What are biometric passports or ePassports?
Biometric passports or ePassports are equipped with the additional security of biometric information stored in an electronic chip embedded in the passport. Individual’s mandatory information such as his name, date of birth and other biographic information are stored on the chip along with his or her digital photograph. Advanced biometric information is slowly getting added to the ePassports of countries around the world which includes fingerprint scans and iris scans.
Biometric passports or ePassports versus conventional passports
Primary reasons for worldwide acceptance and growth in issuance of ePassports vis-à-vis the conventional passports are –
- Secure Identification of the passport holder.
- Minimal chances of forgery of biometric information stored in the passport.
- Enhanced privacy protection.
- Greater protection against identity theft.
- Ease of handling entry and exit at border controls with automated passport readers.
The below image depicts the process for biometrics-based automated border control –
How are ePassports regulated?
The onus of regulating ePassports to ensure that passports issued all over the world conform to the same standards lies on ICAO. ICAO standards for International Civil Aviation Organization. The current ICAO specifications for machine-readable passports are documented under the name “Document 9303” which is currently in its 7th Edition published in 2015.
ICAO’s Document 9303 centrally regulates the storage and usage standards for biometric information in ePassports. It has put forth the following important specifications for ePassports:
- Specifications for the Security of the Design, Manufacture and Issuance of MRTDs or Machine Readable Travel Documents.
- Optical Character Recognition Format specifications
- Specifications for enabling Machine Readable Passports (MRPs)
- Specifications for storing digital biometric information such as photographs, fingerprint scans and iris scans.
- Logical data structure of biometric information stored in Contactless Integrated Circuits (ICs).
- Security mechanisms for MRTDs which includes – prevention of data skimming, prevention of eavesdropping on the communication between IC and the reader and authentication of IC as well as encrypted data stored on ICs based on Public-Key Infrastructure (PKI).
- Specifications of PKI infrastructure requirements for encrypted data stored on ICs.
Machine Readable to Biometric Passports – Evolution of Complementary Technologies
Machine-readable passports were introduced in the 1980s. They include the biometric information of the passport holder on 2nd page of the passport in a machine-readable zone. The machine-readable zone consisted of 2 rows of 44 characters each. The characters allowed in the zone were A-Z, 0-9 and the filler character <. The information printed in the machine-readable zone is in Optical Character Recognition or OCR format. This allows OCR readers to read and processes information at border controls effectively.
The photograph in a machine-readable passport must be a digital photograph i.e. it should be a printed photograph on page 2 of the passport and not a glued photograph.
The automation of biometric information stored in MRPs however was not reliable enough to be left solely to automated readers. This was because the forging of text printed on the passports was known to exist.
However, the automatic machine-readability of MRPs using OCR Readers plays an important role in enabling the next level of authentication using biometrics which is explained next.
Steps for Automated Authentication Using Biometric Passports at Border Control
- Person Approaches the automatic-authentication enabled border control gates with a biometric passport.
- He places the passport on the scanner and contactless chip reader for reading biographic data from page 2 of the passport and biometric details stored on the Integrated Chip respectively.
- This data is checked with the servers at the back end for authenticity. If authenticated, person proceeds to step 4.
- He looks into the camera which captures his face.
- The system then contacts the server to match the face captured by the camera with the image of the passport holder’s face obtained from the Integrated Chip. If the two images match, then the user is deemed authenticated.
- The automated border control door opens and the person is allowed to exit.
How to identify whether a passport is biometric?
All passports that are biometric need to have a symbol indicating the same on the front page. The symbol to be printed is this one –
USA’s Visa Waiver Program and its biometric passport requirements
The Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015 was signed into law on December 18, 2015. The new law requires all VWP travellers to have an electronic passport (e-passport) by April 1, 2016.
The Visa Waver Program of United States allows citizens of certain countries participating in this program to travel to US visa-free i.e. without a visa. There are 38 countries in all which are allowed visa-free travel to US. There are certain conditions, regarding the passport which these travelers are carrying, which must be met in order to make them eligible for Visa Waiver Program. These are precisely the biometric security features which we have been discussing above.
The specific requirements of Visa Waiver Program are –
- The passport must have a machine-readable zone on the biographic page.
- The passport must be an electronic passport with a digital chip containing biometric information about the passport owner.
- All Visa Waiver Program country must issue passports with a digital photograph printed on the data page or their citizens will be required to obtain a visa to travel to the United States.
- All Visa Waiver Program countries must issue passports with a machine-readable zone.
- Eligible citizens or nationals from all Visa Waiver Program countries must obtain approval through Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) prior to traveling to the United States under the Visa Waiver Program.
Important Note: From April 1st 2016, all citizens travelling to US from the exempt-list of countries need to carry a biometric-security compliant passport which must satisfy the security requirements mentioned above if they want to enter the USA without a visa.
Benefits of ePassports in Various Countries
Many countries, especially multiple European countries including UK, Australia, New Zealand and United States have automated gates at border control. These automated gates work based on the biometric authentication process detailed above using biometric passports or ePassports. This allows smooth flow of passengers instead of time-consuming manual immigration check counters.