It is a little alarming if passports are to be readable and unencrypted at a distance without the holder knowing. There are all sorts of criminal opportunities. A scan of outgoing passengers could be made to produce a list of burglary targets. Just
knowing where people are going must be good for espionage, marital infidelity investigation, papparazzi hassles etc. A little bit of advance information would be good to set up mugging opportunities or tourist scams etc.
At America's insistence, passports are about to get their biggest overhaul since they were introduced. They are to be fitted with computer chips that have been loaded with digital photographs of the bearer (so that the process of comparing the face
on the passport with the face on the person can be automated), digitised fingerprints and even scans of the bearer's irises, which are as unique to people as their fingerprints.
A sensible precaution in a dangerous world, perhaps. But there is cause for concern. For one thing, the data on these chips will be readable remotely, without the bearer knowing. And—again at America's insistence—those data will not be
encrypted, so anybody with a suitable reader, be they official, commercial, criminal or terrorist, will be able to check a passport holder's details. To make matters worse, biometric technology—as systems capable of recognising fingerprints,
irises and faces are known—is still less than reliable, and so when it is supposed to work, at airports for example, it may not. Finally, its introduction has been terribly rushed, risking further mishaps. The United Sates want the thing to
start running by October, at least in those countries for whose nationals it does not demand visas.
The idea is similar to that of the radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags that are coming into use by retailers, to identify their stock, and mass-transit systems, to charge their passengers. Dig deeper, though, and problems start to surface.
One is interoperability. In mass-transit RFID cards, the chips and readers are designed and sold as a package, and even in the case of retailing they are carefully designed to be interoperable. In the case of passports, they will merely be designed
to a vague common standard. Each country will pick its own manufacturers, in the hope that its chips will be readable by other people's machines, and vice versa.
That may not happen in practice. In a trial conducted in December at Baltimore International Airport, three of the passport readers could manage to read the chips accurately only 58%, 43% and 31% of the time, according to confidential figures
reported in Card Technology magazine, which covers the chip-embedded card industry. (An official at America's Department of Homeland Security confirmed that “there were problems”.)
A second difficulty is the reliability of biometric technology. Facial-recognition systems work only if the photograph is taken with proper lighting and an especially bland expression on the face. Even then, the error rate for facial-recognition
software has proved to be as high as 10% in tests. If that were translated into reality, one person in ten would need to be pulled aside for extra screening. Fingerprint and iris-recognition technology have significant error rates, too. So, despite
the belief that biometrics will make crossing a border more efficient and secure, it could well have the opposite effect, as false alarms become the norm.
The third, and scariest problem, however, is one that is deliberately built into the technology, rather than being an accident of its present inefficiency. This is the remote-readability of the chip, combined with the lack of encryption of the data
held on it. Passport chips are deliberately designed for clandestine remote reading. The ICAO specification refers quite openly to the idea of a “walk-through” inspection with the person concerned “possibly being unaware of the
operation”. The lack of encryption is also deliberate—both to promote international interoperability and to encourage airlines, hotels and banks to join in. Big Brother, then, really will be watching you. And others, too, may be tempted
to set up clandestine “walk-through inspections where the person is possibly unaware of the operation”. Criminals will have a useful tool for identity theft. Terrorists will be able to know the nationality of those they attack.
Belatedly, the authorities have recognised this problem, and are trying to do something about it. The irony is that this involves eliminating the remote readability that was envisaged to be such a crucial feature of the system in the first place.
One approach is to imprison the chip in a Faraday cage. This is a contraption for blocking radio waves which is named after one of the 19th-century pioneers of electrical technology. It consists of a box made of closely spaced metal bars. In
practice, an aluminium sheath would be woven into the cover of the passport. This would stop energy from the reader reaching the chip while the passport is closed.
Another approach, which has just been endorsed by the European Union, is an electronic lock on the chip. The passport would then have to be swiped through a special reader in order to unlock the chip so that it could be read. How the European
approach will interoperate with other countries' passport controls still needs to be worked out. Those countries may need special equipment or software to read an EU passport, which undermines the ideal of a global, interoperable standard.
Sceptics might suggest that these last-minute countermeasures call into doubt the reason for a radio-chip device in the first place. Frank Moss, of America's State Department, disagrees. As he puts it, “I don't think it questions the standard.
I think what it does is it requires us to come up with measures that mitigate the risks.” However, a number of executives at the firms who are trying to build the devices appear to disagree. They acknowledge the difficulties caused by choosing
radio-frequency chips instead of a system where direct contact must be made with the reader. But as one of them, who preferred not to be named, put it: “We simply supply all the technology—the choice is not up to us. If it's good enough
for the US, it's good enough for us.”
Whether it actually is good enough for the United States, or for any other country, remains to be seen. So far, only Belgium has met America's deadline. It introduced passports based on the new technology in November. However, hints from the
American government suggest that the October deadline may be allowed to slip again (it has already been put back once) since the Americans themselves will not be ready by then. It is awkward to hold foreigners to higher standards than you impose on
yourself. Perhaps it is time to go back to the drawing board.