The once trusty British passport has suffered something of a fall from grace in recent months. Getting hold of a new one can be gruelling, with renewals taking as long as 10 weeks. Holidays have been ruined by a quirk that means some older British passports were, until recently, deemed invalid for trips to the EU. An inability to use the automated eGates at certain ports and airports has created interminable queues. And now there’s the news that the Home Office has been losing three times as many passports as usual.
The last of these problems raises an interesting question – one that will occupy the minds of anyone who has mislaid their travel document (or had it mislaid by the Home Office): exactly what information is contained on your UK passport?
Most of it isn’t a mystery. You can see with your own eyes the exit and entry stamps, as well as the page (fashioned out of fraud-busting polycarbonate – also used to make bulletproof glass) showing the bearer’s name, place and date of birth, their photo and signature, as well as their passport’s number, date of issue and date of expiry. But then there’s a relatively new feature, introduced in 2010 (and now common to every valid UK passport): the biometric chip.
Sensitive information and fingerprints
There is a misconception that all manner of additional and highly sensitive information lurks within this little microprocessor, from your police file to your employment record. Alas, the truth is more mundane. It simply contains all the details on your passport’s photo page, in digital form. No more, no less. So losing your passport certainly isn’t good, and puts you at risk of identity theft (be sure to report the loss immediately), but the presence of a biometric chip, which has security features to deter hackers, doesn’t raise the stakes.
EU passports are a little different. With the exception of those issued in Ireland, they also contain the holder’s fingerprints. The Home Office, however, says there are “currently no plans” to add these, or any additional biometric information, to British documents.
The biometric chip exists to quickly prove that the person carrying the passport matches the person on the passport. The data it contains is not supposed to be extracted from the document and stored in a database, beyond our control. However, a large number of countries do their own biometric data harvesting at the border, either via visa applications or airport technology.
In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Bush administration began fingerprinting overseas arrivals to the US. It was hugely controversial at the time, but the Overton window would appear to have shifted and the EU’s plan to do the same – from 2023 – has received relatively little attention. As citizens of a non-EU country, Britons will be among those required to hand over their fingerprints to visit the Med from next spring.
A slippery slope?
According to EU authorities, the new Entry/Exit System (EES) will “prevent irregular migration and help protect the security of European citizens”. But a spokesperson for human rights charity Privacy International argued: “These policies are created without any clear need, but because it’s seen as a border security initiative… the normal scrutiny that one would expect of a mass surveillance exercise doesn’t apply. Biometric systems deal with highly sensitive data that can be used against you, and are prone to fault and abuse. They could be used to misidentify you, and lead to miscarriages of justice.”
We’re on a slippery slope, say opponents to such schemes. Once governments get a taste for holding vast troves of biometric data, rarely is their thirst sated. For an extreme example, there’s China, which began fingerprinting foreign arrivals in 2018. Four years on, it has the world’s largest database of DNA data, facial scans (including from hotel lobby cameras) and voice biometrics, while businesses have even been permitted to monitor employees’ brain waves to measure productivity. Among the other countries embracing the world of biometric surveillance with gusto are Iran, Pakistan, India and the US.
What does the future hold? SITA, an IT provider for the aviation industry, envisages a world “where you can travel from anywhere to everywhere without ever needing to show your travel documents”. Essentially, your face, and your body (gait recognition cameras are a thing), will become your passport. Which many will see as a rather terrifying prospect. But at least you won’t have to worry about the Home Office losing it.