Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Protect new passport from hackers: expert

Smartphone can detect your information, photo

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Canada's new passports are being lauded as among the most secure in the world thanks to a number of new technological features, including an embedded electronic chip designed to prevent fraud.

Problem is, when that enhanced security runs up against a smartphone armed with increasingly common technology, personal information, including your passport picture, can be accessed in less than a minute -- without you knowing.

The fact someone could get their hands on your personal data without your knowledge has security experts raising red flags.

John Price, a spokesman for Passport Canada, concedes the chip security feature in passports issued after July 1 can be accessed through a specific smartphone if someone is first able to enter into the phone the passport number, expiry date and the holder's date of birth.

"The chip only contains the photo and any information that is already on Page 2 of the passport," he said. "It's the same as accessing someone's information by opening their passport or looking over their shoulder. There is no additional information on the chip."

Price points out there is even less information on the chip compared with the hard copy, as the passport-holder's written signature is not included in the electronic file.

The electronic chip's real value, Price said, comes as a security measure during the validation process. Simply put, a code is written on the chip prior to issue, tracing the chip and passport back to the issuing authority. The chip is locked so no additional information can be added, Price said, making it more difficult to clone the document or tamper with the original passport.

However, getting your hands on the personal information needed to bypass the passport's security system isn't as tough as you might think and is easily accessible in places where passports are repeatedly opened, such as airports, University of Victoria Prof. Stephen Neville warned.

"If I'm sitting in an airport lounge, and people are opening their passports (prior) to boarding the plane, I can probably pick up that information," said Neville, who is also the founding director of the Centre for Advanced Security, Privacy, and Information Research.

Neville said seeing the inside of the passport is relatively easy in an age in which cameras are always present. The problem, he said, is any time a passport is open, that information is displayed, and anyone with a relatively modern camera can get it.

Smartphones being able to access passport data raises security and privacy issues, Neville said.

One potential use of the data, Neville said, could be to build a database that would track people by their faces, along with their data.

Rick Dykstra, parliamentary secretary to Citizenship Minister Chris Alexander, said the passports are still safer than the previous non-chipped versions.

"Are they perfect? No. There are always fraudsters and hackers out there who will continue to try to take advantage, but we believe that we're building a passport that is many times stronger and safer than the previous passport," Dykstra said.

There are ways to protect passports from being read, Neville said, recommending people protect their passports by placing them in RFID-proof cases, which surround the passport and prevent signals from coming in or going out, unless the passport is taken out of the case.

American passports, for example, have that RFID-proofing built into their covers so they can only be scanned when opened.

Neville said it's a simple way to make the passports much more secure than they are right now.

oliver.sachgau@freepress.mb.ca

-- with files from Adam Wazny

 

NOT FEELING VERY SECURE

Thordis Moreau

'If I were travelling to Europe and places like that I would be very concerned. That's where you could really get into trouble.'

Linda Daly

'That's surprising. These are new passports. It sounds like people will have to be even more aware of their passports when in public now.'

John Smeenk

'I'll probably buy one of those plastic covers -- like the ones that people use to protect their phones -- for my passport now, just to be safe.'

Gwen Repeta

'We often just carry our passports out in the open when waiting for a flight. I would never think someone could do that (steal personal information) with a phone.'

Ebony Repeta

'I'll definitely be more careful with it, even if it has the chip. I won't be opening it up in public as much anymore.'

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 9, 2013 A4

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