You'll probably agree that designing a passport that protects against current and future attacks is a significant challenge for national printers and public authorities today.
The threats posed by fraudsters in 2023 are now as broad as they are serious.
In response, numerous technological developments for secure passports have emerged. But harnessing them into a single effective strategy can prove a real headache.
The good news is that the resistance of your passport can be increased dramatically using a series of field-proven and cost-effective techniques.
The key lies in a unique global methodology for passport security design, developed in collaboration with our most advanced customers worldwide.
In this article, we'll explain fraudsters' five main attack methods.
Then outline our seven-step guide to addressing them.
But before that, here's a quick reminder….
Passports protect citizens' identities and are the best proof of ID they have.
Major passport fraud techniques - and how to deal with them
Now for the bad news.
Passports and ePassports are not immune to attack.
Increased use of microprocessor technology has raised the bar but not put off the fraudsters. They have become more sophisticated. To ensure robust protection against passport fraud, authorities must focus on the design and processes when creating their new national travel documents.
So, where should we begin?
The first task is to establish a customer-specific threat profile. This should be based on known threats. Good collaboration between the customer and suppliers at the security design stage is just as important. Above all else, this should ensure that the new passport is adequately protected against the five main threats.
Let's start with counterfeiting.
Counterfeiting is the complete reproduction of the document.
This can involve:
- Using substitute materials to imitate original documents (paper, polycarbonate)
- Scanning a valid document for modification using computer software
- Reproduction of background and logos using alternative printing technologies
- Final lamination using commercial laminates
- Re-creating the document using computer software
- Using original material that may be commercially available
To prevent the creation of fake passports, the key is to design a document that is very difficult to copy, produce, and personalize.
Fortunately, this can be achieved by multiplying effects: combining tactile and optical features, using different technologies, and using materials and inks unavailable in the public domain within an intricate design.
For example, a specific color mix and very fine details are hard to scan and print without high-end professional equipment.
Alteration is where fraudsters try to change the data in a genuine document.
Typically this includes:
- Photo alteration or substitution
- Alteration of the biographical data in the visual or machine-readable zone (MRZ)
- Deletion of entries on visa/observations pages
- Mechanical and chemical erasure of biographical data
- Delaminating attacks
- Alteration of the personalization data on the data page. For example, additional marking on top of the existing personalization data or applying a thin foil overlay to alter it.
So how do we deal with this?
- Personal data should be inserted inside the document structure, not just on the surface. This will make it difficult for fraudsters to reach, alter, or recreate it.
- Personal data should be interlocked with security features. The forged passport will, therefore, show clear and visible traces of alteration.
- Duplication of personal data, using various techniques, also makes the fraudster's work much harder.
In this case, we're afraid; recycling isn't a good thing.
It involves creating fraudulent documents, using material from legitimate documents, and removing and substituting entire pages or visas.
How will the fraudsters do this fake passport?
- Removing security features from a genuine document for reuse in a falsified one
- Using "recycled" genuine passport security features in a new falsification
- Interchanging pages between one passport and anotherAll elements must be closely interlocked and integrated to prevent this kind of attack. A holistic passport security design is, therefore, critical.
For example, in the picture below, the hinge linking the booklet to the data page makes it extremely hard to remove without damaging the two parts.
Besides, it integrates UV-sensitive ink lines demanding to align if another data page is inserted.
This is the theft of an original, genuine blank document.
It could take place at any stage of the passport life cycle, from manufacture right through to the point of personalization - during transit or in storage. Fraudulent passports, in that case, can be very hard to detect because they are genuine documents.
It's obvious but needs stressing...
...the integrity of manufacturing, transportation, storage, and accounting of blank documents is critical to the entire security chain.
Using a combination of advanced technologies for personalization forces fraudsters to try and master them all.
To ensure reliable tracking, we recommend numbering all travel documents at the end of the manufacturing process.
Reporting is also crucial. Interpol shares data on 250,000 stolen or lost Syrian and Iraqi passports, including blank documents.
#5 Misuse of a genuine passport belonging to a similar-looking person
Examples of this include:
- An unauthorized person using a valid, genuine passport
- Use of registered lost or stolen documents by look-alikes of the real holder
- Cloning logical data from a similar-looking person
It might appear challenging to address these threats at the document level.
However, the danger of a stolen passport can be minimized by using high-quality personalization technology to add personalized elements, including the holder's portrait's repeated occurrence in several places in the document.
And don't forget the core benefit of an ePassport.
This allows the holder's identity to be compared with his/her biometric data (such as fingerprints and facial images), as stored in the microcontroller, and the convenient use of databases such as Interpol's Stolen and Lost Travel Documents database.
Secure Passport - The 7 keys
So much for the theory - What is a good passport design?
And how is it achieved?
Here's our seven-step guide to success.
#1 Combine and connect all the elements into a single strong document
Why does this matter?
It means that the document cannot be split apart, manipulated,d or the information tampered with without leaving some easily traceable marks.
#2 Define the right materials (parts), unique processes, and product construction that will be used
The set of passport security features employed to protect a document should encompass diverse and special technologies, rare materials, and processes requiring in-depth expertise.
#3 Mix the artwork and security design as early as possible
So what's the story here?
Passports and ID documents are also a showcase for the country issuing them. They should engender pride in the holder. It is essential that the security of these documents is integrated closely with the artwork chosen by the customer and leads to an aesthetically pleasing product.
Why is it important?
This approach will create a coherent and harmonious product. Carefully chosen colors and styles should balance,e and, when different secure elements and repeated information are connected, they should still be detectable and recognizable easily.
It should also hide the information meant to be hidden or put into the background.
But that's not all.
Using the same design features among various documents, such as passports, ID cards, driving licenses, and resident permits, will maximize the value and efficiency of officers' training to authenticate the genuine document.
#4 Protect the passport and the citizen's data
Remember that security derives from the passport design, manufacture, and personalization process.
We know passport security features work best when combined and integrated into the document.
That's why we advised duplicating personalization elements (usually the holder's picture and the document number) within security features at different security levels.
We also recommend using various techniques to reproduce all of them.
#5 Remember in passport design, "less is more."
Here's something else to bear in mind.
Usability is key. The means of controlling authenticity is a significant factor to consider when defining a set of security features.
Passport security features that are too complex or expensive to be authenticated provide no additional protection.
As security documents are small, the number of Level 1 security features should be kept minimal. These are the elements that can be verified by a quick visual check.
With just a few 'eye-catchers' in place, the most important features can be recognized swiftly and easily.
A "less is more" approach maximizes the visibility and usability of the document. The aim is to make it complex in terms of the details but simple for control officers.
And there's more.
Documents with a high level of durability will survive the required validity period without significant visual change. They will, therefore, make more difficult targets for the fraudsters.
A high level of conformance between all genuine documents will also make copying and counterfeiting more difficult. That's because the difference between a fake and a real passport will be easier to detect. Remember that every manufacturing process has variations when finalizing a new design passport. The passport should, therefore, be designed in a way that minimizes the impact of these changes.
#6 There's no magic bullet – you need to combine them
Sorry, but there's no magic bullet.
A single feature can never provide all the security you'll need. The real answer lies in choosing the right number of different elements. Then combine and connect them to create what we refer to as multifunctional features.
In other words...
...a passport combining several techniques will make the life of a counterfeiter truly frustrating.
On top of that, make sure there's a trail to follow.
Detecting modification of the data in a passport can be simplified using protection methods that make it easy to spot attempts at substitution.
The key is to use technologies that are difficult to source and copy, such as paper with a watermark and security thread and inks sold only to registered printers. These will make it hard for the counterfeiter to pass the first inspection line.
Here's a good example.
MLI (multiple laser image) as a single/separate element in a simple format is regarded as having lost its strength and security role. However, combine it with the rest of the passport security design, and it's a different story. In conjunction with offset printing, visible and invisible UV and positive relief features, and utilizing the latest advances in lamination plate technologies, MLI remains one of the most robust visual (level 1) document security features.
Take it from us. Polycarbonate is more secure.
We recommend the use of a polycarbonate data page. It's more difficult to forge than a paper data page and offers a broader range of visual security features.
Welcome to the one-block concept.
All security features, including irreversible laser-engraved personalization information, are safely located and protected within the genuine polycarbonate data page.
This is referred to as the one-block concept.
An excellent and most recent example is the new Thales sample launched in January 2017.
Polycarbonate is unique in supporting highly fraud-resistant Level 1 security features visible to the naked eye.
These features, which are authenticated easily by the relevant authorities, include tactile surface elements, changeable or multiple laser images (CLIs or MLIs), windows, irreversible laser-engraved personalization, and color portraits.
#7 Count on the electronic passport
We've said it before. But it's worth repeating.
Never forget it's called an ePassport for a reason. The microcontroller plays an essential role in fraud protection. Even if the forger does manage to write data in the microcontroller, it will not be signed by the issuing authority's certificate.
The microcontroller in a blank passport is locked by a transport key known only by the passport manufacturer and the issuing authority.
How to get the most out of passport security design?
At Thales, we believe in taking a comprehensive approach to security. We strive to provide secure, durable, and innovative solutions.
As an expert in both documents and related solutions, Thales strongly supports the ICAO TRIP (Traveler Identification Program) initiative and shares the vision that there must be a global fight against fraud by securing all the links in the security chain.
We offer Intergraf ISO 14298-certified production sites, experience, and support, enabling our customers to meet their expectations for distinctive documents that are as secure as they are attractive.
We're proud to have successfully designed some of the most secure and attractive passports, IDs, and driver's licenses to appear in recent years.
Collaboration with customers lies at the heart of our process. We help them to deliver unique travel documents that become works of art and symbols of pride in the hands of millions.
Now it's your turn
What do you think?
If you've something to say on passport security design, a question, or have found this article useful, please comment below.
We'd also welcome any suggestions on how it could be improved or proposals for future articles.
We look forward to hearing from you.