Exiled in limbo after the chip on his ID Card/Passport failed.

What happens in the brave new electronic world when the chip on your access device (to cash, payment, the railway station – to the country) fails. I reproduce below an exchange over the FIPR Alert system triggered by the experience of a long-standing globe-trotter when a jobsworth at a UK airport could not read the chip on his new biometric passport. The chip on my new Oyster Card is giving similar problems – sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t: the queue behind me gets quite angry. I have changed my swiping technique and it seems to work … but?


“Returning into the UK I had a moment at the passport desk at a provincial airport as the operator frantically tried to read my biometric information in my passport. He couldn’t and gave up and then started to complain to me that I would no longer be allowed in the US with it. As I was clearly in the UK or at least on British soil it seemed rather an odd thing for him to complain about.

As it happens I have used it to travel to the US but not for a wee while, and told him so. What with a restless irate queue of returning Brits behind me looking for their beds he eventually hrumphed and unhappily waved me through.

Now I have no idea if my passport is somehow broken or whether the operator was incompetent or whether his equipment is on the blink or was installed for a different model of biometric passport or what.

But it got me thinking again about the problem of what happens if the chip or antenna or something in the passport breaks whilst you travel and when you arrive at the other end with everything apparently in order. What happens when it turns out not to be. You just cannot check your biometric passport in the same way you can a proper one.

The US is probably the only country which may care about this?

If the status of your biometric chip is vital to your status as a visa free traveller to the US then what happens if the man or woman at the other end can’t read the chip in your passport?”

Christian de Larrinaga

“That’s an interesting question, particularly given that I’m sure I’ve seen some experimental data that says these systems have a half life no longer (and maybe shorter) than the validity period of the passport, meaning that as we get further into the issue period there’ll be up to half or more of them unreadable. Another question is how are we supposed to know what the state of our passports is before we travel? With the machine-readable data page at least it is visually verifiable and if the edges have got too frayed or the type has somehow faded one can see that the passport needs replacing before its expiry. Unless one works in a technical lab one is unlikely to be able to check the readability of the biometric information, and as you say this is more of a binary issue than a gradual analogue degradation and so might go as one juggles one’s hand luggage, boarding pass etc at check-in and at the gate (my experience of airline staff is that they handle my passport with somewhat less care than I do) leaving one in the uncomfortable position of arriving at immigration in a foreign country without a readable passport and running the risk of being immediately deported. This particularly worries me now since I live in Japan but am still a British citizen. My understanding from news reports is that if I’m ever, for whatever reason, denied entry into the US then they’ll put me on a plane back to the UK instead of back to my permanent place of residence in Tokyo. Of course, I also run the risk when attempting to re-enter Japan from abroad (I’ve just come back from the trip to the US, for example) of being denied entry into Japan because of a faulty passport.”

Dr Andrew A Adams


So what happens when Government has “persuaded” us all on-line – using technologies where the mean-time-between failure of our access tokens is approximately the same as the planned token life? Do those advocating this route forward even now what “mean time between failure” (mbtf) means? A few years ago a major car manufacturer lost its reputation for reliability after a subcontractor supplied (accident, fraud, cost-cutting – who outside knows) chips with an mbtf of 18 months instead of 7 years. Is this what caused the collapse of reputation of one of its competitors earlier this year?  

I happen to believe in the benefits that new technology can bring. But having done my early training among telecommunications engineers in the days when our computer spend a day a week under preventitive maintenance – I have no wish to rely on a system than does not degrade gracefully and/or have workable standby routines in the event of catastrophic failure. And never forget that one of the ways of bypassing a secure system is to engineer failure and the use of insecure bypass routines. Meanwhile secure bypass routines lead to queues and chaos. Role on 2012 and the London Olympics! This is not an academic exercise.