Securing borders with biometrics: ePassports and the Future of Travel

Governments should consider best practices when it comes to e-passport implementation, writes Ahmad Khalafat of Gemalto

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Securing borders with biometrics: ePassports and the Future of Travel ePassports offer new capabilities for travellers and authorities, says Khalafat.
By  Ahmad Khalafat Published  January 15, 2018

In 2016, an unprecedented 3.7 billion people flew to their destinations across the globe, with the Middle East recording the fastest air traffic growth among all the regions for the fifth year in a row. There is no sign of this trend slowing down as the Middle East is projected to maintain the highest regional growth in the world with an extra 244 million passengers per year by 2035.

While such extensive air travel is ultimately a positive development for the global economy, governments are looking at the most convenient yet secure measures to accommodate travellers. In particular, large scale events such as Expo 2020 in Dubai mean that there will be increasing queues at airport and borders. In fact, UAE officials are expecting to welcome 25 million visitors to the upcoming event which presents challenges for both security and airport efficiency.

Now, more than ever before, the massive free flow of people, goods and information means nations have to be hyper-vigilant and heavily scrutinise every passenger passing though the world’s airports.

How can authorities ensure that passengers have an efficient travel experience, while maintaining the highest standards for safety and security? It’s no surprise that governments, particularly those in the Middle East, are rapidly transitioning to the biometric passport or ‘ePassport’. Countries like Oman and Lebanon have recently introduced the ePassport in order to become more efficient and secure.

ePassports use smart card technology and, unlike conventional passports, it has a microprocessor which stores a digital version of the ID photo as well as all of the ID data found on the first page of the paper passport. The technology was first introduced in 2005 and, today, more than 120 states across the world have started issuing this new type of travel document. Not only are ePassports more secure, they offer ease of travel for passengers by cutting down on queues and waiting times.

To ensure robust protection against counterfeiting, authorities must focus on the design and processes when creating their new national travel documents. Using a number of different elements will ensure that the document cannot be split apart, manipulated or tampered with, without leaving some easily traceable marks.

The below best practices should be considered by authorities when developing new travel documents:

Define the right set of materials, products, and processes: The set of passport security features used to protect a document should encompass diverse and special technologies, the use of rare materials, and processes that require in-depth expertise. This complex structure makes the document difficult to duplicate.

Mix the artwork and security design as early as possible: Passports and ID documents are a showcase for the country issuing them. It is important that the security of these documents is integrated closely with the artwork and leads to an aesthetically appealing product. When different secure elements and repeated information are connected together, they should be detectable and recognisable easily. For example, the design of the Oman ePassport is derived from Omani heritage of the dagger and Islamic and Arabic decorations as well as three dimensional drawings of the most prominent landmarks of Oman.

Protect the document and the citizen’s data: Passport security features work best when combined and integrated in the document. It is recommended to duplicate personalisation elements, usually the holder’s picture and the document number, within security features at different security levels.

Less is more: usability is key: Passport security features that are too complex or expensive to be authenticated provide no additional protection. This approach maximises visibility and usability of the document. The aim is to make it complex in terms of the details, but simple for control officers.

Create a high level of durability: Durable travel documents will survive the required validity period without significant visual change. They will therefore make more difficult targets for the fraudsters and counterfeiting more difficult. A high level of conformance between all genuine documents will also make copying and counterfeiting more difficult. That’s because the difference between a fake and a genuine passport will be easier to detect.

So what is next for cutting-edge passport technology? It is important that governments use the most innovative and advanced technologies available in order to stay ahead of fraudsters. Currently, there are 1,000 million ePassports in circulation and technologies enabling smart borders and smart airports are emerging at a faster pace. This technology opens the door to a range of automated, self-service airport facilities for passengers, from check-in to immigration control and boarding.

A new generation of electronic passport will digitally store travel information such as eVisas and entry/exit stamps to support even more efficient immigration control. They offer travellers a taste of cross-border movement that is as secure as it is swift and seamless.

Over the next few years, new trends are expected to emerge like tamper-proof polycarbonate data pages and an increased use of smart phone technology. Storing new biometric data, smarter border controls, integrating the passport with innovative smartphone apps can provide impressive opportunities.

It is important for governments to remember that ePassports are not immune to attack. Increasing the use of the microprocessor technology has raised the bar but not put off the fraudsters completely and, as the technology changes, fraudsters become more sophisticated. Governments therefore must remain vigilant and keep up with the latest technological advancements when creating new travel documents.

Ahmad Khalafat is Regional Director for Government Programs at Gemalto Middle East.

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