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E-Passport embedded with highly enhanced security features: Experts

Kampala, Uganda | THE INDEPENDENT | Travel experts say that Uganda’s passport has attained the highest form of security that is recognizable in any country.

The new Electronic Machine-Readable Travel document, the e-passport was designed with enhanced security features, including fingerprint, facial, and iris recognition.

But what makes it even more secure is not just those features and the watermarks, but the fact that these features are actually stored in a ‘global store’ at the International Civil Aviation Organisation, ICAO, or the Public Key Directory.

ICAO Public Key Directory (PKD) is a central repository for exchanging the information required to authenticate electronic Machine Readable Travel Documents (eMRTDs) such as ePassports, electronic ID cards, and Visible Digital Seals.

Currently, the ICAO PKD has 88 members including 13 in Africa, with Uganda having joined in 2019.

Mario Wiesen, the Head of the Passport, Visa and Legalization Service at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Luxembourg, who is also the ICAO PKD Board Chairman, says it is impossible to beat passport security.

The database caters for any travel document including national identity cards provided they have the required features, and one of the aims is to make travel quicker since verification is easier and faster.

However, ICAO says the e-passport is only an advantage over the previous documents when border personnel decided to authenticate the chip embedded therein.

“The security and facilitation advantages of e-passports are grounded in the presence of an integrated closed circuit chip. However, if the chip is not authenticated at border control, the e-passport has little advantage over a traditional, non-electronic passport,” it says.

Another advantage is that for the border control of a receiving state to authenticate the e-passport of a foreign traveler, the receiving state must have access to certain information from the issuing state, and this system makes it easier because all the information can be accessed from the database.

“Should states only have the option to exchange the necessary information bilaterally, the volume of information being exchanged would result in a highly complex and ineffective system that would be susceptible to errors. The ICAO PKD provides an efficient means for states to upload their own information and download that of other states,” says ICAO in an explanatory brief.

The Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Internal Affairs, Lt Gen Joseph Musanyufu, says this will help Ugandan authorities by easing the verification of passports, but also travelers will find it easier to have their passports authenticated when in other countries.

Musanyufu was speaking on Tuesday after the opening of the 27th board meeting of ICAO PKD in Kampala, the first to be held on the African continent.

When a feature of the passport is entered into the verification system, the official is given access to the database at ICAO, and authentication is done in real-time.

Simon Peter Mundeyi, the spokesman at the Ministry of Internal Affairs, says that they are aware of the effort that fraudsters have put in, to the extent that it is hard to even for a migration official to tell that a document has been faked.

However, he says that this is one system that they will never beat because they cannot make the chip that gives access to the ICAO database.

By playing the role of central broker for this information, the ICAO PKD ensures that information adheres to the technical standards required to achieve and maintain interoperability.

Wiesen, the Board Chairman says if all the countries, at least all 199 members of ICAO signed up for the PKD, it would go a long way in making travel faster and quicker.

In East Africa, only Rwanda and Tanzania are the other members of the PKD. Wiesen says they will use this chance in Uganda to engage the other countries in the region to join.

He adds that they are in the process of allowing private organizations that deal with travel documents to access the PKD, as the document counterfeiting industry is also stepping up its game.

These organizations include banks, insurance companies, and airlines which, Wiesen says are demanding for the service to be extended to them, adding that this is already being piloted with some airlines.

Uganda phased out the old passport in April this year, ahead of the East African Community deadline of November 30th.

Kenya also set November date as the deadline for her citizens to switch to the new e-passport, while Rwanda implemented hers in June 2022 and Tanzania.

The main complaint about the e-passport was the cost, which was put at 250,000 shillings, more than double the cost of acquiring the previous document.

Mundeyi said the cost is worth it because of the safety measures involved, though it is comparably cheaper than in the other EAC countries.

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