Passports to go

31 Jan 2005

Haven’t we been here before? Exactly one year ago, border control and identification were the subjects of the day, brought to light by the newly launched US-VISIT scheme. One year on and it’s Ireland’s turn, putting technology to work at the service of security.

If your passport is up for renewal this year, take a close look at the new document you will receive; it may look scarcely different from its predecessor but in fact it’s one of the most advanced of its kind in Europe.

It’s the product of a €26m modernisation of the State’s passport system; much like the proverbial iceberg, the visible part – the document itself – is only a small piece of a larger, unseen whole. Behind the scenes, huge changes have taken place to the way Irish passports are processed and produced.

There are three elements to the modernisation of the passport service: firstly, it involves an upgrade of the technology: the existing systems having reached the limit of their capacity. Secondly, the Department of Foreign Affairs took advantage of the upgrade to redesign the process for handling passport applications, moving it from a manual approach to one that uses technology at every turn. Thirdly, the timing of the change means that production of the new document takes advantage of recent developments in passport technology.

“We wanted to improve passport security and make it much more secure,” a spokesperson for the department told Although the level of counterfeiting has not been high to date, the new passport is designed to be tamperproof. The photo and signature of the holder as well as all of the other information contained on the passport will be engraved into the document by laser and placed on a page made of polycarbonate, a stiff plastic. In looks, the passport won’t differ hugely from the current version. The cover will remain the same; visa pages in the document will now have a blue-green hue instead of a red-green mix.

Other security features include optically variable ink that changes colour from green to gold depending on the angle at which the passport is held. The document will also include microtext that is too small to be read by the naked eye but which will help the document to be recognised as legitimate. Another element is a kinegram, similar to the silvery foil used on official concert tickets, which will include hologram type images and Celtic motifs.

The department plans to introduce passports containing biometrics, as the plastic page has been designed to be fitted with a chip that would carry this additional data. To begin with, this will contain a digital image of the holder’s face. “We’re going in line with the International Civil Aviation Authority [ICAA] recommendations – it has said that the shape of the face would be the biometric,” the department spokesperson explained. The ICAA guidelines also contain the provision for a second biometric, either a fingerprint or iris scan, but this is optional and the Government has chosen not to add this element for the moment.
The website, www.pass contains information about the kinds of photographs that are appropriate for the new system. The reason for this is because the photo will now be scanned for the new passport instead of the original simply being covered by a plastic laminate, as was the case with the previous version. For that reason, certain quality guidelines need to be kept – blurry photos aren’t good enough and smiling for the camera is out of the question. We may have to do away with the old gag that if you look like your passport photo, you’re too sick to travel.

In fact every part of the passport application will be scanned electronically, including the paper form and the applicant’s signature. To cater for this, a new passport application form has been introduced to make it easier for the information to be scanned, without the need for manual data entry as at present. Allied to this, a sophisticated work-flow management system will direct applications through the entitlement checking process.

Once approved, applications are passed automatically to new machines that personalise the passport booklets. The department says this should result in the application process being sped up, although it will still take 10 days for a completed passport to arrive. Exceptions are made in certain circumstances and a new document can be issued much faster.

As part of the new system, passport production has been centralised and now it all takes place at a purpose-built production facility in Balbriggan, north county Dublin. Some 98 staff members of the Passport Office are currently working in the new building and this number will rise to around 120 for the peak summer season. The building was formally inaugurated in December by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Dermot Ahern TD. Speaking at the launch, he said that the new passport system would “lead to an improved service to the public and better value for money”. The consultancy BearingPoint headed up the consortium that has designed and implemented the new system. The project began two years ago in January 2003.

One advantage of making the process digital is that it could be offered as an extension to current e-government services. “We probably will look at e-service to the public – where people can go online and track the progress of their application,” the spokesperson confirmed. “They could maybe even apply online, although that’s further down the line.”

Pictured at the launch of the new passport system were Foreign Affairs Minister Dermot Ahern TD and Fergus Duffy, production manager of the Passport Processing Security Room

By Gordon Smith