Ethical Hacker Proves RFID Tags Remain Vulnerable to 'Skimming'

Dennis Faas's picture

According to recent reports, $250 worth of electronic equipment allowed Chris Paget, an "ethical hacker," to scan and copy the information stored on radio-frequency identification (RFID) chips embedded in new passport cards (but not the traditional passport books), as well as some enhanced drivers' licenses while he drove around San Francisco. The 20-minute experiment was captured on video by The Register.

According to Paget, it would be trivial to program blank tags with the skimmed identification numbers -- a key part of the process of creating counterfeit cards. Because the embedded RFID chips broadcast their information, Paget was able to scan passport cards from a moving vehicle.

According to the Examiner, The State Department advertises this feature as a convenience, saying "with RFID technology, Customs and Border Protection inspectors will be able to access photographs and other biological information stored in secure government databases before the traveler reaches the inspection station." (Source:

The State Department emphasizes that the passport card only contains a unique number that links the card to a secure database maintained by the Department of Homeland Security and State Department.

Issued with the passport cards by the State Department are sleeves that block their transmissions. Two of the passport cards Paget scanned within the 20-minute experiment reveals that not everyone is using those sleeves.

RFID Vulnerabilities Remain In Place

Several disturbing revelations resulted from Paget's experiment including:

  • With the proper equipment you can track an identity around the city
  • Similar RFIDs are beginning to appear in enhanced drivers' licenses, such as those issued by Washington State, raising privacy issues
  • Putting a traceable RFID in a pocket has the potential to make everybody a blip on somebody's radar screen
  • The video of Chris Paget's RFID-skimming experiment is available from The San Francisco Examiner.

More information on the vulnerabilities that appear to remain in place in passport cards and enhanced drivers' licenses that were exploited in Paget's experiment can be found from RSA Labs. (Source:

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