Many Small Steps to Enhanced Passport Security – The real value of security components

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A huge number of people cross borders every hour, many of them by air. If you consult flight radar apps, where one can follow every airplane currently in the air, air traffic is sometimes so heavy that you are not even able to spot a patch of sky amongst flight paths. It is estimated by the International Aviation Trade Association (IATA) that the number of travelers will double in the next twenty years. The world is becoming a smaller place.

A Passport Grants the Freedom to Travel in Good Times and in Bad

A passport enables people to move freely across borders. All travelers must present their passports to border control officers at some point during international travel. For many of us, a passport enables us to happily travel the world and experience new cultures. For others, a passport allows them to officially leave their country in a crisis and enter another, while carrying an internationally recognized identity document for safe passage. This can be the key to a stable future.

In Search of the Origins of the Passport: Giving “Safe Passage,” Thanks to a Letter

Showing a specific document to cross a border legitimately is not new. The first reference to this type of document appeared in the Old Testament, which mentions a letter issued to travelers in order to grant "safe passage." It was a couple centuries later that the word “passport” came to life. Documents were issued for travelers by local authorities to let them "pass through the gate” (in French pass-porte). Later, the passport became a piece of paper with a picture of the holder glued to it, along with some personal data. Today, it has evolved to the well-known booklet we carry with us during our travel.

With the increasing need for security and the general trend of digitalization, the passport has become more sophisticated. Complex security features—often chips—contain and safeguard the personal data of the passport holder. New printing techniques substitute for handwritten or machine-written data and secure the data through technology. However, there are a few more steps to take if a government wants to truly ensure the security of a passport.

More than 40 Security Components in a Standard Passport

Security components are distributed all over an identity document. The more that are added, the more difficult it becomes to detect and forge them, which contributes immensely to the security of the ID document. Most security components serve as customizable design elements as well, allowing a government to give its passport its own recognizable look.

The actual number of security components and features that a passport contains is surprising to many of us. There are more than 40 components in a passport, and every page contains more than ten security features.

The Passport Cover: The First Step to Design and Security

If at first glance every passport seems to fulfill the same criteria, take a look around you during your next visit to the airport, and you will see that there is quite a range of passport colors. You will easily find red, green, light blue, dark blue, maroon and many others. The variety is wide, but the combination of any one of these various colors with a country’s name and emblem embossed in silver or gold is always striking.

The Hidden Meanings Behind Passport Colors

Although governments have the freedom to choose whatever color they like for their cover, in some cases we can determine a hidden logic around the colors.

  • Blue: Blue has become the color for many Latin American countries such as Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil and Venezuela, as well as the Caribbean Islands, the U.S., and its territories.
  • Green: A green cover is often associated with Muslim countries. It is believed that green was the favorite color of the Prophet and represents nature. Passports of the Kingdom of Morocco, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran have a green cover.
  • Burgundy: This dark red color is often used by European countries. The reason behind this choice is not clear—it could be by chance, or perhaps the reason is a well-kept secret.

Besides giving a distinctive look, the cover is not solely a design element. It is a security component that protects the booklet. Governments are offered different options, such as textile or paper, which are made of various materials, such as varnish or cellulose. The material of the cover has to be strong and durable, as the lifecycle of a passport is ten years, according to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) standards. A cover that is made of a flexible material facilitates the manufacturing process of the booklet and has proven to be more resistant to wear and tear. For those who really want to be on the safe side, UV elements or an embossed pattern can be added, which provide additional security.

In addition to the cover, there are three other security components to consider.

The Sewing Thread

The thread is located in the middle of the passport and has three main functions:

  • It stitches the visa and end pages together with a very resistant thread.
  • It adds an additional layer of security, as it is available with fluorescent elements that are detectable under UV or reactant under Infrared light.
  • It gives the passport a unique design, since the colors chosen often correspond with those of the flag of a country.

The Laminate

When a country has not moved to a Polycarbonate datapage, it is the laminate that protects the data on the datapage. The thinness of the laminate makes it very hard to remove. This makes tampering attempts easily evident. Adding holography to the laminate increases the security of the datapage. Customization allows the integration of national symbols or images.

The Paper

Many border control officials have confirmed that watermarks on passport paper are the most efficient security feature, as they are particularly difficult to imitate. The paper is processed with special chemicals that detect tamper attempts immediately. Because the paper is made out of cottonwood, it can accept special prints that conventional paper cannot.

In summary, when considering a country’s passport security, be sure to not neglect critical components such as the cover design and color, the sewing thread, laminate and paper. These are the features that help you create a truly unique national symbol and add the most important layer of security. To learn how secure ID documents provide the foundation for a more secure citizenry, visit hidglobal.com/citizen-identification.

As HID’s expert on security components, Anne-Laure Letan knows the security component market like the back of her hand. Her former experience in managing complex identity projects enables her to advise governments in the best methods for securing their citizens’ personal data while creating unique and beautiful identity documents.