Vendors Taken To Task Over E-Passport Flaws

Special committee formed to fix stubborn interoperability problems besetting biometric passports is laying down the law to vendors

"Readers that are used in live inspection environments must be able to handle all e-passports, regardless of the power requirement, chip and antenna location, chip type or size, data speed, access control method ... and retrieve and validate the data correctly."

Those inconsistencies came as no surprise to Stuart Fiske, a director at U.K.-based Consult Hyperion. He says the ISO 14443 standard is "immature" and offers vendors too many choices.

"It is common for different vendors to make differing decisions, which all conform to the standards, but are inconsistent with each other," he says.

A New Ball Game
Cards and readers based on the ISO 14443 standard are popular among transit operators, and generally work well in this market because cards and readers tend to be supplied by the same vendor, Fiske adds. But passports must work the same worldwide, which means products from different suppliers must communicate.

The Washington, D.C.-area airport test also found the technology interfered with the inspection process. In some cases, agents found they had to press down firmly on open passport booklets for the readers to communicate with the chip; in other cases, they could not tell when to remove the document.

Kefauver, speaking at the recent Omnicard conference in Berlin, says government passport bureaus face other problems besides interoperability of the technology. Many require their passports to last 10 years. "Durability is probably the single most critical unknown," he says. "The vendors do not know how long a contactless chip will last."

Still Optimistic
But Kefauver points out the global biometric passport project is the first of its kind, and vendors, standards makers and government agencies are "charting new territory."

Another member of the ad hoc committee, who asked not to be name, agreed: "This is the first global contactless application; this is really new. For manufacturers, they have to rethink their strategies. "

Leaving the durability question aside, both say they are confident the interoperability problems will be fixed in time for the late October U.S. deadline.

But vendors who don't comply with the core expectations won't be along for the ride.

They will have to perform tests on sample passports sent to them by various governments and report the results to the sponsors of the next live interoperability text, scheduled for Japan in March.

Among the requirements are strict adherence to the ISO 14443 standard and to ICAO's specifications for logical data structure, that is, the way files are organized on the chip and read by the readers. Those vendors whose results do not "clear the bar" will not be invited to the upcoming test in Japan.