New Irish passports to include face biometric data

20 Apr 2006

The Government is set to complete a project to begin including biometric information in all passports by October. The project is expected to cost €8.8m this year.

The new biometric passport incorporates several security features. A special code is used to write data to the microchip, which is protected by a secure electronic ‘key’. An additional access code guards against electronic eavesdropping or ‘skimming’ of information on the microchip.

“While the new biometric passport will look much the same as its predecessor it will have a microchip embedded in it which contains the digitised facial image and personal details of the passport holder as they appear on the data page,” said the Minister for Foreign Affairs Dermot Ahern TD. “The microchip can be read electronically at border controls.” He added that the Government has no plans at this stage to include a citizen’s fingerprint data on the passport.

It is believed that the biometric technology provides a stronger connection between an individual and their identity than traditional systems that rely only on visual identification. It’s also claimed that it will act as an additional barrier to fraudulent applications in the passport-issuing process. Facilities to read biometric passports are being progressively introduced at overseas airports.

The Government plans to introduce new passport legislation into the Oireachtas which will provide for the regulation and issuance of passports, including the storage and use of biometric data to be collected by the Passport Office. As yet there is no timeframe for introducing the legislation but the Minister stated that it is important for citizens to be assured that such data is securely stored and its use is properly regulated by law.

The ePassport project is a partnership between the Department of Foreign Affairs and the management consultancy BearingPoint Ireland. The new ePassports are undergoing independent testing in the Netherlands and next week the documents will also be tested in US state facilities in Virginia to ensure they meet US specifications.

Much of the impetus for the system’s introduction has come from the US. Under its visa waiver programme, participating countries must move to full production of biometric passports before 26 October of this year. An estimated half a million Irish citizens visited the US last year, most of which were visa free.

In the middle of last year the Government decided not to press ahead with introducing the documents, saying instead that it would monitor developments. At the time the US had extended the deadline for introducing biometric passports and it was mooted that such a massive project may not have proceeded at all.

Since then, according to a department spokesperson, an ongoing review established that biometric passports are expected to become widespread throughout North America, Europe and Australasia as security requirements for international travel increase. This was reported to the Government which approved proposals to proceed with the project last November. Passports issued before the October date will still be valid.

By Gordon Smith