NFC in US passports– verifying the random ID

One final post to conclude the series on reading data from recent US passports with an Android phone. In this post, we will look at the way the “unique ID” or UID emitted by the chip varies each time the chip is brought into the presence of an RF field.

Every NFC tag has a unique identifier that is burnt-in at the factory and constant throughout the lifetime of the hardware. Contrary to mistaken impressions, this identifier is intended for anti-collision eg distinguishing multiple tags when they are all in the presence of an RF field, rather than security applications to authenticate the tag. Devices such as ProxMark can forge an arbitrary UID. There are even off-the-shelf counterfeit MIFARE tags that allow overwriting the UID while still preserving the desired form factor.

While the UID falls short of being a reliable way to authenticate a particular tag, it is still problematic for privacy because it constitutes a persistent identifier that can be used for tracking. Each time the tag is scanned, it emits a constant value that permit correlating with previous times when that tag was scanned– this is true regardless of the higher level transaction. For example even a blank, unused tag completely void of data emits a UID. (Introducing application level protocols on top of the basic NFC transport can only make privacy worse: for example the standard contactless payment protocols will transmit stable identifiers such as the credit card number that are far less privacy-friendly, because unlike UID they can be correlated to many existing databases.)

This is where random UIDs enter into the picture. Instead of emitting the same UID, the hardware can be configured to generate a different one on each activation eg each time the tag is brought into the range of an RF field. A specific range of four-byte UIDs starting with 0x08 is reserved to designate such UID, and to disambiguate that from fixed UID assignments. The US passport is an example of hardware using this feature.

Going back to our NFC TagInfo application, scanning the same passport twice– removing it from the RF field of the phone between the two scans– shows the UID indeed changing:




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