DEFENSE AND INTELLIGENCE, LAW ENFORCEMENT, BORDER MANAGEMENT
Traveling is not usually easy. When we leave our homes to visit another place, we just want to get there. Cramped flights and delays at the baggage claim are just the tip of the iceberg in travel-related issues. International travel comes with its own set of challenges, like long lines in customs. While inconvenient at times, border protection is paramount to the safety of a nation and its citizens.
Thankfully, one technology advancement is showing some promise in making travel faster and improving nations’ security around the world. And that tech evolution involves an already essential travel document – the passport.
What are Biometric Passports
Also known as digital passports or more commonly known as e-passports, biometric passports are similar to ordinary paper passports, with one special exception. Embedded in the front cover, e-passports contain a microchip that houses biometric information like photos, fingerprints, or iris scans. This chip also houses special security features that lock it, preventing tampering and noting any attempted intrusions. If you are wondering if you have one, e-passports are marked by a universal symbol on their lower front cover. The signet, a circle placed between two rectangles, resembles a camera.
There are several key benefits of e-passports. They usually store the same information on their chips that is printed on their paper identification page. This duplication of information makes it exceptionally challenging for fraudsters to tamper with e-passports since it would mean altering the identifying information within the chip and the printed contents. The mere presence of the chip and its contents also acts as a security measure since duplicating a microchip like those designed by the issuing countries would be unlikely to stand up to any close inspection.
The History of E-Passports
The idea of a passport that houses biometric data might sound futuristic, but e-passports date back many years. Malaysia issued the world’s first electronic passports in 1998. In 2003, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) set the standard for e-passports. All countries that wish to implement e-passports must follow the standards set by this specialized agency of the United Nations. Belgium launched the first ICAO-compliant e-passport in 2004. The United States began its own e-passport rollout in 2006. While all e-passports must conform to the ICAO specification, different countries have chosen to implement different options specified within the standard. According to the ICAO, more than 140 state and non-state entities currently issue e-passports, with over 1 billion in circulation.
What Makes Biometric Passports Better
An e-passport is exceptionally secure. What’s stored on an e-passport can’t be changed without being detected. That means identifying information and biometric data like the passport holder’s fingerprint can’t be altered. Creating an e-passport forgery would be nearly impossible. Obtaining a microchip and placing the data within it would be hard enough, but a fraudster would also need to digitally “sign” all of the information placed there, just as an issuing government would. The digital signature is protected by a private cryptographic key.
Beyond security, there are practical advantages to e-passports. In the 1980s, many countries began issuing machine-readable passports. Special characters printed on the paper passports and automatically scanned by machines helped speed up the processing of arriving passengers at immigration checks. The machine-readable format also meant fewer mistakes by the officials and potential data matching that could be done against criminal databases and watchlists. All of those advantages are still true with biometric passports, which allow for even greater speed at some immigration checks as machines like fingerprint and iris readers speed the flow of incoming passengers.
Visiting some countries under certain conditions requires the use of an e-passport. For example, those wishing to travel to the United States without obtaining a visa as part of the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) must enroll in the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) system. A requirement for enrollment in the ESTA system is an e-passport.
What E-Passports Could Mean for the Future of Biometrics
While e-passports make borders safer and streamline immigration checks in the short term, they could be an avenue for broader adoption of biometric frameworks. The adoption and perfection of e-passport technology may mean a migration to (or at least a more careful consideration of) other forms of biometric-based credentials. In early 2021, Israel adopted its “green pass” vaccine passport – an app that allowed vaccinated people to show proof of their vaccine status. Other countries, like England, have had app-enabled COVID passports in place as well.
That’s not to say that all biometric information needs to rest on an e-passport or app. What if your eye could act as proof of your identity? Or your voice, or your face? Biometric identifiers are a stronger security measure than passwords, security questions, or physical keys, which are susceptible to hacking, theft, or duplication. Fingerprint recognition already allows us access to our laptops, while facial recognition is widely available across most smartphones to access financial records and more. The car maker Hyundai has had fingerprint readers in its GV70 SUVs since 2021 and has recently filed a patent to place iris scanners in its vehicles.
Soon, a simple eye scan may allow you not just to start your car but automatically adjust your seat and steering wheel positions accordingly. The gradually increasing shift to e-passports is important not just for what it can mean to the travel industry. As the technology needed to create, protect, scan, and process these e-passports becomes more prevalent, we could begin to find the expansion of those concepts to other places in our lives. So, if you find yourself starting your car by using your fingerprint or an eye scan sometime in the future, stop and consider the small microchip embedded in your passport. It may have helped pave the way to your next destination.
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