The evolution of MRTDs

Posted: 7 February 2009 | Mauricio Siciliano, MRTD Officer, Specifications and Guidance Material / Air Transport Bureau, ICAO | No comments yet

The evolution of Machine Readable Passports (MRPs) over the past decade has been quite extraordinary, particularly with the advent of the electronic or ePassport enhanced with biometric identification. While the ICAO standard calls for all 190 Member States of the Organisation to begin issuing MRPs only by April 2010, at last count there were 54 ICAO States issuing ePassports and 36 others planning to issue them by the end of 2009.

The evolution of Machine Readable Passports (MRPs) over the past decade has been quite extraordinary, particularly with the advent of the electronic or ePassport enhanced with biometric identification. While the ICAO standard calls for all 190 Member States of the Organisation to begin issuing MRPs only by April 2010, at last count there were 54 ICAO States issuing ePassports and 36 others planning to issue them by the end of 2009.

There is evidently a much deeper comprehension, on the part of all stakeholders, of the inherent value of standard and electronic MRTDs relative to authenticity and security of documents, ID management, identity confirmation – including biometrics and facilitation at border control points. There is also a better grasp of the technological, operational and policy issues involved as the world moves forward in the implementation of a global MRTD infrastructure that meets the dual objectives of optimum security and facilitation.

It can be said that the ICAO MRTD programme has expanded to the point that it now transcends the aviation domain, spreading to many other applications where authenticity and security of personal identification are paramount.

The ICAO MRTD programme is truly in tune with the realities of today’s global society and in line with the needs of States, industry and law enforcement agencies, for a forward-looking universal security net that is as foolproof as it is effective and user-friendly. We now find ICAO technical specifications and guidance being applied to drivers’ licenses, permanent resident cards and many other forms of ID cards.

Ensuring that it remains dynamic involves updating the fundamental document outlining technical specifications for MRTDs – Doc 9303.

The newly-released third edition of Part 3 of the Document updates and replaces the standard specifications for machine-readable official documents of identity, published in the earlier second edition (2002), and represents a substantial modernisation of the specifications and other material contained in the previous edition. As with all improvements to this essential global standard, the new round of enhancements is the result of an extensive and very cooperative process involving the world’s foremost experts in this area, most notably from the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) and the various ICAO Member States that have played instrumental roles in the evolving process.

The specifications in Part 3 of Doc 9303 are intended to be a standard for national identity documents that can be used as travel documents. Any State which takes part in bilateral agreements with one or more additional States, and which allows its identity document to be used to cross the border(s) between them, should design its identity document to conform to the specifications of Doc 9303, Part 3.

The third edition of Doc 9303 incorporates the new globally interoperable optional standard, covering biometric identification of the holder and storage of the associated data on a contactless integrated circuit. Consequently, additional biometric identification methods and data storage media, as included and described in the second edition, are no longer to be regarded as ICAO-endorsed options within the new globally interoperable standard. States may, however, use the non-standardised identification methods and media as they deem appropriate for their exclusive or agreed bilateral purposes.

Part 3 standards provide a proven foundation for States either planning to introduce an identity card or upgrade an existing identity document, with the added benefit of a card that can be used for international travel on a bi-lateral or multi-lateral basis. The fact that the data storage medium, together with the associated Public Key Identity security infrastructure, has been proven operationally in ePassports, assures States that the standard can be applied in both national and international settings.

The magnitude of the specification for the new globally interoperable biometric identification system and the data storage, using a contactless integrated circuit, is such that Doc 9303, Part 3, is now divided into two volumes. The first volume is an updated version of the second edition, containing all the specifications required for a State to issue a machine readable official document of identity where that State does not wish to incorporate the global facilitation option for its citizens, that will be available with machine assisted biometric identification.

The second volume of Part 3 contains the additional specifications for the globally interoperable system of biometric identification and associated data storage, utilising a contactless integrated circuit.

It is important to note that any State, when wishing to issue an official document of identity designed to facilitate cross border travel with enhanced security, by incorporating the globally interoperable, machine assisted biometric identification/data storage system, will therefore need to comply with both Volumes of Part 3.

Certain specifications within Volume 1, particularly in relation to the portrait and other identification features, have been amended to ensure that when a State decides to upgrade to a globally interoperable biometric document, only a minimum amount of change to the document will be required.

The expanded specifications and guidance material on matters such as naming conventions, transliteration of national characters in the machine readable zone, as well as the calculation of check digits, have been retained in this first volume of Part 3. The options for the inclusion and placement of a bar code, a magnetic or an optical memory stripe on the document remain, as does the option to use biometric identifiers other than facial recognition supported by fingerprint and/or iris data. It is to be emphasised, however, that the inclusion of these storage media and the data thereon is solely for use by the issuing State, or by other States by bilateral agreement – they are not globally interoperable.

The emphasis on the security of the document, against fraud by alteration or counterfeit, is given greater prominence in this third edition, as is the need for security of the premises in which a travel document is made, personalised and issued. New emphasis has also been added on the need for carefully vetting staff employed in these activities.

One concept highlighted in the second edition was that of ‘global interoperability.’ In this context, the term is understood as the capability of inspection systems (either manual or automated) in different States throughout the world to exchange data, to process data received from systems in other States and to utilise that data in inspection operations in their respective States. Global interoperability is a major objective of the standardised specifications for placement of both human readable and machine readable data in all MRTDs.

In our increasingly security-conscious world, the need for machine assisted global interoperability has become a pressing concern. This has necessitated the standardisation of one globally-interoperable primary biometric identification method (face) and of one method of data storage (contactless integrated circuit).

The New Technologies Working Group (NTWG), established by the ICAO TAG in the mid-1990s, undertook an evaluation in 1998 of the various options and, in early 2001, selected and recommended facial recognition as the primary biometric to be employed, along with a contactless, integrated circuit as the approved data storage technology. The recommendation was made specifically in response to the needs of passport issuing and immigration authorities, to ensure accurate identification of a travel document applicant or holder while minimising facilitation problems for the traveller. This recommendation was endorsed by the ICAO TAG and by the ICAO Air Transport Committee in 2003.

As before, provision has been made for issuing a passport as a wallet-size card according to specifications for the Size-1 machine readable official travel document, provided that the issuing State makes appropriate provision for other States to associate visas with it.

One important consideration to the success of the programme is a more universal implementation of reading systems, at border control points especially. This is critical given, as noted above, the steadily increasing number of ePassports issued worldwide and the expected increase in standard Machine Readable Passports (MRPs). Since reading systems are effective with both MRPs and ePassports, their early and rapid introduction could greatly contribute to the overall efficiency of airport and immigration procedures everywhere, as well as greater security.

Another key consideration for enhanced effectiveness of the system is the need for States issuing ePassports to join the PKD, or Public Key Directory initiative. It can provide border control authorities with an assurance that documents are genuine and unaltered, which in turn allows the biometric information contained in ePassports to be relied on to automate aspects of the border clearance process, amongst others. The more States join the PKD, the more effective it becomes – for States, operators, travellers and all institutions that make use of ePassports or electronic ID documents for identity confirmation.

In the years to come, ICAO will continue to update all of its specifications and guidelines, to facilitate the implementation of the MRTD programme in a globally-harmonised and consistent manner. It will do so in close cooperation with its Member States and all stakeholders, for the maximum security and comfort of the billions of people who each year cross borders for business or pleasure.

ICAO makes available a host of publications dealing with the MRTD programme, including the MRTD Report – available free online at

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