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Risk

2/3/2009
12:56 PM
George V. Hulme
George V. Hulme
Commentary
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Think Electronic Passports Are Secure? Think Again

With a little time, and a $250 investment, a security researcher says he has shown how easy it is to capture electronic passport data, and then create cloned passports.

With a little time, and a $250 investment, a security researcher says he has shown how easy it is to capture electronic passport data, and then create cloned passports.Anyone involved in information security in 2002 recalls the "war driving" craze. Researchers would drive around a downtown area with a wireless-enabled notebook and a copy of NetStumbler seeking unencrypted wireless networks. The idea was to show how few wireless networks were secured through encryption. Later this week, security researcher Chris Paget is taking a similar approach, this time with RFID-powered documents.

The attack also brings back memories of the days at which cell phone cloners used to be able to clone mobile phones from roadsides and bridges.

Rather than cloning cell phones or war driving, Paget has dubbed his attack "war cloning."

According to Kelly Jackson Higgins' Dark Reading story, Paget has found a way to crack the EPC Gen 2 RFID tags used in the passport cards the U.S. Department of Homeland Security allows in accordance with the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative for travel among countries in the Western Hemisphere.

Paget says he was able to buy a used RFID scanner from eBay, and tweak it so that it can sniff the data from the passports:

Until now, security researchers for the most part have shied way from hacking away at the new e-passports 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 to a couple of miles."

Paget says he was able to drive his car at 30 mph 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 security and privacy concerns with these electronic passports aren't new, but ease and cost-effectiveness of this attack seems to be -- and illustrates the need for true authentication and encryption for an adequate level of security.

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