There is an old joke that if you look like your passport photo you probably need the trip. The advent of biometric passports means that if you don’t look like your photo, you won’t be making the trip.
The days when passengers could travel with passports in which details were entered by typewriter and photos were stapled to the document are long gone. Next time you go to the airport the chances are that the passport in your bag will be (a) machine-readable, in accordance with ISO/IEC 7501 and (b) biometric, combining paper with electronic information stored in a chip.
Machine readable travel documents (MRTDs) enable faster processing of arriving travellers by immigration officials. MRTDs are more reliable and more difficult to forge than the documents that preceded them.
Holders can beat slower moving queues by using e-gates that automatically authenticate and check their MRTDs as they pass through them. It is estimated that up to one billion people already have biometric MRTDs and a new report by TMR expects the number to rise “at a fantastic rate” as countries recognize the benefits.
Underpinning the adoption of MRTDs are International Standards prescribed by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) that define all the usable biometric file formats and protocols. ICAO—a UN specialized agency that aims to reach consensus on civil aviation Standards and Recommended Practices (SARPs)—has standardized the use of biometric and e-passports, as many countries have decided to issue them.
ICAO Document 9303 refers to a number of Standards issued by the IEC and ISO Joint Technical Committee (ISO/IEC JTC 1). For example, ICAO says biometric chips must run according to the specifications in ISO/IEC 14443 and the agency recommends ISO/IEC 10373-6, on test methods for identification cards.
Data held on biometric passport chips include the digitally coded measurements of holders’ features, such as the distances between eyes, nose, mouth and ears. For this reason, many airports require travellers not only to show their passports, but also to undergo a complete facial scan in order to pass through.
ICAO stipulates that the chip must hold the carrier’s facial details in the JPEG and JPEG 2000 formats, which is the work of ISO/IEC JTC 1/SC 29. Biometrics is the responsibility of ISO/IEC JTC 1/SC 37, including applications and exchange formats, as well as social, cultural and ethical issues related to use of biometric technologies for identifying people.
SC 37 has developed ISO/IEC 19794, a 15-part International Standard dealing with various aspects of biometric data.
The TMR study underlines the key role of ICAO regulations in making it easier and quicker for countries to adopt e-passports. It also highlights the contribution of biometric passports in preventing fraud and streamlining the immigration process.