The Modern Components That Make Passports Secure

by | Dec 14, 2022 | passport, Second Passport

How Do New Security Components Make Passports More Secure?

New security components have greatly enhanced passport security, making it harder for counterfeiters to tamper with these documents. These advancements include biometric data, machine-readable zones (MRZ), and various physical and digital security features.

Biometric Data

Biometric data, such as fingerprints, facial recognition, and iris scans, are now embedded in many passports. This ensures that the person presenting the passport is its rightful owner. Authorities can quickly verify a traveller’s identity by comparing the stored biometric data with live data captured at border control. This technology reduces the risk of identity theft and fraudulent use of stolen passports.

Machine-Readable Zones (MRZ)

Machine-readable zones have transformed the verification process. Critical aspects of MRZ include:

  • Encoding Information: MRZ consists of two lines of alphanumeric characters at the bottom of the passport’s bio page. These characters encode essential information such as the passport number, country of issuance, holder’s name, and expiry date.
  • Quick Verification: Border control machines quickly scan and verify MRZ, reducing human error and speeding up the process.
  • Tampering Detection: The encoded information helps detect tampering or inconsistencies, making it harder for counterfeiters to alter passport data.
  • Uniform Standards: ICAO sets uniform standards for MRZ, ensuring consistency across countries’ passports.
  • Efficiency: MRZ technology enhances security and makes the verification process more efficient.

Physical and Digital Security Features

Modern passports have multiple security features to prevent forgery and tampering. These include:

  • Holograms: Complex, multi-dimensional holograms embedded in passport pages make duplication difficult.
  • Watermarks: Unique watermarks in the paper are nearly impossible to replicate.
  • UV Features: Ultraviolet (UV) light reveals hidden images and patterns that are invisible to the naked eye but easily checked by authorities.
  • Embedded Chips: Chips store encrypted biometric data and other crucial information and are read electronically to ensure authenticity.

Global Standards and Compliance

Passports must follow security and aesthetic standards set by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).

ICAO’s Role

This 191-member U.N. organization ensures uniform application of aviation policies and laws worldwide. By setting international standards for passport security, ICAO maintains a high level of trust in global travel documents. These standards cover various aspects, from physical design to biometric verification and machine readability.

Minimum Security Features

All passports must comply with features addressing three security concerns: document authenticity, identity verification, and data integrity. These features include:

  • Machine Readability: Since 2015, passports must be machine-readable, making handwritten documents obsolete. Electronic systems can quickly scan and verify machine-readable zones, reducing errors and speeding up processes.
  • Embedded Chips: Although not mandatory, 135 countries have incorporated chips containing critical biometric data. These chips enhance security by storing encrypted information verified against live biometric data.
  • Advanced Printing Techniques: Microprinting, special inks, and complex design patterns make it difficult for counterfeiters to reproduce passports accurately.

Compliance and Interoperability

Interoperability is essential for effective security measures. According to Kefauver, it is crucial to ensure that a passport issued by one country can be verified by authorities in another. For example, a Singaporean passport must be verifiable by French border control systems. This is achieved through adopting common standards and technologies mandated by the ICAO.

Continuous Evolution

ICAO updates its standards to address emerging threats and incorporate new technologies. The organization explores advanced biometrics, such as gait analysis and vein pattern recognition, to enhance passport security. By staying ahead of counterfeiters and adopting cutting-edge technologies, ICAO ensures passports remain secure.

The Importance of Holograms

If you examine an Australian passport closely, you’ll see holographic kangaroos that seem to float and “dance” as you tilt the page. Other countries use holograms of symbols like buildings and maps. Holograms, a safeguard in anti-counterfeiting, were created in the 1940s and used in the 1980s when the United Nations added one.

Adoption of Hologram Technology

The United Arab Emirates pioneered hologram technology in the 1990s, introducing an all-over transparent hologram on its passport. Other nations quickly followed. Besides holograms, countries can select from features like:

  • Watermarks
  • Invisible Ink
  • Unique Page Materials
  • Passport Pages with Secret Messages

The chosen features depend on priorities and financial constraints. Protection begins within borders. Nations must include attributes to comply with ICAO’s three security standards.

Security Standards: Three Levels

Features like holograms fall under first-level features, where anything unusual must be immediately apparent. The second level requires secure data to be written into a passport photo that might be invisible to the naked eye. If you carefully examine the U.S. passport’s pages, you might find a mylar strip with a hidden message. The third set of “covert” features gives inspectors more assurance when examining a suspicious document, though Kefauver declined to elaborate.

The Electronic Passport

Passports are designed to prevent tampering. Kefauver explained that connecting the document with the user was the “missing link.” Machine readability technology, applied to passports in the 1980s, bridged this gap. ICAO mandated 2015 that all tickets be machine-readable, explaining the mysterious code at the bottom of every passport’s bio page. This code contains algorithms and secret data, enabling a computer to evaluate a passport’s validity and identify tampering. This requirement eliminated handwritten travel documents.

Digital Updates to Passports

Passports are being digitally updated. Instead of adhering to photos, images are printed onto the page to deter further counterfeits.

Making the Passport Even Smarter

U.S. citizens have been alerted to upcoming passport changes. Due to a potential backlog of applications, they are encouraged to renew early. Kefauver acknowledges that counterfeiting still exists despite all the security features. Adding a chip with biographical data and biometrics is the most significant change for people with older passports before 2009. A country’s use of these biometrics may involve behavioural traits and measurements, such as fingerprints or irises. Nearly 90% of passports worldwide now have a chip inside.

Data Security Concerns

The time and money required for implementation may be beyond some nations’ means, so ICAO has not made it a requirement. Critics foresaw data theft through “skimming” or “eavesdropping.” However, using stolen data is like trying to board a plane with just a copy of someone else’s passport.

Passport Theft and Identity Fraud

Passport theft has been reported in connection with terrorist attacks and downed aircraft, proving they are not entirely secure. Kefauver asserts that today, criminal activity focuses more on faking an identity than forging a passport. Document fraud is changing as criminals realize it is difficult to tamper with passports. As a result, defence begins internally, not at the borders.

Ongoing Evolution and Challenges

The passport has been referred to as the most secure document in the modern world. However, Kefauver emphasizes that “all of those safeguards have evolved over the years.” That doesn’t mean it’s perfect or without flaws, and it doesn’t mean there isn’t a tremendous amount of work that needs to be done.


While passports have become increasingly secure with new technologies and features, ongoing efforts are necessary to avoid counterfeiters and identity fraud. The evolution of passport security highlights the importance of continuous innovation and vigilance in protecting our identities and ensuring safe travel. As technology advances, so will the security features in passports, raising the bar for counterfeiters and ensuring these vital documents’ integrity. Passports will continue to evolve, incorporating more advanced security measures to protect against emerging threats. Travellers can rest assured that the latest technological advancements safeguard their identities and travel documents.