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The Phase Out of Non-Machine-Readable Passports

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The following is a guest post by Shameema Rahman, a senior legal research specialist in our Public Services Division.

The Convention on International Civil Aviation (also known as the Chicago Convention) was signed on December 7, 1944, by 52 countries.  The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) was officially established on April 4, 1947, following the ratification of the Convention.  ICAO is a specialized agency of the United Nations, linked to the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), and has the following mission:

To serve as the global forum of States for international civil aviation. ICAO develops policies and Standards, undertakes compliance audits, performs studies and analyses, provides assistance and builds aviation capacity through many other activities and the cooperation of its Member States and stakeholders.

The Passport Bureau. Drawing by Bayard Taylor. (Created between 1856 and 1857). Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division,
The Passport Bureau. Drawing by Bayard Taylor. (Created between 1856 and 1857). Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division,

Currently, 191 countries are members of the Chicago Convention.  ICAO works with the member states to establish Standards and Recommended Practices (SARPs) for the safe and orderly development of international civil aviation.  There are now over 10,000 such standards and other provisions incorporated in nineteen annexes to the Convention.  There are various policies, standards, and manuals regarding safety, capacity and efficiency, security, economic development, environmental protection and other aviation-related issues.  The member countries are obligated to follow the policies and standards as parties to the Convention.

To increase the security, efficiency, and authenticity of travel documents, the ICAO first published Document 9303 regarding Machine Readable Travel Documents in 1998.  Later, in 2005, the 188 countries who were then-members of the Convention approved a new standard, contained in Annex 9 of the Convention regarding facilitation, requiring all member states to begin issuing machine readable passports (MRPs) by 2010.  The deadline for phasing out non-MRPs is November 24, 2015.  The latest clarifications of the standards relating to travel documents are included in a 2014 Supplement to Document 9303.

In the last few years, to comply with the ICAO travel document requirements, people in countries around the world have been asked to obtain new passports.  For example, Bangladesh, where I am from, ratified the Convention on December 22, 1972, and it became effective on December 21, 1973.  As such, many Bangladeshi citizens still carry handwritten passports that are not machine readable.  Following the deadline issued by ICAO, Bangladesh embassies in different countries are taking steps to replace the handwritten passports with MRPs.  In fact, a recent announcement from the Bangladesh Embassy in Portugal stated that all the handwritten Bangladesh passports will be considered invalid after November 14, 2015.

In developing the standards, ICAO needed to consider a range of issues, including the privacy of information associated with MRPs given that certain technologies could be used that store the personal information of the holders of travel documents.  This issue particularly concerns ePassports, which have a chip in them, and biometric information. Volume 2 of Part 3 of Document 9303 is titled “Specifications for Electronically Enabled MRtds with Biometric Identification Capability.”  With regard to privacy, it states that “[t]he biometrics information stored on travel documents shall comply with any national data protection laws or privacy laws of the issuing State.”  It further notes that

[a]fter a five-year investigation into the operational needs for a biometric identifier which combines suitability for use in the MRTD issuance procedure and in the various processes in cross-border travel consistent with the privacy laws of various States, ICAO specified that facial recognition become the globally interoperable biometric technology. A State may also optionally elect to use fingerprint and/or iris recognition in support of facial recognition.

Given the various developments in the use of biometric information, Document 9303 includes specifications related to the use of data protection measures such as encryption keys and digital signatures.  It also discusses the use of databases that might hold various information about passport applicants.  Last year, the Law Library of Congress published a brief survey of the laws of a number of countries regarding the storage of biometric information in government databases.

In the United States, Title 8, Section 1732, of the United States Code includes provisions relating to “Machine-readable, tamper-resistant entry and exit documents,” which provide for the use of biometric identifiers.  The U.S. ePassport program was launched in 2005, and the Government Publishing Office (GPO), which produces the ePassports, specifically notes that they meet the standards issued by ICAO.

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