Explanation: What is a biometric passport?

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Also called e-passports or digital passports, biometric passports differ from older types of IDs in that they feature an embedded microchip that contains users’ personal information, including biometrics.

Currently, the standardized information contained in biometric passports concerns the unique biometric data of the passport holder such as facial, fingerprint or iris data. The specific types of biometric data depend on the country issuing the document.

Malaysia was the first country to issue biometric passports, starting in 1998. Electronic passports were first launched in the United States in 2006 and became the national standard in August 2007.

The characteristics of biometric passport documents and chips are described by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) in Doc 9303.

How does a biometric passport work?

At a basic level, biometric sensors and scanners analyze physical characteristics unique to each individual, such as iris and fingerprint patterns. The details of these characteristics can be quantified. For example, for facial biometrics, the distance between a person’s eyes, nose, mouth and ears.

The Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) chip in an ePassport stores a unique number that links to an individual’s biometric data.

This information is then compared by biometric and other computer systems with the digital photograph provided during the passport application to authenticate individuals as they travel between countries.

From a practical point of view, RFID technologies also allow customs and border protection officers to access information about a traveler before they arrive at the checkpoint, thus speeding up the identification process.

For context, RFID chips in biometric passports have sometimes been associated with security issues, as their information can potentially be captured by malicious actors using RFID scanners.

However, it is important to note here that the RFID chip embedded in biometric passports does not include any Personally Identifiable Information (PII).

For passports issued by participating jurisdictions, the data stored on the chip is authenticated by the public key infrastructure (PKI) operated by ICAO. There were 83 jurisdictions participating in ICAO Directory of public keys as of July 1, 2022, and dozens of other countries issuing biometric passports.

Instead, it simply stores a unique number associated with a record that has been stored in a secure government database. Biographical data such as name and date of birth are easily read with other scanners on the passport photo page, in the lower split section

Article topics

biometric passport | biometrics | digital identification | electronic passport | ICAO | RFID | standards | travel documents

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