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What are biometric passports?

More than a decade has passed since migration to electronic passports started back in 2005. In that time, more than 150 countries have now started issuing ePassports and they are fast becoming the de facto travel documents for all countries around the world.

Electronic passports were the first to be introduced in 2005, however, the origins of biometric passports date back to 1998 when Malaysia became the first country in the world to introduce them.

Today, biometric passports (also known as ePassports or digital passports) use a standardised set of biometrics to identify individuals that can include: facial recognition, fingerprint recognition and iris recognition. 

Biometric passports were introduced to improve security and cut down on identity fraud. The additional security features not only make biometric passports much more secure, but also improve the customer experience when passing through customs in airports throughout the world.

In New Zealand, biometric passports were first introduced in 2005.

What is a biometric passport?

A biometric passport has an embedded microchip that holds your personal information, as well as your photograph. The electronic microprocessor chip is found on a polycarbonate sheet contained within your passport that allows a computer to read the information contained on the microchip.

The RFID microchip can contain a lot of information and includes:

  • Facial recognition scan
  • Fingerprint scan
  • Iris recognition scan
  • Personal information including date of birth, ID number and digital signature

The introduction of the biometric passport has brought about a tightening of borders around the world and the enhanced security features of biometric passports are helping to reduce crime, identity theft and terrorism.

In addition to the embedded microchip, biometric passports also contain additional security features including complex watermarks and intricately designed pages.

What does a biometric passport look like?

The design of the outside of passports has not really changed over the last century. Here in New Zealand, the first passport was launched in 1915 and since then, the design of the cover has not changed all that much.

The main distinguishing feature of the outside of a biometric passport is the addition of the international biometric symbol – a small gold camera icon that is typically found at the bottom of the front cover of biometric passports.

The other features of a biometric passport are largely unseen. You may remember how the identity page of earlier generations of passports include small lumps and ridges – security features that made passports harder to replicate. These are now no longer needed in biometric passports and instead, more subtle features are used to add layers of security on top of the embedded microchip.

Biometric information

Here in New Zealand, Immigration New Zealand confirms the identity of everyone entering the country using biometric information stored in their passport. INZ confirms the identity of a person by comparing a photograph or fingerprint to a stored version. Facial recognition using a person’s image captured at immigration border control is the most common biometric information used for identification purposes.

New Zealand uses biometric information to counter identity fraud. Immigration fraud damages New Zealand because it displaces genuine immigrants, and it is time-consuming and expensive to remedy.

Detecting fraud using biometric information:

  • Reduces the cost of managing the New Zealand border
  • Enables early detection of fraud
  • Improves public safety by limiting the ability of criminals and terrorists to enter the country

What are the advantages of biometric passports?

The move to biometric passports was primarily to improve safety and security. The innovative microchips can store a lot of personal information about an individual as well as biometric data that makes it extremely hard to forge or replicate.

The main advantages of biometric passports are:

Security

It is impossible to steal your identity chip. Although it can be detected from a few metres away, the data cannot be obtained without a physical passport.

All ePassports that have been issued by countries that are part of the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) and the USA have security features that prevent unauthorised reading of any data stored on the microprocessor chip.

Biometric data is extremely difficult and expensive to forge or replicate. We have talked widely about the secure nature of biometrics in previous posts and our post Is biometric data secure? goes into detail about the secure nature of biometric data.

A third part cannot store any verification data on the embedded microchip in your biometric passport because it uses a Public-Key Infrastructure (PKI). This encryption key will not be issued to fake data, and it will be caught immediately.

The PKI allows for the secure electronic transfer of your personal information using the microprocessor chip on your biometric passport.

Convenience

Another significant benefit of biometric passports is the convenience for people that have one. Biometric passports, or ePassports as they are often referred, allow the holder to go through the automated ePassport gates, avoiding long lines at the traditional border control gates.

Your biometric passport is simply scanned to verify that you are who you say you are, and the holder can pass through immediately to the next stage of the arrival or departure process.

Cost Savings

For airports, biometric passports have allowed them to reduce the number of staff needed to process arrivals and departures are airports. The ePassport gates mean that fewer border control staff are required to process people entering and leaving a country, helping to redistribute those members of staff to other areas of the airport, helping to improve security and lower costs.

How do biometric passports work around the world?

With over 150 countries now using biometric passports, the process of entering and leaving a country is becoming a lot more consistent no matter where you are in the world.

Whilst ePassports are not mandatory to gain entry to most countries around the world, non-biometric passports are gradually being phased out. The United States requires that all travellers entering the country under the Visa Waiver Program get an ePassport if their current passport was issued on or after October 26, 2006.

Usually, the inspection process for all biometric passports is the same for that of non ePassports. If you’re arriving at a U.S. port of entry, all people with ePassports will be directed by either signage or personnel at U.S. Customs and Border Protection booth.

How Immigration New Zealand uses biometric information

According to the Immigration New Zealand website, “The Immigration Act 2009 (the Act) enables Immigration New Zealand (INZ) to gather biometric information.

INZ collects both images and fingerprints to:

  • Identify and check the identity of foreigners seeking resettlement
  • Help identify refugees under New Zealand’s quota programme
  • Identify and check people under investigation at the border
  • Record the identity of deportees and stop them re-entering New Zealand under another identity
  • Identify and check people suspected of breaching the Act
  • Expose assumed identities

The website goes on to say, “We tell you when we intend to collect your biometric information. You’ll have the opportunity to see the information and the right to dispute its accuracy.

“The Act requires us to collect your biometric information when you apply for a visa. If you refuse, we can reject your application.

“Although New Zealand citizens provide facial identity through their passports, INZ never collects their fingerprints.”

New Zealand is a member of the Five Country Conference (FCC) – an international agreement to exchange information on immigration matters. The members are:

  • New Zealand
  • Australia
  • United Kingdom
  • Canada
  • The United States

The FCC shares fingerprint information to detect immigration and identity fraud. When one member asks for fingerprint information from another, the receiving country destroys the fingerprint if it finds no match. Members do not share biographical data like names or personal details unless they match a fingerprint. They don’t share their own citizens’ data.

Summary

Biometric passports will soon be the de facto passport for all countries throughout the world and we will continue to see the increased use of biometrics in order to keep our borders safe. The COVID-19 pandemic has seen a rapid advancement in biometric technology such as facial recognition to reduce the contact points at airports and provide a safe environment for travellers. As the world starts to open up once more, and international travel resumes to pre-pandemic levels, expect to see the increased use of biometrics, not only in travel but across many areas of our lives.

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