Why Are Paper Passports Still a Thing?

As the migrant crisis in Europe fuels the counterfeit passport market, why haven’t IDs become more secure?

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Apr 15 2016, 5:10pm

Gif: Giphy

When he visited Australia this summer, my friend's passport never got stamped. It wasn't an accident or oversight by border control, but rather a part of the country's standard immigration process.

Before he departed from New York, he registered online for an electronic visa, and upon arrival, he had his photo taken and visa verified by a machine at the border.

While he did have to insert his passport into the machine, it seemed like merely an extra step. The majority of the process had been completely digitized, which made me wonder: Why are paper passports still a thing?

It's now possible to rapidly verify someone's identity based on all sorts of biological markers, like fingerprints, retinal scans, and other forms of biometrics. We already use these sorts of technologies to unlock our phones, and we might soon use them to pay for our morning coffee, so why couldn't we scan a body part instead of carrying around a clunky paper passport?

Afterall, millions of passports are stolen each year. Interpol has a database of stolen passports going back to 2002 and, according to the organization, it contains more than 50 million records. More recently, fraudulent passports have become a massive problem in the EU, as hundreds of thousands of migrants try to enter Europe from war zones like Syria using either stolen or fabricated documents.

Couldn't we avoid this problem if we used biological information to identify people instead of a paper booklet? Turns out, it's not that simple.

The government can't just issue you a new finger or eyeball

One of the reasons that governments may be reluctant to switch over to one of the new forms of biometric identification is that it's still surprisingly easy to hack. Finger scanners can be easily hacked using fake body parts printed using 3D printers. It's also relatively easy to hack a retina scanner. Even facial recognition technology is far from foolproof.

There's also the question of where we would store all that data. Currently, there are over 125 million valid passports in the United States, and creating a cloud database of digital passports would be incredibly expensive not only to create, but also to protect from hackers.

The larger problem is, if your fingerprint or retinal data is stolen, the government can't just issue you a new finger or eyeball. What would we do for these citizens?

It would be shortsighted to bet the entire global passport structure on one of these relatively new innovations, because they could end up causing more problems than they solve.

In large countries especially, the bureaucracy responsible for issuing passports is incredibly large. In 2015 alone, the US issued more than 15.5 million passports and passport cards. It would require an incredibly hefty, not to mention expertly coordinated, effort in order to switch over to a completely new, passport-free system.

Image: U.S. Department of State

Besides, the passports that many countries already have are pretty technologically advanced. Many countries, including the US, issue "biometric passports," and have done so since 2005. If you have one, you'll know by the circular symbol stamped on the front. Biometric passports, or e-passports, contain biometric information that can be used to identify passengers.

They include contactless smart card technology (which is what allows them to be read at passport kiosks in airports) and a small microchip. Information about a passenger using a biometric passport isn't just found next to your photograph, it's also stored in the microchip. All of these features make biometric passports way harder to forge. They're currently issued by the United States, Australia, the EU, Brazil, Cambodia, and a whole host of other countries.

Some countries' biometric passports contain information like fingerprints and iris scans in their microchips, although this is not the case everywhere. In the United States, biometric measures are even part of the visa application process.

"I think it's important to note that there is no single biometric passport. Each country can issue its own and have the passport designed and produced in house or by private companies," William Walters, a Political Science and Sociology/Anthropology professor at Carleton University in Canada, where he has written extensively about citizenship studies, told me.

These kinds of passports have cut down on the number of fakes, William Cocks, a spokesperson from the State Department's Bureau of Consular affairs told me, although he didn't say how much.

The underlying problem that passports represent is that we still don't know how to connect the digital world to the physical one. While current passports do have a digital element, the physical component is still necessary. It will likely be sometime before we don't carry around any sort of physical identification.

In the future, we might see the development of some sort of implanted chip that could eventually replace a passport. In January, a Dutch tech entrepreneur successfully used an implanted chip in order to board a flight in Stockholm. An office in Sweden is already using under-the-skin chips in order to identify employees (though it's optional). However, the prospect of governments implanting what is essentially a tracking device into every person represents a far too dystopian future for many.

Australia is already testing a kind of virtual passport, where information about passengers will be stored remotely in a cloud server. If implemented, it would allow Australians to travel to partnering countries (the only one right now is New Zealand) without the risk of their physical passports being stolen.

When I asked Walters if we would ever see a paperless system in other countries, he said that it's quite possible, but not on a global scale. Paperless passports are more likely to be implemented by wealthier countries, he told me.

Passport standards today are regulated by the International Civil Aviation Organization, (ICAO) which operates under the United Nations. In 2015, it released an updated version of Document 9303, which suggests specifications that machine readable passports and biometric passports should adhere to. If we ever do switch over to something like an implantable chip, it will likely be regulated through ICAO.

What eventually replaces the passport will have to be something that strikes the balance between reliability, security, and human rights.

Until we make some headway, I'll keep waiting in immigration lines, collecting stamps.

Why Is This Still a Thing is a column exploring the anachronistic, seemingly-outdated technology that surrounds us. New columns appear every Friday.