December 2006

Future travels secure, safer. How?

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At 7:42 am on the Logan International Airport in Boston, passengers of the American Airlines company flight to Los Angeles did not suspect at least that there were two Al-Qaeda members, Mohammad Atta and Abdulaziz Al-Omari, in line for embark. At 8:46 am instead of landing in Los Angeles, the plane finishing it flight zooms into the Tower 1 of the World Trade Center in New York, causing death of hundreds of innocent civilians. That is how the largest attack on USA interests, ever made on her soil, started, avalanching political and social changes around the world, in which common and individual safety became the most respected value of modern society. This immediately made crucial the very issue of how to make future travel secure and safer.

Electronic identity of travelers

Alongside with practically unlimited possibilities of traveling worldwide, the need was born for the improved generation of travel documents which are resistant to every sight of attempt counterfeits. Answers to such needs are the machine-readable electronic passports, which from outside, seems to be like usual conventional passports. They consist of the same printed personal data of passport carrier and his/her picture. Besides printed data, such passport has the special polycarbonate page with the built-in RFID (radio frequency identity) chip and an aerial. This plastic page is a classic contactless smart card. Personal data and the image of the passport holder are stored in the digital form, and the aerial enables the contactless data transfer from the chip. Some countries attend to include additional biometrical data, like the fingerprints or eye iris scan, in order to make identification of passport bearer more reliable.

Conventional passports with the picture and safety imprint cannot longer respond to security requirements, so governments worldwide introduce, or are getting ready to introduce, modern passports based on the chip which holds biometric data of passport bearer

An electronic passport automates and accelerates the process of identity check and increases the safety on the border. What does happen on passport control? The officer who is responsible for passport control take the passport and permeate the page holding data and picture of passport carrier through the special reader, in order to read off characters of two printed lines which are found at the bottom of this page. Every passport on the world has unique contents of these two lines of MRZ (machine readable zone) characters.The reader must compute the characters and use the first line as an authentication key to wake the smartcard chip and use the second as an encryption key. A mathematically generated digital signature ensures that no one has altered any of the stored data. For the reason of safety, the data can be read off only from a very small distance from the chip, using previously obtained read authorisation. Energy from the reader appliance activates the chip, which passes on the data about the bearer of the passport to the screen of computer. Passport control officer can see now all information about the bearer of the passport with his/her picture, like these data have been presented in the printed form.Comparing picture from the screen, picture printed in the passport and the face of the bearer, visual check of passenger’s identity is achieved. Information which is found on the chip is protected using public key technologies, so in the same time, passport control officer can automatically verify if the passport is issued by the authorised government institution from the relevant country.

Data stored on the chip have been recorded according to the standards of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) in order to make electronic passports of all countries, and suitable appliances for their reading, mutually compatible. By introducing ICAO compatible, machine-readable electronic passports, every possibility of counterfeiting travel documents is avoided.

Electronic passports

The US government began issuing service and diplomatic electronic passports this spring, and by the end of this year new civil passports would be issued only as electronic one. However, old passports would continue until their expiration. As a safety measure, after the September 11 attacks, the US government has made it mandatory that citizens of 27 countries including Japan, Australia, other EU member states, in its visa-waiver pool must hold electronic passports. However, nations such as Italy and France crossed the 26 October 2005 deadline, and failed to satisfy the requirements of the US Department of Homeland Security to produce electronic passports with the stored picture of passport holder in the digital format. The citizens of these two countries who own the conventional passport have been asked to compulsorily obtain an entry visa. The other regions would be required to add additional biometric data. The European Union, for instance, would store fingerprints in the memory of the chip.

Personal data security

Smart card built in the electronic passport doesn’t broadcast data, but using the suitable equipment; data can be read off from specific distance. Alongside the announcement of electronic passports publishing, different scenarios of abuse of this technology appeared. According to these scenarios, terrorists and criminals can use electronic passports to identify citizens.

Electronic passports system use the PKI scheme prescribed by International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), which enables passport control authorities to check the authenticity and data integrity of the stored data. The ICAO special technical instruction describes the ways to implement this technology, and program member countries have a possibility to make choices in a few distinct areas like setting access control, measures taken against unauthorised data scanning, automatic borders transfer etc. For the prevention of unauthorised data scanning, there is a possibility of implanting metal foil in passport rinds, so the data could not be read off before opening the passport.

Price differences of non-personalised electronic and conventional passports, as well as equipment for the personalisation, are very small. Introduction of this technology increases credibility of security institutions of a country and surely is working for visa facilitation to their citizens.

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