How does an ePassport work and keep your personal data secure?

The coronavirus pandemic has prevented many of us from travelling across the world for over a year now. Yet, with more people starting to receive their first vaccination dose for the virus, governments and airline industry bodies are starting to think about how they can open up international travel again in a controlled and safe way.

If you’ve recently applied for a new passport, there is a good chance the document you receive back will be an ePassport, although this depends on your nationality. In the UK for example, all passports issued after 2006 should be ePaspports, likewise in the US all passports issued after 2007 will be ePassports and in Europe all passports issued after 2009.

What is an ePassport?

An ePassport is machine readable passport that, in addition to personal data and fingerprints of the holder, has a microchip where a digital facial image is registered. This microchip holds the same information that is printed on the passport’s data page like the holder’s name, date of birth, and photograph,  but in some countries, ePassports also contain biometric data of the user as well, such as their fingerprints.

With this microchip, an ePassport is virtually impossible to counterfeit. This is because the information inside the chip is signed using a type of electronic seal, called a digital signature, which prevents it from being copied. No one else can duplicate this seal, so no one can make a counterfeit ePassport. In addition, any attempt to change the passport information in the chip breaks the digital signature, so any attempt to tamper with the chip data is also evident to a border agent when they read the passport at passport control.

You can check if your passport is an ePassport by looking for this symbol on the front cover.

Why do they use biometrics?

The use of biometric data in the passports helps reduce fraud by ensuring data stored on the passport only matches its user. Biometrics including face shape and fingerprints are unique to each person meaning that if your ePassport was stolen, a thief couldn’t use your passport to travel. The picture is stored as a ‘template’, rather than an actual photograph, creating a kind of map using numerous points on a face or fingerprints so that a malicious actor could not copy the data and use it elsewhere.

The introduction of biometric technology into passports has also paved the way for the use of ePassport gates at border control for faster entry into a country.

When you scan your passport in the electronic reader at one of these gates in the airport your picture is taken. This creates another template, of reference points on your face, which are then cross checked against the template in your passport. If it hits the threshold for a match – 90 per cent, for example – the passenger is approved. The whole thing happens very quickly, usually in less than two seconds, and you barely have to glance at the camera for it to capture your image.

However, under-18s cannot use the ePassport gates, so if you are travelling with children you will have to go through standard passport control.

What other benefits do ePassports bring to users?

Aside from allowing for the smooth flow of passengers inside the airport, if you have an ePassport and a phone with NFC (near field communication) capabilities, you should be able to scan your passport microchip using only your phone.

With this technology, it is now possible for users to provide official proof of their identity when signing up for services like a new bank account, or applying for a driver’s license, without needing to make an in-person visit to a bank branch or other service provider.

To do this for the purpose of identity verification you’ll need to download an application (your bank or issuing authority will tell you which one) and then you place the phone onto the ePassport symbol shown above. Your device will then read the digital information stored in the microchip.

This will pave the way for your passport to be stored securely in a mobile wallet, as is already the case with your credit cards. Indeed, American Airlines has already taken the first step towards using ePassports to increase convenience for their customers. Using its app, NFC passport scanning can implemented be to help passengers check-in. This allows customers to head directly to the gate for international flights without having their passports rechecked by a customer service agent.

Do you have an ePassport? Are you looking forward to having the ability to put it in your mobile wallet? Let us know in the comments section. If you have any questions, or other technology queries, leave a comment below or tweet @techtroublesho1.

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