The future of passports

The future of passports isn’t far off, and it isn’t in paper. While security features for current passports are printed right on the card, that technology is being eclipsed by a small microchip. Dallas-based Entrust Inc. makes the industry standard digitial signature software, PKI (public key infrastructure), which helps verify the authenticity of digital documents and credentials.

“If you look at the Canadian passport, or pretty much any passport today, they’ll put on invisible inks, they’ll put on holograms, they’ll use some very hard to get paper. They put in all of these ‘print security features,’” said. Dave Mahdi, product marketing manager at Entrust.

“The issue with just relying on paper is that people can counterfeit the paper and make fake passports,” he said. “It’s very easy for border agents to get fooled by playing around with the paper but it’s pretty hard for them to bypass the electronic credentials.”

Mahdi said the new passports will be “in Canada, I think, when you go to get a new passport after 2012.”

“It will look the same, but there’ll be a little symbol at the bottom, a box with a circle in the middle, that indicates to border agents…that it’s an electronic credential.”

In a small, slightly stiffer page in the middle of your new passport will be a microchip that works a lot like the chip in your credit card. “The first generation, or BAC – basic access control – is really (just) what you see on that page: your picture, your birthdate, the passport expiry date, all of that information.”

By having the government authenticate those credentials with Entrust’s PKI digital signature, however, “our software (acts) as a lawyer (that) notarizes that information on the chip,” Mahdi said.

He said the “signature” will work until someone attempts to change the information, picture or any part of that secure information set. At that point the signature is broken and the ePassport must be re-verified or it will set off alerts at any checkpoint.

On top of this technology, which Entrust has already sold in more than a few European countries, an update to Entrusts’ platform will allow credentials to be verified using common smartphones. Mahdi said card readers generally run a country around $5,000 per checkpoint, “but if you could find a mobile phone, one example would be the Google Nexus S, that has capabilities in it to actually read electronic passports,” it would lower the economic barrier to entry.

Entrust has also begun to offer their software as a SaaS subscription that can be accessed through the cloud anywhere where WiFi is reachable.

This is all well and good, and could potentially empower governments with huge, porous borders to more easily and cheaply secure them, but independent technology analyst, Carmi Levy, doesn’t think adoption will happen too quickly.

“The challenge to getting these solutions launched, however, isn’t so much technological as it is regulatory,” Levy said. Governments have to settle on technology and process standards for their border control agencies, a process that can take years to navigate through the inevitable red tape.”

But for countries that can implement ePassports, the real benefit, Mahdi believes, besides the speed and mobility border agents get through mobile card readers, is the reduction in false rejections. He related a story of a Kenyan-born Canadian who was detained in Kenya when a border agent didn’t believe the photo in her Canadian passport was her. “Had that document been electronic, he’d be able to open up the image on the computer and look at it to get a cleaner image,” and she would have ended up on a plane back to Canada instead of wrongly imprisoned.

He also added that ePassport technology could give travelers who share names with those on watch lists reason to breathe a sigh of relief as records can be more quickly accessed.

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