China has a long history of issuing identification documents for travel to neighbouring countries. According to surviving records dating from the late seventeenth century, travel documents at the time were handwritten letters providing a description of the bearer. The first version of a modern passport, including a photograph of the bearer, was introduced in September 1919. Since then, it has become clear that there is a need for a comprehensive policy and guidance on passport-related matters. This article by Xiaoqiang Tan and Alison Liu gives us an insight into the various challenges in the planning and development of the Chinese e-Passport project.
The People’s Republic of China issued its first batch of passports in January 1950 to facilitate international travel. However, wars hampered the country’s economic progress, and this in turn drastically suppressed foreign travel. This situation persisted for almost 30 years, as a result of which in 1978 only 210,000 passports had been issued. The economic environment in China calmed down and became much more stable after the reform of 1979. With healthy economic growth and national development, demand for overseas business, travel and study skyrocketed, and the volume of passports being issued started to grow exponentially. In 1987 the number of ordinary passports issued for private travel was in the region of 100,000, rising to over one million by 1996. According to the latest statistics from the Ministry of Public Security, the number of ordinary passports issued in 2008 exceeded six million, with monthly issuance of over one million ever since. It is estimated that the number of passports being issued will continue to rise in the coming years.
Figure 1 gives a schematic overview of the number of ordinary passports issued by the MPS between 2006 and 2011.There are now over 38 million Chinese ordinary passports in circulation. With such a vast number of passports being issued every month, the Chinese government has made a concerted effort to develop high-security travel documents for its citizens.
The e-Passport project
China has been issuing machine-readable passports since late last century and ongoing efforts to comply with ICAO specifications for international travel documents mean that the security level of the documents has repeatedly been upgraded. After ICAO formulated its e-Passport specifications in 2000, the Chinese government took proactive action in planning for the introduction of this latest format of travel document. Research into the e-Passport and related subjects was initiated in 2005 and, after a long auditing process, in 2007 the State Council finally gave the green light for the development of the Chinese e-Passport project and the relevant authorities were officially brought together by the government to form dedicated project teams
Two independent authorities
Under the governing structure and passport law of China there are two independent authorities which can issue three different types of passport to Chinese citizens:
• the Ministry of Public Security (MPS), responsible for issuing ordinary passports to Chinese citizens travelling abroad for settlement, temporary visits, study, business and similar personal activities;
• the Ministry of Public Affairs (MPA), responsible for issuing Official/Service and Diplomatic passports to relevant personnel engaged in official duties and diplomatic activities abroad.
This governing structure meant that the development of the Chinese e-Passport was undertaken as an independent scheme by each of these two authorities, with each being responsible for developing and implementing the type or types of e-Passport it is authorised to issue. Because the number of official and diplomatic staff is very stable, the number of passports for issuance by the MPA was less than one-tenth of the ordinary passports issued by the MPS. In light of this, the task of developing ICAO-compliant ordinary e-Passports was considered an extremely difficult and challenging one for the MPS.
Planning development challenges
Given China’s huge population and geographical distances, the MPS team needed to adopt a proactive yet careful approach, within an acceptable and reasonable budget, to plan the development process. This included procuring the relevant technologies and materials, formulating procedures, making logistic arrangements and implementing the new system across China. Implementation was the most challenging aspect of the overall development planning.
The cost of raw materials and technologies was the most critical consideration in the government’s project, especially given that availability was strictly regulated by government and central procurement policies, while the quality of these would in turn affect the quality of the end product. Expensive materials and hi-tech manufacturing processes would place a very heavy financial burden on the government because of the sheer volumes of materials involved, and would also impact on the pricing of the e-Passport itself. Affordability and general public sentiment had to be taken into account. A wide range of issues were raised and carefully considered in order to avoid making the wrong decisions: how to ensure a constant supply of materials? What are the risks of market inflation in the coming years? Is the available budget sufficient to purchase materials with sufficient durability for use in the extreme conditions within the various regions of China? Any miscalculation would have serious consequences or even spell disaster, and this meant that the MPS team had to strike a balance between the level of security and the level of investment.
Various tests and trials were conducted prior to making decisions on materials and methodologies. The results were crucial in determining product usability, environmental tolerance and error rate in the actual production process. This also was an essential factor in terms of cost management, because with such a huge production scale, a 1% error rate on every one million passports produced would result in tens of thousands of void passports on a monthly basis. Such waste would be unacceptable at any level.
Another tough challenge for the MPS team was to design a comprehensive information system with clear operating procedures and guidance to support the personalisation of e-Passports and arrange the logistics across the country. Critical considerations in the formulation process included efficiency, effectiveness and above all, ways of protecting the system against tampering and forgery. It was agreed that the new information system should not only safeguard the security and integrity of personal data, but also be capable of checking, tracking security controls and any other measures the authorities may need.
It was decided that the MPS would authorise 31 personalisation centres, one in each province, to administre passport personalisation. This decentralised model was designed to make the personalisation process as efficient as possible. Since all materials and equipment would have been procured centrally, the MPS team had to look at how to ensure the accountability of the responsible personnel at the different sites, including channels for technical support, audit of consumption and wastage, as well as procedures for handling controlled materials such as waste and blank documents, etc.
The e-Passport solution
The dedicated efforts of the MPS team eventually led to the successful introduction of the Chinese ordinary e-Passport, with a pilot trial being held in Shandong province two months ahead of the official nationwide release on 15 May 2012.
The MPS team solved the problem of budgetary constraints by using a self-developed chip and digital security system; this was potentially the biggest expense of the entire project due to the huge licensing costs involved. The data stored on the chip are ICAO-compliant and include facial images for global biometric interoperability. In order to comply with the security controls for the e-Passport greatest care was taken in fine-tuning and managing the application and personalisaion procedure.
The Division of Exit and Entry Administration of the Ministry of Public Security has authorised more than 2,000 enrolment centres to handle e-Passport applications. Individuals wishing to apply for an e-Passport are obliged to visit in person to the Exit & Entry Administration office in their registered place of residence and provide all the necessary proofs of identity. In addition to checking all the required documents, the officers on site must undertake the following procedures to verify the applicant’s identity. Firstly, the applicant must present their original second-generation ID card to the officer. Data on the ID card will be retrieved and compared with the information submitted by the applicant on the application form. In addition, the facial image stored on the ID card will be used for nationwide biometric comparison against the central database. Secondly, a photograph of the applicant will be taken at the admissions counter for a security check. Lastly, the applicant’s signature will be taken and used as an additional identity check. Moreover, to facilitate self-service checks at border crossings at different ports of entry in China, the fingerprint image of the applicant will be captured and stored on the passport chip.
The application data are securely transmitted and stored on a central database. The same data are later distributed through encrypted channels to a local authorised centre for e-Passport personalisation. All the required materials were carefully selected by central procurement and distributed to these 31 personalisation centres in advance to safeguard the e-Passport issuance process; waste materials are carefully audited and securely handled. This comprehensive enrolment, record-keeping and personalisation system was put in place to ensure the integrity of the information system, and facilitate the application process of the ordinary e-Passport for individual citizens.
Features of the Chinese e-Passport
The design of the Chinese e-Passport was the subject of multiple discussions. It had to meet a high level of security standards as well as provide a graphical interpretation of the concept ‘The splendour of China’.
Compared to the security features of the old passport in use since the year 2000, the e-Passport features two major improvements. Firstly, high-end anti-counterfeiting paper has been used to enhance its anti-fraud capabilities; this paper makes it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to alter any pages of a passport once it has been issued. Secondly, more than a dozen anti-forgery technologies have been applied to the various pages of the passport book in order to strengthen its security level.
Notable first-level authentication technologies incorporated into the new e-Passport include, but are not limited to, intaglio pattern, orloff offset, raster image processor (RIP), multi-colour orloff intaglio, a distinctive colour-shift pattern, two intaglio latent images, circle rainbow printing and two-colour orloff serial numbers. More advanced features, such as intaglio microtext, fluorescent patterns and infrared drop-out patterns, were also applied to different parts of the passport pages to provide an even higher level of anti-forgery protection (see figure 2).
Advanced inkjet digital printing technology has also greatly improved the quality of the photograph on the biodata page (see figure 3). The high-resolution picture clearly shows the bearer’s natural facial features in addition to which a bi-colour ghost image containing a latent image of the passport number has been incorporated to prevent photograph substitution. The improved passport photograph makes for much easier and more accurate identification with the naked eye.
It was decided that laser holographic lamination would be used to provide the biodata page of the e-Passport with an added level of protection against tampering. Notable security features on the lamination incorporate typically Chinese elements, such as the 90-degree colour-changing seal, highly diffractive colours and concentric animation of the national emblem (see figure 4). Other features, such as highly diffractive kinematic animation letters, diversified animation images, fluorescent patterns and microtext are also imprinted on the film. This design not only secured a high level of security, it also was able to depict the concept ‘The splendour of China’. Similar representations were incorporated on each page of the passport book with unique designs and watermarks of signature landmarks of China’s 31 provinces.
A successful project
The e-Passport project has been praised by every member of the MPS team. It is the very first Chinese national identity document to include the fingerprint information of its holder and has been recognised as having successfully introduced global biometric interoperability to existing identity documents in China. The Chinese e-Passport, with its advanced security features, will make forgery and tampering extremely difficult, and will at the same time safeguard the trustworthiness of the document and the legal rights of the passport bearer.
China will continue to work on upgrading the security level of its national documents in order to comply with ICAO specifications. It is China’s ongoing policy to support international standards with a commitment to facilitate yet safeguard the security of international travel.
Ms. Xiaoqiang Tan is an associate professor in Engineering. She spent 30 years in the Guangdong Public Security Bureau before being transferred to the Beijing head office of the Ministry of Public Security in 2008. She participated in all IT and document related projects, where she was responsible for technical research and advice.