Introduction to Biometric Authentication and E-Passports

Biometric passports may make future border control faster and easier.Biometrics: what does it mean to you? Does it conjure visions of top-secret files protected by complicated, high-tech scanners? Spies and CIA agents? Certainly not a part of your life, right?

Hollywood aside, biometric authentication is gradually becoming a part of mainstream life. Chances are, you’ll end up using some form of it at work, at home, doing business and certainly when you travel outside the country.

Biometric authentication is simply a way to verify you are who you claim to be, based on unique physical characteristics and behaviors such as your fingerprint, face, voice or iris. All other forms of authentication – passwords, keys, smart cards, etc. – can be guessed, stolen or shared. But it’s almost impossible to steal something that’s a part of you, at least not in a form that a well-designed biometric authentication system will accept. That’s why this technology has been used for years in access control systems, protecting entrance to military and government facilities, bank vaults, and other restricted areas. More recently, biometrics has been introduced in the virtual world too, as a way to log on to computers, applications and websites.

But the main way we formally prove our identity in the real word today is through some sort of photo ID. Unfortunately, it can be hard to compare the picture taken a few years ago on your driver’s license or passport with you, today, standing at airport security or border control jet-lagged, frazzled and exhausted after 15 hours crammed into a tiny seat. And aside from that, document forgery has become fairly sophisticated. It’s no wonder, then, that biometrics has been adopted as a way to verify identity in the real world.

Biometric passports and better border control

Maybe you’ve heard about biometric passports or e-passports, or already have one. An e-passport contains a microchip, which stores a digital copy of your photo as well as the same personal data that is printed on the passport: name, country, passport number, etc. At border control, you can simply place your passport on a scanner and look at a camera. The passport is checked for special security features and the data on the chip and printed on the passport are compared to check for forgery, while your face is compared with the photo on the chip to make sure you are really you.

The technology is flexible enough to recognize you even several years later and regardless if you’re tired, sick, didn’t shave, or wore your make-up differently. Your face can also be compared with a watch list of criminals and terrorists. And all of this happens in the blink of an eye, much faster than any border control guard could be and also more accurate. That makes travel safer, AND we can expect shorter lines at border control! Similar processes are being put in place to verify other ID documents such as visas and green cards.

If you haven’t seen this yet, just wait. Such automated security and border control systems are in trial at several major airports around the world. As the number of biometric passports reaches a critical mass – by 2014 e-passports will represent nearly 80% of all passports in circulation – more widespread rollouts are expected. In other words, well before your next passport expires you’ll probably see some form of automated border control for yourself.

Will your photo be recognized?

The important thing for you to know when you get your next passport is that for all of this to work well, you must have a high-quality photo. If I give you a dark, blurry photo and ask you, “Is this me?” will you be able to tell? Of course not! In the same way, biometric authentication works best when you start with the best possible photo.

For greatest accuracy and to make sure all passports can be read in all countries, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), has defined specific requirements for biometric ID photos. These include the position of your face, lighting, facial expression, and much more. Some of the requirements are defined down to the number of pixels. The better your original photo is, the more likely you will be accurately recognized. If you’re not recognized, it could mean frustrating delays at border control while a guard verifies your identity.

Have you been through automated security or border control yet? Please tell us about your experience!

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