Elec­tronic pass­port cards called se­cu­rity vul­ner­a­bil­ity

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - By Bill Gertz

The State De­part­ment will soon be­gin pro­duc­tion of an elec­tronic pass­port card that se­cu­rity spe­cial­ists and mem­bers of Congress fear will be vul­ner­a­ble to al­ter­ation or coun­ter­feit­ing.

The agency has con­tracted with L-1 Iden­tity So­lu­tions Inc. to pro­duce elec­tronic-pass­port cards as a sub­sti­tute for book­let pass­ports for use by Amer­i­cans who travel fre­quently by road or sea to Canada, Mex­ico and the Caribbean.

About the size of a credit card, the elec­tronic-pass­port card dis­plays a photo of the user and a ra­dio fre­quency iden­ti­fi­ca­tion (RFID) chip con­tain­ing data about the user. The State De­part­ment an­nounced re­cently that it will be­gin pro­duc­ing the cards next month and is­sue the first ones in July.

Se­cu­rity spe­cial­ists told The Wash­ing­ton Times that the elec­tronic-pass­port card can be copied or altered eas­ily by re­mov­ing the pho­to­graph with sol­vent and re­plac­ing it with one from an unau­tho­rized user.

James Hesse, for­mer chief intelligence of­fi­cer for the Im­mi­gra­tion and Cus­toms En­force­ment Foren­sic Doc­u­ment Lab­o­ra­tory, which mon­i­tors fraud­u­lent gov­ern­ment doc­u­ments, said the card should have been de­signed with a spe­cial op­ti­cal se­cu­rity strip to make it se­cure and pre­vent coun­ter­feit­ing. The se­lec­tion of a card with an RFID chip is “an ex­tremely risky de­ci­sion,” Mr. Hesse said in an in­ter­view.

“The op­ti­cal strip has never been com­pro­mised,” he said. “It’s the most se­cure medium out there to store data.”

Joel Lisker, a for­mer FBI agent who spent 18 years coun­ter­ing credit-card fraud at MasterCard, said the new cards pose a se­ri­ous threat to U.S. se­cu­rity. “There re­ally is no se­cu­rity with th­ese cards,” he said.

Mr. Lisker, a con­sul­tant to a com­peti­tor for the elec­tronic-pass­port card con­tract, said the State De­part­ment’s se­lec­tion of the RFID card shows it fa­vors speedy pro­cess­ing at en­try points more than se­cu­rity. He charged that the de­part­ment “will not make changes un­til it is sat­is­fied that com­pro­mises are oc­cur­ring on a reg­u­lar ba­sis.”

The State De­part­ment re­jected a more se­cure card be­cause it is “sur­ren­der­ing to speed over se­cu­rity, es­sen­tially cre­at­ing new vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties. [. . .] It will not take long for the bad guys to fig­ure out which ports have read­abil­ity and which do not,” he said.

Steve Roys­ter, a State De­part­ment spokesman, de­clined to com­ment.

An­other State De­part­ment offi- cial, how­ever, said the agency thinks the RFID pass­port card is se­cure.

“The pass­port card is the re­sult of an in­ter­a­gency ef­fort to pro­duce the most durable, se­cure and tam­per-re­sis­tant card for the Amer­i­can pub­lic us­ing state-of-the-art, laser-en­grav­ing and se­cu­rity fea­tures,” said the of­fi­cial, who spoke on the con­di­tion that he not be iden­ti­fied.

Mem­bers of Congress have raised con­cerns about the new card in a bi­par­ti­san let­ter to Sec­re­tary of State Con­doleezza Rice and Home­land Se­cu­rity Sec­re­tary Michael Chertoff.

“We have se­ri­ous con­cerns re­gard­ing the fi­nal card cho­sen for the Pass­port Card,” the April 25 let­ter states. It was writ­ten by Reps. Brian P. Bil­bray, Cal­i­for­nia Repub­li­can, and Christo­pher Car­ney, Penn­syl­va­nia Demo­crat. Sev­en­teen Repub­li­cans and one Demo­crat signed the let­ter.

“Each card will carry the same rights and priv­i­leges of the U.S. pass­port book with the ex­cep­tion of in­ter­na­tional air travel. As such, the cards will be used not only to cross the border, they will also be used through­out the in­te­rior United States as proof of cit­i­zen­ship and iden­tity in ev­ery­day trans­ac­tions; as a proof of iden­tity in [Trans­porta­tion Se­cu­rity Ad­min­is­tra­tion] lines, to en­ter fed­eral build­ings, to en­gage in fi­nan­cial trans­ac­tions, and to ob­tain driver’s li­censes,” the let­ter said.

The law­mak­ers noted that the bi­par­ti­san Sept. 11 com­mis­sion fi­nal re­port stated that “travel doc­u­ments are as im­por­tant as weapons” for global ter­ror­ists.

In a sep­a­rate let­ter to the State De­part­ment on May 2, Mr. Car­ney asked for a brief­ing on the pass­port cards, say­ing “we need to have con­fi­dence that th­ese cards can­not be com­pro­mised by ter­ror­ists, drug smug­glers, hu­man traf­fick­ers and oth­ers who would break our laws and do us harm.”

The State De­part­ment con­sid­ered a pro­to­type pass­port card de­signed by Gen­eral Dy­nam­ics that used the op­ti­cal se­cu­rity strip but re­jected the op­tion, pre­fer­ring a pass­port card that con­tains an RFID chip made in Europe.

An op­ti­cal se­cu­rity strip ap­pears as a dark, 1-inch-wide line on the top of a card. Close in­spec­tion of the strip re­veals ul­tra-high res­o­lu­tion images that se­cu­rity spe­cial­ists say can­not be coun­ter­feited and can be iden­ti­fied eas­ily by border of­fi­cials. Se­cu­rity spe­cial­ists say the strip is needed to boost the se­cu­rity fea­tures of the RFID chip in the pass­port cards.

L-1 Iden­tity So­lu­tions an­nounced in March that it won the State De­part­ment con­tract, which has an es­ti­mated value of $107 mil­lion over five years.

The cards are in­tended for use by trav­el­ers in U.S. border com­mu­ni­ties as a “less ex­pen­sive and more por­ta­ble al­ter­na­tive to the tra­di­tional pass­port book,” ac­cord­ing to the State De­part­ment Web site. The cards are not valid for en­try into the United States by trav­el­ers ar­riv­ing by air­craft.

Mr. Hesse, the for­mer Foren­sic Doc­u­ment Lab­o­ra­tory intelligence chief, stated in a 2006 let­ter to Mr. Chertoff that he is “se­ri­ously alarmed” by the use of RFID tech­nol­ogy on the pass­port card. He also noted that the U.S. per­ma­nent res­i­dence and border-cross­ing cards that use the op­ti­cal se­cu­rity strip are be­ing phased out.

“With my 30-plus years ex­pe­ri­ence in the field of travel and iden­tity doc­u­ment se­cu­rity, this is, in my opin­ion, a short­sighted and ex­tremely risky de­ci­sion,” Mr. Hesse stated.

Be­cause the pass­port card will be widely ac­cepted as an of­fi­cial travel doc­u­ment for en­try into the coun­try, “this card will def­i­nitely be­come the doc­u­ment of choice for coun­ter­feit­ers,” Mr. Hesse said.

“Why would a non-U.S. cit­i­zen even bother to coun­ter­feit the green card? The Pass­Card makes you a U.S. cit­i­zen and gives you the ac­cess to and/or the priv­i­leges men­tioned above,” he stated. “There­fore, it should be im­per­a­tive that the U.S. gov­ern­ment pro­duce and pro­vide the most se­cure card as pos­si­ble.”

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