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The High-Tech Features That Make Passports Secure

The flimsy pages and patriotic designs betray just how many security measures are hidden inside.

UV lights illuminate security features of a German passport.
Thomas Peter/Reuters

This post is part of a CityLab series on borders—both real and imagined—and what draws so many of us to places on the edge.

On its face, a passport is little more than a booklet barely the size of a greeting card. But it’s a powerful tool, facilitating movement across borders, and for some, serving as the most reliable proof of identity and nationality.

More than half of the U.S. population doesn’t own a passport, and many don’t intend to, but look beyond the American border and a different story emerges. In times of desperation, passports are highly coveted by refugees, for example, who feel trapped by civil war or violence in their homeland. And amid the anxiety surrounding migration in Europe, with borderless and passport-free travel increasingly a luxury of the past, that desperation intensifies. So much so that there’s a “booming” industry of smugglers selling fake U.S. and European passports for hundreds, even thousands of dollars each, according to Al Jazeera. That price depends on how difficult they are to forge.

In the U.S., what was initially just a 12- by 18-inch sheet of paper during the 1700s is now—and has been for more than a decade—equipped with all kinds of security features, both visible and invisible to the untrained eye. From holograms and “optically variable” inks to embedded chips that enable facial recognition, the flimsy pages and patriotic designs betray just how high-tech passports really are.

To get a better idea, CityLab spoke with Barry Kefauver, a former deputy assistant secretary for Passport Services at the State Department who now consults the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) on passport standards and technology.

Worldwide, passports follow a few security and design standards laid out by ICAO, a 191-member U.N. agency that ensures that aviation policies and regulations in each country maintain some consistency across the globe. One of the most fundamental standards is that all passports must include a minimum use of different features that address three levels of security concerns. Another mandates that all these booklets must be machine readable—a provision established in 2015, effectively phasing out all handwritten documents. And while not mandatory, passports from some 135 countries have chips embedded into them with vital information.

“Interoperability is the keyword, so that a document issued by France can be used by Singapore,” Kefauver says. And it’s important that the document has enough security features for authorities on both sides of a border to trust that the passport holder is the rightful owner.

Those holograms aren’t just for looks

If you look closely at an Australian passport, you’ll find several pairs of holographic kangaroos that appear to float and “dance” as you tilt the page. Others include psychedelic holograms of monuments, buildings, maps, and as slew of other symbols strategically splashed across different pages.

Holograms, popular in the anti-counterfeiting industry, were one such measure. Invented in the 1940s, holograms didn’t appear on the passport until the 1980s when the United Nations placed one on its passport. Individual countries soon took advantage of the technology, with the United Arab Emirates being the first to introduce an all-over transparent hologram on its passport in the ‘90s.

Aside from that, countries can choose from a list of other features: watermarks, invisible ink, special material for the pages, and tiny threads with hidden messages embedded into the pages of a passport. What’s used depends on the country itself and its own set of priorities and budget constraints.

At a minimum, though, countries have to include a mix of different attributes that comply with ICAO’s three levels of security standards. At the first level are features that have to be immediately recognizable if something is off—like the hologram. The second dictates that there has to be a way for data to be written into, say, the photo of a passport that may be invisible to the naked eye. (Kefauver says if you look closely at the pages of the U.S. passport, you might be able to find that strip of mylar, a sort of plastic thread, with a message written on it.) Then the third set, which Kefauver declined to elaborate on, are “covert” features that give inspectors an extra layer of confidence if they’re inspecting a suspicious document.

Machine-readable passport

Passports were made so that they couldn’t be tampered with. “The missing link then was trying to draw relations between the document and the person using it,” Kefauver says. That’s where machine-readability—a technology developed and used in passports starting from the ‘80s—came into the picture. In an effort to do away with handwritten travel documents, the ICAO in 2015 required that all passports had to be machine-readable, which explains the two lines of mysterious code at the bottom of every passport’s bio-page. That code incorporates various algorithms and hidden information that allow a machine to assess the legitimacy of a passport and determine if it has been tampered with.

According to Kefauver, machine-readability marked the most significant milestone in the evolution of the passport. “The [machine-readable travel document] functionality was probably the major break through that took the passport into something of a new horizon,” he says. Along with that is the digitization of the passport. So instead of a photo glued into the document, as seen in the early days, photos are printed into the page to further prevent counterfeits.

Making the passport even smarter

U.S. citizens have been warned that changes are coming to their passports, and they’re encouraged to renew early, given a likely backlog of applications.

Despite all the security measures already on the passport, Kefauver admits that counterfeiting hasn’t been eliminated. The most significant change for those who hold an older passport from before 2009 is the addition of a chip that holds not only the information listed in your bio page, but also certain biometrics. Depending on how a country incorporates these biometrics, that can include measurements of a person’s physical characteristics (with information on irises or fingerprints, for example) and even behavioral characteristics.

So far, Kefauver says, nearly 90 percent of the world’s passports have a chip embedded in them, though ICAO has not made it mandatory due to the time and resources it takes to implement, which may be out of reach to some countries. When the chips were first introduced, they ran into concerns about the vulnerability of the data stored on the chip. Critics warned that data could be stolen via “skimming” (like how credit card information can be stolen) or “eavesdropping,” when data gets intercepted as it is read. But he says they’re missing one point: stealing that information and trying to use it is like trying to board a plane with merely a copy of someone’s passport.

Still vulnerable

News of stolen passports has still emerged in recent years in relation to terrorist attacks and downed planes, which means passports are not 100 percent protected. But today, Kefauver says, criminal activity isn’t not so much about faking a passport as it is about faking an identity. “Document fraud as it was historically shifting to identity fraud, where bad people have concluded that it is very difficult to mess with these passports,” he says. That means protection doesn’t start at the borders, but inside them.

Still, “all of those safeguards have evolved over the years that the passport has been described as the most secured document in today's world,” he adds. “But that's not to say it's perfect, or absolute, or that that aren't imperfections, and that's not to say there's not a huge amount of work that continues to be need to be done.”

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