Days after the Indian passport jumped seven places to rank 83 on the recently released Henley Passport Index, in more news for Indian travellers—digital passports for flyers will be a reality this year. While presenting the Union Budget today, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman stated that the government will issue e-passports in the financial year 2022-23. The technology will use Radio-Frequency Identification (RFID) and biometrics to verify the identity of the people and will be an upgrade from the traditional printed passports.
The new technology is expected to make passage through immigration easier, offer greater data security and reduce paperwork. With the rollout of e-passports to Indian citizens to take place in the near future as part of phase two of PSP, we attempt to answer common queries about the innovation.
An e-passport is a partially digitised version of the official travel document. They have been successfully implemented in countries such as the U. S., the U. K., Japan and Singapore (Malaysia debuted the e-passport as early as 1988), and are a standard issue throughout Europe. Also known as biometric or digital passports, these passports in India will have microchips (electronic contactless inlays) with the holder’s data, to be embedded inside the jacket.
While in the United States, e-passports were introduced to strengthen security norms in wake of 9/11, in the case of the African Union, they were expected to boost free movement of trade and its ancillaries. In any case, they enable faster passage thanks to smoother processing of data at airport checks across the world. These next-generation passports comply with the global standards set by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) and travellers can expect to go through immigration quicker. More than 100 countries and non-states issue digital passports as part of an extensive network. Compliance with ICAO standards and security guidelines recognised by a bigger pool of issuers is also expected to strengthen the Indian passport diplomatically and prior visa-free access to more countries.
Regular passports are prone to RFID (radio-frequency identification) skimming, and thus forgery and identity fraud. E-passports are expected to control that to a large extent with digitisation, which will help safeguard privacy and also prevent identity fraud.
At the same time, concerns about data breaches in case of lack of proper encryption and biometric recognition have been raised. Another potential chink in the technology could be the absence of a foolproof system of identification, with cases of biometric chip forgery and gaps in approval reported in the past. Experts contend that more advanced methods of encryption such as using Public-Key Infrastructure will help guard against these vulnerabilities.
The issuing process remains the same. All 36 Regional Passport Offices operated by the MEA will continue to issue the digital versions through Passport Seva Kendras and Post Office Passport Seva Kendras. The next-generation passports will be available to those renewing or applying for new ones but existing holders will also be able to upgrade to the new technology. Since the rollout is expected to take around a decade for the entire population, existing holders can continue to use physical passports and file for an upgrade when they need renewal. As part of a pilot phase, around 20,000 diplomatic and official e-passports have already been issued by the MEA.
E-passports are expected to cut down on unnecessary paperwork but visa stamping will continue on the booklets. However, as reported by Moneycontrol, plans to introduce fully digital passports (accessible on mobile phones and other handheld devices) have also been considered, and can be expected to follow after the rollout of chip-based passports is complete.