How Polycarbonate is Creating More Secure Passport Datapages

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Passport technology is changing from the paper of the past. In the last 15 years, more than 150 countries have moved to a highly secure electronic passport that uses an inlay to support a microcontroller chip. Still, the strongest trend in passports is a polycarbonate (PC) datapage. As of today, more than 40 countries have upgraded their travel documents from the standard paper-and-laminate datapage to a PC one. This technology comes with a few challenges—and many benefits. Let’s take a look at some common questions surrounding PC.

How long have PC datapages been around?

The first PC datapage in a passport was introduced by Finland in 1997. For a few years, it remained a marginal technological breakthrough, until government IDs began adopting PC for electronic ID cards. At the beginning of the electronic passport era in 2005, Sweden was the first country to issue a passport booklet featuring a PC datapage incorporating a secure microcontroller.

What was initially a costly upgrade and technological challenge only managed by average-sized countries from Europe and a few very technology savvy governments, like Singapore or Hong Kong, became a global phenomenon when larger countries in other regions of the world like Malaysia, Thailand and Germany joined in. Several major passport issuing countries, such as the United Kingdom, the USA, Australia, Bangladesh and Indonesia have recently switched or are about to do so.

What challenges need to be overcome?

Bulky booklets: The PC datapage is visibly thicker than its paper counterpart, creating physical constraints within the booklet cover and affecting its proper closing. It makes the passport booklet bulkier and stiffer. Thanks to constant innovation on the datapage thickness, this issue is improving but it is still quite apparent on 48+ page passports.

Datapage assembly: Most secure booklet makers generally assemble paper sheets into books, but the datapage is slightly different. While pages 1 and 2 are literally the same sheet of paper as pages 31 and 32 in a 32-page booklet (and so on for pages 3/4 and 29/30), the datapage itself does not have an equivalent in the booklet: it is a stand-alone. Therefore, the assembling requires a specific process to make sure the datapage hinge is well aligned with the sewing module. Fun fact: it turns out that booklets with a PC datapage count generally have two additional pages!

Hinge integrity: The main challenge to implement a PC datapage in a booklet has always been to ensure a secure connection between the PC datapage and the booklet itself. Most technology providers in the ID industry have developed their own solutions to develop a robust effective hinge, like:

  • External hinges, which can make the datapage thicker and deforms the booklet
  • A partial hinge inserted in a portion of the datapage edge
  • An integral hinge, which goes through the complete body of the datapage and keeps the structure secure by delaminating and melting at the same temperature as the surrounding PC material

There is no surprise than most of the specific patents released on the making of PC datapages have been focused on the hinge. Today there are a variety of viable, proven and durable solutions for a PC datapage hinge on the market.

Laser engraving machine cost: The PC datapage is laser engraved, therefore its use in a passport necessitates the replacement of the previous inkjet personalization machines. Those machines and the lasers they employ are quite expensive and account for a sizable part of the budget for a PC Datapage implementation.

What are the benefits of PC?

  • PC is a common thermoplastic material used for a variety of purposes and relatively easy to source. It has become a material of choice for ID cards.
  • It is a robust material that can be easily manipulated, laminated and embossed, and its cost is similar to natural alternatives like PET or PVC.
  • A document in PC will contain multiple layers of PC material that are laminated together. During the lamination process, the PC layers are fused together; the end result is a finished material that cannot be delaminated, which is of paramount importance to the security of the document.
  • The PC material is laser engravable—that alone is a very strong upgrade in the personal data security of an ID document. The personal data are engraved inside the deeper layers of the document, and the document cannot be easily delaminated.

What does PC provide to a passport datapage?

  • The strength of a PC datapage is much greater than that of paper when subjected to routine use, such as insertion into passport readers. The introduction of a PC datapage increases the durability of the datapage and consequently the life of the booklet.
  • The laser engraving process requires no consumables, in comparison to inkjet printing machines used for the personalization of paper datapages which need supplies like ink cartridges, etc.
  • For electronic passports, the secure microcontroller chip can be embedded into the body of the datapage in a similar way as it is done for ID cards–while keeping the datapage almost visually identical, due to the contactless interface of the module. It can play the role of the electronic inlay used in the first generations of e-Passport.
  • Alternatively, it can be a simple upgrade of the paper datapage and kept separated from the chip in the back cover, which has the advantage of splitting the sensitive information of the document, delivering even further security.
  • The PC structure can be used for a series of additional innovative security features that would be impossible to achieve on a paper datapage: positive and negative embossing of the document, the use of matte or glossy finishing on the surface of the document, the inclusion of relief and laser engraving effects like CLI / MLI security features, the inclusion of one or several laser engravable personalized transparent windows of different shapes, and security features on the hinge of the document like UV print or embossing.
  • Novel thin-layer constructions can considerably reduce the final thickness of a simple datapage to less than 600 microns. Alternatively, they enable a standard 600-700 microns datapage to include more security features within the structure, meeting the constant demand for more secure documents by the end users (government authorities).

Learn more about the evolution of passports and government IDs.