallet-sized passport cards that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security offers under the new Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative for travel to and from Western Hemisphere countries. The e-cards are aimed at simplifying and speeding up the border-crossing process, providing U.S. Customs and border agents with information on the individual as he or she queues up to inspection booths at the border.

Until now, security researchers for the most part have shied way from hacking away at the new e-passport cards and e-driver's licenses to illustrate the potential privacy problems because the necessary scanners are expensive -- nearly $3,000 new -- and tough to get. "I found a way to procure equipment on the cheap and repair it and make it do exactly what I wanted it to do," Paget says.

Unlike previous RFID hacks that have been conducted within inches of the targeted ID, Paget's hack can scan RFID tags from 20 feet away. "This is a vicinity versus proximity read," he says. "The passport card is a real radio broadcast, so there's no real limit to the read range. It's conceivable that these things can be tracked from 100 meters -- a couple of miles."

Paget says he was able to drive his car at 30 miles per hour and capture an RFID tag in a matter of seconds. "The software for [copying them] lets you just choose the tag you want to copy, wave a blank tag in front of it, and it writes it out," he says.

The only protections these RFID tags include is one code that makes the tag read-only, and another that makes it self-destruct. But there are multiple ways to recover those codes, so they are basically ineffective, he says.

"This is just simply the wrong technology," says Paget, who conducted the RFID research independently. "My goal is to inform people about the risks with these things and how much impact it could have on your personal privacy and security if you don't keep [these IDs] in a protective wallet or if you carry it on your person."

Paget says the RFID chip technology found in traditional passport books, however, is better because it has encryption and authentication features. He suggests the federal government replace the e-passport card's RFID chips with the RFID chips used in the passport books.

For his Shmoocon presentation, Paget will borrow his boss' e-passport card and clone it on-stage. "If anyone else has one they want copied, I can absolutely do that as well," says Paget, who is the technical lead for research and testing in information security at eBay. He also plans to borrow a friend's car and do a little war-driving in the nation's capital.

Have a comment on this story? Please click "Discuss" below. If you'd like to contact Dark Reading's editors directly, send us a message Kelly Jackson Higgins is Executive Editor at DarkReading.com. She is an award-winning veteran technology and business journalist with more than two decades of experience in reporting and editing for various publications, including Network Computing, Secure Enterprise ... View Full Bio

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