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Defects in e-passports allow real-time tracking

The Register
Wednesday, January 27th, 2010

Computer scientists in Britain have uncovered weaknesses in electronic passports issued by the US, UK, and some 50 other countries that allow attackers to trace the movements of individuals as they enter or exit buildings.

The so-called traceability attack is the only exploit of an e-passport that allows attackers to remotely track a given credential in real time without first knowing the cryptographic keys that protect it, the scientists from University of Birmingham said. What’s more, RFID, or radio-frequency identification, data in the passports can’t be turned off, making the threat persistent unless the holder shields the government-mandated identity document in a special pouch.

“A traceability attack does not lead to the compromise of all data on the tag, but it does pose a very real threat to the privacy of anyone that carries such a device,” the authors, Tom Chothia and Vitaliy Smirnov, wrote. “Assuming that the target carried their passport on them, an attacker could place a device in a doorway that would detect when the target entered or left a building.”

To exploit the weakness, attackers would need to observe the targeted passport as it interacted with an authorized RFID reader at a border crossing or other official location. They could then build a special device that detects the credential each time it comes into range. The scientists estimated the device could have a reach of about 20 inches.

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