Biometric Passports

With talks of increased security measures for traveling abroad, one cannot help but come across mention of “Biometric Passports” in regard to making international travel safer. With technology and security factors always changing, a biometric passport seems to be the direction that many countries are taking to ensure that the risk of identity theft is kept at a minimum, and also that security measures at departure and destination airports are non-invasive.

What is a Biometric Passport?

Commonly known as an e-Passport in Europe, a Biometric Passport looks just like a typical paper passport, with the exception that there is a microprocessor inside that stores the passport owner’s personal data, which is encrypted so that it can only be read by authorized personnel. The passport is then scanned by an electronic reading device, and a screen displays the stored information so that security personnel at an airport can match the information with the passport holder. Because of the level of encryption – which usually works with databases and access permissions that are stored on servers that communicate with the reader/scanner and the biometric passport – having a biometric passport is thought by some to be the most secure form of identification that one can carry when traveling.

 What information is on a Biometric Passport?

 The microprocessor is a biometric passport can hold an amazing amount of information, but typically, when it is scanned, what is displayed on the screen is simply what is normally found inside your passport – your name, passport identification number, address, and your picture. Some countries have other information on their passports, depending on the requirements made of their citizens. Poland, for example, requires that their passports have an image of the holder’s fingerprints on the chip. Canada and New Zealand have taken the digital imagery capabilities of the biometric passport a bit further by making the picture of the passport owner able to be processed by facial recognition software, thereby increasing your level of personal security beyond that of a simple visual match.

 Are Biometric Passports required in the United States?

 United States Passports do fall under the biometric heading, but only to the extent that they carry information on an RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) chip that can be scanned by a reader, and the encrypted data is displayed on a screen that shows the basic information contained in a regular passport in order to ensure safe and efficient processing while traveling internationally. The United States does not require fingerprints, medical history, or any of the other measures that Eastern Europe and Asia have implemented for international travel.

Paper-less Visas and the United States Visa Waiver Program

 The United States Enhanced Border and Visa Reform Act in 2002 was a driving force in pushing travel requirements beyond the age of stamped paper and into the digital realm. Steps were taken to develop technology to not only read biometric and RFID passports, but also develop electronic identification cards to replace travel and work visas for non-citizens traveling or working within the United States.

For now, all residents of foreign countries wishing to enter the United States on what is called the Visa Waiver Program – which would enable people to travel within the United States from other countries without having to go through the bureaucracy and time-intensive visa application process. In order to do this, a person must be in possession of a present a biometric passport that conforms to the standards agreed upon by the international community. This means that at the very minimum, the person’s name, passport identification number, address, and a digital image of the passport holder must be readable by the electronic passport scanner.

The bottom line

 Biometric Passports and RFID Passports are not – despite the scare tactics of the media – invasions of privacy. What is contained on the electronic chip is the basic information the government requires of its citizens to travel internationally. Having a Biometric or RFID Passport makes the lines at the airport go faster, because the electronic scanner does away with the need to go through a passport page by page to find the pertinent information. Also, because of the encryption placed on the data held on a biometric passport and the way it communicated with the electronic scanner and off-site servers housing the data and permissions, there are layers of personal security against forgery and identification theft that ensure you are who you say you are, and keep you safe during your travel abroad.