ePassports: Examining the benefits

Posted: 31 July 2007 | Mr. Mauricio Siciliano, MRTD Officer, Specifications and Guidance Material / Air Transport Bureau, ICAO | No comments yet

The issuance of ICAO-standard ePassports by some 45 member states of the organisation by year end 2007 and the inherent benefits included in this travel document, should drive the adoption of this latest-generation Machine Readable Travel Document (MRTD) by an increasing number of governments in the next few years.

The issuance of ICAO-standard ePassports by some 45 member states of the organisation by year end 2007 and the inherent benefits included in this travel document, should drive the adoption of this latest-generation Machine Readable Travel Document (MRTD) by an increasing number of governments in the next few years.

This is good news indeed, since ePassports hold many advantages for airports, airlines, travel companies, governments and yes, travellers. However, there is still a fair amount of confusion about what ePassports are and what exactly they contribute to making the travel process more efficient and more secure for everyone involved.

In this article, we will look at the advantages and benefits of ePassports for these four categories of stakeholders. But first, a quick refresher on ePassports – a Machine Readable Passport (MRP) enhanced with biometric identification capabilities.

“Biometric identification” is a generic term used to describe automated means of recognising a living person through the measurement of distinguishing physiological or behavioural traits. A “biometric template” is a machine-encoded representation of the trait created by a computer software algorithm; it enables comparisons between separately recorded traits of a person and establishes whether there is a match or not.

Biometrics can be used to a) establish a positive match between the travel document and the person who presents it and b) improve the quality of the background check performed as part of the passport, visa or other travel document application process.


A five-year investigation into the operational need for a biometric identifier suitable for MRP issuance procedures and various cross-border travel processes consistent with the privacy laws of various States, led ICAO to specify facial recognition as the globally interoperable biometric technology. A State may add fingerprint and/or iris recognition in support of facial recognition.

Since data stored on a chip can be written over, a public key infrastructure (PKI) scheme was required to give the reader of the chip assurance that the data had been placed there by the authorised issuer and that it had not been altered in any way. Accordingly, ICAO developed specifications for a specialised PKI, applicable to travel document issuance and inspection. As an essential component of the PKI, ICAO formulated and implemented the Public Key Directory (PKD) as the main distribution point for all signing key certificates from all issuers of ePassports (for more on this, please visit

To establish a positive match between the travel document and the person who presents it, there are four typical applications:

  1. Each time a traveller enters or exits a State, his identity can be verified against the image created at the time his travel document was issued. This will ensure that the holder of a document is the legitimate person to whom it was issued and will enhance the effectiveness of any advance passenger information (API) system.
  2. Two-way check — The traveller’s current captured biometric image data and the biometric template from his travel document (or from a central database), can be matched to confirm that the travel document has not been altered.
  3. Three-way check — The traveller’s current biometric image data, the image from his travel document and the image stored in a central database can be matched (by constructing biometric templates of each) to confirm that the travel document has not been altered. This technique matches the person with his passport and with the database recording the data that was put in that passport at the time it was issued.
  4. Four-way check — A fourth confirmatory check, albeit not an electronic one, is visually matching the results of the three-way check with the digitised photograph on the data page of the traveller’s passport.

In the second case – application for an ePassport – there are two basic applications:

  1. The end user’s biometric data, generated by the enrolment process, can be used in a search of one or more biometric databases (identification) to determine whether the end user is known to any of the corresponding systems (for example, holding a passport under a different identity, having a criminal record, holding a passport from another State).
  2. When the end user collects the passport or visa (or presents himself for any step in the issuance process after the initial application is made and the biometric data is captured) his biometric data can be taken again and verified against the initially captured biometric data.

The benefits of the ePassport are in fact an enhancement of the many advantages derived from regular MRPs. What an MRP can do, an ePassport can normally do better and much more securely. When considering the list of benefits for various categories of stakeholders, this basic principle can be applied.

Airports and port authorities

First and foremost, ePassports lead to a more rapid, secure and efficient processing of passengers. This has enormous logistical and financial repercussions, as there is a direct correlation between the ability to move large crowds through port facilities and the size of the facility needed to handle the crowds.

By moving passengers more rapidly, securely and more efficiently, there is better use of space and a reduction in the need to build or improve ever more expensive facilities. This will be a prime consideration when coping with the anticipated sustained growth of air traffic in the years to come. If new facilities are needed, they themselves will become more effective in handling the greater number of passengers.

Airlines and travel companies

Passenger agents are the front line of air travel at an airport. MRTDs or ePassports can significantly enhance their ability to verify documents and to perform a host of other routine tasks.

By linking an automated passport reader at the check-in counter to various databases, the agent can check the authenticity of the document, run the information against its own “customers of interest” list, connect the customer/document to baggage handling and Passenger Name Record information, input into a flight (or other) manifest and eventually, verify boarding after check-in.

There is an obvious saving in the time for airline personnel in handling each passenger. But there are also potential benefits in terms of the security and efficiency of the totality of the process, and the avoidance of fines or other penalties for bringing undocumented or improperly documented aliens into a country.

Government agencies and services

When it comes to government services and procedures, the benefits and MRPs – and especially ePassports – take on their full measure. Here are a few examples:

Advance Passenger Information Systems (API) – Using these systems, air operators can electronically send customs, immigration and other authorities at the place of destination, a list of passengers. This allows the border officials to process, much in advance of the arrival of the flight, the information received for further action, if necessary.

Safety and Security – Reading equipment (readers) at border crossings provides the capability to detect false or fraudulent passports. It also gives more time to perform a visual authentication, still an important factor in assessing behaviour of passengers. MRPs and ePassports facilitate the rapid and precise identification of those people who would misuse travel documents to further criminal activity, to illegally immigrate, etc.

Cost-Efficiency – The ability to identify “problem cases” rapidly and precisely, allows governments to spend their always-limited border control and law enforcement resources on those who should be given a more detailed inspection. That efficiency also reduces the need to hire additional government personnel and facility costs.

Improvement of systems – It is relatively inexpensive to improve the passport and passport issuance systems, compared to the cost of fraud and case-related investigations and prosecutions by law enforcement authorities after someone has compromised the travel document system.

Electronic monitoring & control of issuance process – The automated issuance of passports and other travel documents also represents a significant benefit, in that it allows issuing authorities to electronically monitor and control the issuance of the document at all stages of the application and issuance process.

Electronic tracking of passports – Governments that issue machine readable passports also gain a security benefit with regard to their own population, because the passport issuing authority is better able to track passports and applications through all stages of the issuance process. This has potential benefits in blank passport control, fee control, verification of citizenship, name clearance and in other ways that automation can be used to reduce workload and increase efficiency.

Databases – Using machine readable visas and/or passports as a source of reliable data, governments can build useful databases that can serve as a uniform source of information, in standardised format, to speed the border control process. Databases are also useful in tracking high risk categories of travellers, for instance in making certain that short term visitors depart as required and do not violate the terms of their entry permission.

Fraud Control – In the future, we are also likely to see the creation of databases that are shared voluntarily, even across national boundaries and between the public and private sectors. This will make it easier to identify people who are travelling with stolen documents and people who have fraudulently obtained an otherwise valid passport based upon stolen citizenship document forms.


Obviously, travellers have much to gain in this accelerated pace of going through all security and facilitation procedures. As ePassports become more common around the world, it will be easier to pass all formalities at departure and at arrival. Coupled with e-ticketing and the streamlining of passenger handling by airlines, including baggage, perhaps some measure of what made flying magical will return to holidays and business trips.

Mauricio Siciliano

Mr. Mauricio Siciliano is presently in charge of the Machine Readable Travel Document (MRTD) Programme in ICAO. For the last five years, Mr. Siciliano has been involved with the development and implementation of the Aviation Security and Facilitation Programmes, which includes MRTD and biometric matters. He is also Secretary of the Technical Advisory Group on MRTDs, editor of the ICAO MRTD Report (a specialised magazine in this field) as well as the manager of the Universal Implementation of MRTDs Programme worldwide.

Mr. Siciliano is an Attorney and holds a Masters in Air and Space Law, a Masters in Business Administration, and a Diploma in Space Sciences from the International Space University. He is married and a proud father of three children.