Biometric travel documents: Integrated Border Management and training for border officials

By Borut Erzen, Programme Manager, Border Management and Visa, International Centre for Migration Policy Development (ICMPD)

Biometric passports, also called e-passports were introduced back in 2006, at least in the majority of EU member states (Belgium even as early as 2004) and the rest of the world gradually since then. From the practitioner point of view, being a border police or border guard official, biometric travel documents have several advantages. The most obvious one is, of course, the reliability of the biometric document as its controlling check is done by state-of-art technology. At the same time, border officials have noticed that so called “hits” at the border crossing points (BCPs) have increased mainly due to the technological support when controlling travel documents. In other words, they identified wanted persons (for any legal reason, though), forgeries, expired documents, over stayers, etc., more often than they would otherwise. There is another, quite often neglected argument and advantage of biometric passports. Its production, technology, use and control are one of the main factors on how to prevent and fight corruption cases among border officials, in particular in countries where corruption indexes are relatively high. Doubtless, this does not mean biometric documents (including e-passports) can erase corruption cases, as there are still ways to by-pass and avoid border checks, however, it presents quite significant deterrent elements as far as corruption is concerned.

From travellers’ perspective, use of biometric passports (as travel documents) means also not more secure checks at the borders, but also much faster which, consequently, shorten waiting time at borders. This is, in particular to those often travelling over borders, distinct advantage on free and fast mobility.

However, behind biometric passports is much more than only the above mentioned advantages. As said, biometric passports mainly relay on modern technology, and they include several digital data to prove the identity of a document as such, as well as the identity of its bearer. These are mainly very detailed personal data, including digital imaging and digital fingerprints, as the key elements of a biometric passport. It is a rather legitimate question whether these data, stored on a small chip integrated within a document, are safe, and in particular secure against any possible abuse, whether from corrupt state authorities or individuals. Since the introduction of biometric passports these questions are more and more often raised and challenged, mainly by civil societies, academia, human right advocates, etc.

In principle, one would say biometric passports are safe and secure for its use, they help to facilitate traffic flow through the borders, they help a lot border officials to identify wanted persons, forgeries, etc. On the other hand there are also known cases when biometric passports were misused and abused. The question raised here is what needs to be done towards proper and professional control of biometric passports by border officials and how educational and training programmes need to be designed so as to address concerns related to inappropriate control of biometric passports, prevent abuse of personal data saved in biometric passports as well as how to link use of biometric passports with measures taken against corruption cases while crossing borders.

International Centre for Migration Policy Development (ICMPD) has been implementing a number of projects with institutional and capacity building nature for officials from various border agencies, including not only border police/guards, but also customs, consular staff, veterinary and phyto-sanitary inspectors worldwide. One of the core “products” and activities in our training programmes is so called “document integrity” or “document security” topic. Traditionally, this topic includes mainly very technical elements of travel documents such as technological process, security features, different specifics on one side, and on the other side and from tactical perspective, way and processes to identify forged and falsified documents, practical cases as well as practical exercises on how to distinguish genuine from false and/or forged documents. The focus is mainly on different kind of passports, however knowledge about other travel documents are also part of the training curricula (i.e. laissez-passer, identification cards, etc.).

This was rather traditional approach, and other aspects of document security were not that explicitly or separately addressed. Sub-topics as protection of (personal) data, confidentiality, proper storage of seized documents and its processing were mentioned only at margins.

However, with the introduction of biometrics, the training concept has changed and now focuses more on additional aspects of document security, closely linked to biometrics. Thus, new technical methods were presented as well as new modus operandi and trends on misuses of biometrics, etc. Training programmes were adjusted accordingly, and logically the need to pay more attention to protection of personal data and privacy was apparent. Professional skills were complemented with additional skill on concept of securing privacy, protecting personal data was well on human rights. These are doubtlessly skills that border officials need as to perform their duties according to the law, respecting high level of privacy and human rights as high professional standards. Due to the technologically highly demanding process of issuing biometric passports, not only border agencies are required to work with these standards, but also others, e.g. the institution/agency producing documents, public institution who is responsible for issuing documents, etc.

In this regard, ICMPD is introducing the so called Integrated Border Management (IBM) concept, developed first for the EU/Schengen member states and later on also for the EU Commission external cooperation needs and actions. As a matter of principle, IBM is – in its very nature – a concept of improved cooperation and coordination among various border agencies, as well other state entities that are in various ways involved in border management and security concept. This applies in all areas and enables all border agencies to be take proportional part in overall national security. The value added is that IBM goes beyond cooperation among law enforcement border agencies, but engages others, equally important agencies, to take part in well-coordinated IBM as well as in the cooperative manner.

Document security plays in this respect very prominent role, as the passports or any other legally recognized travel document constitute the very first contact between a traveller and a border official. At this point, it is important for the traveller to know his data and his privacy are safe and protected while he is cross-checked against various databases. For border officials it is important that the submitted travellers’ documents are reliable, providing all requested and relevant data needed for a thorough border check, and enable them to perform border control tasks in the most professional, secure and timely fashion.

In addition to several academic discussions, questions and challenges, there is another perspective on use of biometric documents and this is one from the practitioner point of view. These are mainly people dealing on daily basis with biometric passports, ID cards, laissez-passer, etc. for whom it is very important and crucial at day-to-day work that they are aware about the potential provided by biometrics, both on positive and negative side, and in the end to find a proper balance between border security, professional ethics and the need to respect privacy, personal data and human rights in this respect. A well developed and tailor made educational and training programmes are the possible solutions to find a way towards the concept of “open, but secure borders”.

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