Integrated Security Features Reduce the Risks of Paper Documents

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As he waits to travel outside the EU, a man stands in the border control line to get his passport checked. He is a bit nervous, but his passport does not take any longer to get checked than the passport of the traveller before him. The border control officer takes a quick look at the security features on the polycarbonate data page and the security thread, the data is read from the MRZ and we’re done. Next one, please!

Prior to his travel date, this man applied for a new passport with a birth certificate. A simple stamp validated the authenticity of the original document. The passport officer accepted that birth certificate to process the man’s passport application and issued him his new passport. The man crossed the EU border to Asia with his new passport because it is what it is: a genuine passport with all the right security features and electronic security. Yet, the man’s identity on the document is a fake one.

Birth certificates are not only needed for passport applications, but also to register for school or to obtain a driver’s license. In some countries, your birth certificate assigns your nationality. Remarkably, this unchecked piece of paperwork is used as the gatekeeper to many documents that we consider secure.

Stopping Identity Fraud Before it Starts

As identity fraud has advanced to one of the most pressing and frequent crimes of the 21st century, governments are interested in implementing new ways to improve the security of their citizens’ proof of identity including passports and ID cards. In many parts of the world, these standardized identity documents have moved from solely paper-based security to electronic security by integrating microchip processors. Nevertheless, a method to make paper documents more secure remains a top priority for passports and breeder documents such as birth certificates.

Differentiating real paper documents from imitations has become more and more difficult as state of the art printers are available everywhere at very reasonable prices. A black market of counterfeiters selling birth certificates to the highest bidder has emerged as these sophisticated tools becoming mainstream. What steps can governments take towards combatting these security threats?

The Must-have Integrated Security Features for Paper Documents

Paper documents should have all — or a blend of — six unique features in order to guarantee their security. Three of these features are incorporated into the document during the manufacturing process. The other three can be applied onto the document at the time of issuance.

Incorporated into the document (during manufacture):

  • Security fibers, fluorescent particles or planchettes. Security fibers, fluorescent particles or planchettes can be added to the paper during manufacturing and become visible under daylight and/or under UV light.
  • Watermark. A watermark is a pattern in the paper which becomes visible only under transmitted light. The feature is easily visible, and the risks of replication are low, because a high level of expertise in paper manufacturing is required. Moreover, you can add prestige to the document by personalizing the shape of the watermark.
  • Chemicals. By adding chemicals to the paper during production, the printed text on a paper document cannot be altered or erased. The chemicals will expose the attempted forgery by coloring the paper which will dissuade any alteration attempt.

Applied onto the document (at time of issuance):

  • Background printing. Background printing is a common practice and an effective way to secure paper documents, including passports. Methods include: guilloches, microprint, anti-copy pattern, optical variable inks, latent image and intaglio. These security prints make it almost impossible to forge the paper as special inks give a tactile effect to the document. The printed background gives the paper a level of detail that is too complex for a normal printer. It can also be used to hide an image. When the document is copied the image will no longer be visible as it is protected by a pattern called a “latent image.”
  • Holographic or printed threads. Banknote and tax label industries prefer to apply holographic or printed threads. The document is not only secured, but also personalized with emblems, a coat of arms, portraits etc., giving a unique identity to the paper document.
  • Printed laminate. To protect information like personal data or the signature on the paper, a printed laminate can be applied. The laminate has two purposes: protecting the security of the written information and enhancing the look of the paper with a laminate that includes a hologram or a printed feature. If the laminate is removed, the ink printed on it will be separated and appear on the paper and the chemical substances in the ink will make any alteration attempts visible.

Using Multiple Security Features Guarantees the Best Results

When these features work together, they provide the highest level of protection to paper documents. Copying, forging or counterfeiting the paper will become exceptionally challenging for fraudsters.

To learn how secure ID documents provide a foundation for a more secure citizenry, visit

Anne-Laure Letan is a Product Manager for security components in HID’s Citizen Identity (CID) division. Prior to that, she worked as a Supply Chain Manager with Arjo Systems, where she developed her knowledge of security components by handling different customer projects, ranging from component selling to complete ID card and passport solutions. Arjo Systems, an ID solution company, was acquired by HID in 2017.