Germany is switching over to the second generation of ePassport passports, with the addition of fingerprint biometrics. Fingerprints become mandatory in June 2009*, and according to NXP, which supplies the chips for the passports, it will be the first country in the world "to introduce second-generation ePassports with enhanced security."
That qualifier is, we suspect, significant and worth considering with reference to any fingerprint-bearing passport that shipped earlier than the German version, which starts moving as of today.
The SmartMX chip in the new German ePassports supports Extended Access Control (EAC), which uses enhanced levels of security to protect the on-chip biometrics, on the basis that fingerprints are deemed more 'private' than face. And on top of that, widespread escape of fingerprints could create a pretty mess in the wonderful biometric world of the future, but the ePassport evangelists tend not to stress that point. The German system uses encryption to protect the biometric data as it's communicated to the reader and, according to the German Interior Ministry, "achieves a security level which experts consider tamper-proof also in the future."
EAC also allows passport reading rights to be restricted to authorised readers, and can withhold access to the fingerprint data if the device isn't authorised to read them (which would likely be the case for non-German passport readers that were still on generation one).
The extent to which the security of second generation ePassports can be preserved has, obviously, yet to be determined. As the German version roll out, a substantial installed base of them will swiftly build up, and there will be a lot of authorised readers around - Germany has already taken delivery of 18,000 fingerprint readers. The first generation of ePassport was, as has been demonstrated several times, fairly easy to read. The second may indeed be tamper-proof, but how secure will the readers be, in Germany and, soon, in other countries?
NXP, founded by Philips, claims involvement in over 80 per cent of all ePassport schemes and has shipped over 100 million chips so far. ®
* Where the UK's at Do you really want to hear this again? The UK, as a non-Schengen country, is not bound by the EU decision to add fingerprints to passports. The UK has in fact already met ICAO's biometric passport requirement with the ones it's now shipping. But it's pressing ahead with huge databases, ID schemes and fingerprints in passports anyway, while shouting 'ICAO made us do it! It's the EU standard! It's really cheap, really.' You might consider the possibility that we only didn't sign up to Schengen so that we could concentrate on implementing the most aggravating and repressive parts of it, while not bothering with the kids stuff.