Over the last years, more and more countries decided to switch to polycarbonate for the data page of their new electronic passports. The main reasons for such upgrades are additional security and additional durability – two things that are not always a necessary requirement as very often, “good old” security paper combined with a well-designed and state-of-the art holographic laminate still gets the job done to protect a data page from document fraud. For that matter, many of the features of DOVIDs for polycarbonate data pages (described below) are also available and recommended for thin laminates protecting paper data pages. Be that as it may, the passport configuration remains a sovereign choice made by issuing authorities.

When the time comes for modernization and upgrades, we believe ePassports should be designed with a thin polycarbonate data page combined with an electronic cover (eCover).

In this article, we first present the most common needs and demands of the governments when modernizing a passport. Then we make an emphasis on the data page and the eCover, the two most critical secure components in a passport booklet. For each, we present the key features recommended in order to match accurately the expectations of issuing and control authorities, specialized in ID document examination.

Expectations of the governments: more than security and convenience

Most states now issue electronic passports. These travel documents should bring both security and convenience, the two main expectations when modernizing a passport:

  • Security in order to curb document fraud (counterfeiting or forgery attempts) and identity fraud (e.g., use of genuine documents by impostors). Both endanger homeland security and citizen’s ability to travel; they can have significant social and economic impacts.
  • Convenience is critical for a good users’ experience during controls; this criterion is mainly linked to the performance of the embedded electronics and to the overall booklet flexibility.

When they select a provider, authorities also demand and look for:

  • Documents complying with international standards and recommendations (e.g., with the ICAO Doc 9303) and respecting the regional regulations.
  • Exceptional security design to bring a strong visual identity.
  • Technical options that guarantee their independence.

Finally, any state investing significant resources in a new ePassport program will try to make a smart selection and combination of features that are cost-effective, with high value added and a very good benefit-cost ratio.

The main types of ePassport configurations

Two configurations are possible for a passport booklet with a polycarbonate data page: with or without electronics in the data page (in this case, the contactless chip is embedded in the back cover). The schematics below make it easier to understand the two options. Again, the choice is made by the issuing authority.

Schematics designed by the Document Security working group of the Secure Identity Alliance – IN Groupe is a full member of the SIA. Copyright: SIA 2021.

A thin polycarbonate data page combined with an eCover: the best concept for a modern ePassport

For its next generation of ePassports, IN Groupe recommends governments to issue booklets with an eCover and a thin polycarbonate data page, combined with an additional color portrait image personalised on page 3 (after the data page). In 2020 and 2021, two big countries in America selected this configuration for their new passports.

Indeed, using a thin polycarbonate data page has proved to be an effective part of the answer to the need of issuing authorities for more security and convenience.

Convenience is linked to the flexibility of the booklet that can be maintained thanks to a thin polycarbonate data page (combined with an eCover that is also thin) – instead, an electronic polycarbonate data page will be thicker and less flexible:

  • Good flexibility brings better resistance (durability) and improves users’ experience (booklet opening flat makes checking more convenient; booklet closing completely is important for privacy).
  • Lower flexibility making data page prone to breaking and lowers travellers experience (thicker booklet, more rigid).

IN Groupe also recommends this concept because it is stronger than a booklet with an electronic data page in terms of security against document fraud attempts.

  • A thin data page enables an easier verification of the typical polycarbonate metallic sound (this is less obvious to perceive with a thick data page). In addition, such structures enable to embed cost-effective level 1 security devices like a customised “watermark” like feature that can be check easily with naked eye and by advanced passport readers (equipped with transmitted light).
  • Security is also stronger when holder’s data is well distributed between polycarbonate data page (with the physical portrait image) and eCover (chip with digital portrait image): a strong unique link is created. With an electronic polycarbonate data page, all data is concentrated in one e-component: the unique link between polycarbonate data page and rest of the booklet is weaker.

Finally, a thin polycarbonate data page combined with an eCover is a cost-effective and reliable configuration:

  • There are more technical options to select the e-components (inlays and chips) when using an eCover: multi-sourcing, monitoring of suppliers and chip/OS upgrades are easier and quicker, with no visible impact. A true guarantee of independence.
  • With an inlay embedded in an eCover the waste of secure chips during manufacturing is lower than with an electronic polycarbonate data page (laminated with high pressure and temperature before embedding in the passport booklet).
Key takeaways:
  • A thin and flexible data page embedding a “watermark” like feature
  • Key data (e.g. portrait image) distributed between the data page and the eCover
  • A passport configuration to make multi-sourcing of e-components easier

Main features of a thin polycarbonate data page

A construction resistant to splitting, embedding specific security features

As recommended by ICAO in Doc 9303, any synthetic data page (typically, based on polycarbonate) shall be manufactured with a “construction resistant to splitting”. In particular, it is important to protect the portrait area, which is the first target for forgers.

Additionally, specific features should be embedded inside the polycarbonate structure (typically, behind the main data) in order to actively mitigate attacks by abrasion through the back of the data page (portrait substitution). It can be a kind of visible “watermark” since such a level 1 feature is easy to verify with naked eye and can be customised with a national symbol.

Example of a customized aluminium “watermark” protecting the photo, in combination with other security features (highly visible with direct and/or transmitted light)

A flexible and secure customised hinge

The hinge of the polycarbonate data page should be thin and flexible enough to avoid opening the booklet. This is very important for convenience (durability and use in the field).

In terms of security, we recommend using a structure with hinge molded between the polycarbonate layers fused together: this method guarantees a secure incorporation of data page (high resistance to tear or flexion and better detection of page substitution) and a construction resistant to splitting, as recommended by ICAO. When the hinge is attached to the data page (collation technology) instead of molded, it is potentially easier to separate it from the data page and thus the risk of page substitution is higher.

In addition, the hinge should embed a highly resistant security feature that can be uniquely customised and easily checked (ideally, with naked eye). Without such a level 1 feature, the hinge would be easier to counterfeit or replace without leaving tamper evidence.

Example of a hinge with a customised visible security feature, with specific look and feel

An asymmetric transparent window

In order to link effectively both faces of the data page, it is strongly recommended to include a transparent window in a polycarbonate data page. With one window, the light is able to pass fully through this area, creating a link between the two sides of the data page. A window can be laser personalized with the bearer’s data (for example, an additional portrait image). It is an effective feature to protect the data page against counterfeiting and attacks by delamination, which is why nearly half of the newly issued passports with a polycarbonate data page embed a transparent window; this trend is growing.

To make the window a lot more difficult to imitate, the structure should be asymmetrical (two complex shapes of different sizes, with the bigger shape on the backside). The window should also include visible and UV fluorescent printed security backgrounds to add complexity and make verifications easier – thus one can observe a continuity of the print, exactly as in a transparent edge used on certain identity cards.

Example of a window with an asymmetrical shape (view on the backside) and a laser engraved photo protected by a visible security background

 Security printing to protect the portrait area

This security layer should be made of some visible and invisible (UV fluorescent) rainbow printing with two different colors, all printed in offset. The most important to do is protecting the main portrait image so data should be laser engraved under the security background, merged within portrait area (as recommended by ICAO in its Doc 9303). An additional security feature is to print an optically variable ink on the reverse side of the data page, behind the photo; any modification from the back would leave tamper evidence.

Example of visible offset printed security background protecting the portrait area
Example of UV fluorescent rainbow printing (red-green transition) overlapping portrait area

 A transparent DOVID protecting the portrait area, with strong level 1 security features

An effective and essential protection against photo substitution and alteration demands a visible security device overlapping portrait area. IN Groupe recommends to embed a transparent DOVID in the polycarbonate structure (typically, an inlay positioned over the portrait main physical features). In order to make controls easier and quicker, it is strongly recommended to embed in the DOVID at least one level 1 security feature that is particularly strong (against counterfeiting) and easy to verify. This could be a sharp and obvious colour permutation when tilting the document, combined with a 3D (relief) optical effect or a movement difficult to reproduce. Several providers of secure component can propose DOVIDs with such reliable optical features, based on cutting‐edge technologies.

Example of DOVID with strong and trusted level 1 security features

In order to bring advanced protection against counterfeits and forgery attempts, IN Groupe made possible to embed bigger and more complex DOVIDs. They can cover more data, up to the whole datapage surface if need be. Such DOVIDs can be made of several optical elements with variable shapes, purposefully spread out on all or part of the datapage surface. A larger range of holder’s data is protected by the various level 1 holographic elements, so imitations or reuse of the DOVID get more difficult. Such DOVIDs also increase the security concepts possibilities since designers can embed more national symbols with trusted optical features (requested by law enforcement).

Example (simulation) of DOVID made of several holographic elements with variable shapes

 

Some tactile and optical lamination features

Any document based on polycarbonate should embed tactile lamination features on the surface of the data page in order to make authentication easier and to better detect forgery attempts (typically, adding a transparent overlay with a fake portrait image). IN Groupe recommends the following security features: tactile embossing protecting the portrait, lens for MLI (Multiple Laser Image), mat/shiny effect (optical switch), guilloches and microtext, highly tactile feature on the side of the page (to enable a quick check with the finger). Some lamination features should also be embedded on the reverse side of the structure, to combat some forgery attempts (e.g. attacking the main portrait image from the back).

Key takeaways:
  • A construction resistant to splitting, embedding specific security features
  • A flexible and secure customised hinge
  • A transparent window with a complex shape
  • Security printing to protect the portrait area
  • A transparent DOVID protecting key data, with strong level 1 security features
  • Some tactile and optical lamination features on both sides of the data page

 

On the choices for the eCover

The selection of the electronic components embedded in the eCover is critical in order to guarantee both security and convenience (here, in the sense of durability) but also performance (e.g. fast automated border control) and independence – governments seek robust but open (non-proprietary) technological options, enabling them to limit indirect costs.

The chip and the Operating System: performance and independence

A strong and suitable protection of the content of the chip should be guaranteed by various security mechanisms (BAC, SAC, EAC, AA, PA). With these state-of-the-art security mechanisms, the chip is protected against various document fraud attempts: unauthorised access to content (reading the holder’s private data without his/her consent), duplication, falsification (modification of the content) or eavesdropping (the data cannot be intercepted in plain text when checked with a reader).

IN Groupe is fully agnostic for the choice of the contactless chip and Operating System (OS). It means we can source these strategic e-components from various suppliers to select the optimal independent solution. According to the project we work on, we can set minimum technical recommendations for both the contactless chip and the OS. These specifications are always based on proven technologies.

On the contactless chip and module, we usually recommend:

  • Optimal thickness for integration in thin inlays
  • High capacitance to allow effective performance
  • Products recently certified with Common Criteria

For the OS (Operative System) we generally recommend:

  • SAC/EAC Support for biometric passports
  • Quick personalization time
  • Fast complete reading of chip data
  • Products recently certified with Common Criteria
  • Advanced Protection Profiles

The electronic inlay: optimal durability without physical connection

When it comes to convenience, an ePassport should last at least 10 years and the most sensitive component for durability is the electronic inlay embedded inside the eCover. Optimal durability can be reached using an eCover that integrates a RFID antenna interfacing with the micro-module (protecting and connected to the chip) through an inductive coupling technology requiring no physical bonding between the micro-module and the antenna of the inlay.

It is important because some people use a lot their passports or put it in their back pockets. So there is always a risk that the physical connection between contactless chip and the antenna breaks and as a result the ePassport cannot be read anymore. With no physical connection, there is no risk to lose the coupling between chip and antenna.

Illustration of an electromagnetic coupling between an antenna and a micro-module (yellow)
Key takeaways:
  • Robust but open (non-proprietary) technological options
  • Inductive coupling between the chip and the antenna for enhanced durability

Last but not least: personalisation

Some physical features are embedded at the critical stage of personalisation. IN Groupe has the experience to produce blank documents and set up then operate personalisation centers for small or large volumes of ID documents. IN Groupe holds the ISO 14298 certification (“Management of security printing processes”), obtained from Intergraf with the “Central Bank” level (the highest). IN Groupe is also ISO 27001 certified (“Information Security Management”). To make secure operations easier without relying on a single document provider, we recommend designing ePassports that can be personalised on various machines dedicated to security uses.

Laser engraved core personalization

A passport with polycarbonate data page enables laser engraved core personalisation. The quality of the portrait image (an input) and the personalization technology (software and hardware) will strongly influence the security brought by the grey scale photo. With accurate technology, high resolution and contrast/sharpness can be reached and enable an easy inspection in the field, both physically or remotely.

Laser engraved tactile personalization

The polycarbonate data page structure should be compatible with laser engraved tactile personalization, a very cost effective and efficient security feature. The typical data to protect with such an additional feature are the date of expiry and the document number.

Additional colour photo positioned on page 3

For security purpose, it is recommended by ICAO to embed “biographical data printed on an inside page in addition to the data page”. Typically, it can and should be a large additional portrait image printed on page 3 (after the data page). A fast-growing number of passport-issuing authorities use this simple and effective security concept. Indeed, this secondary colour photo creates a strong physical link between the data page and the booklet, which become more difficult to separate (many forgery attempts are based on data page substitution with a fake one). This cost-effective security feature is also a good protection against photo substitution and alteration.

Example of an additional colour photo positioned on page 3 (also protected by UV fluorescent security background)
Key takeaways:
  • A manufacturer with experience in setting up and operating personalisation centres
  • Laser engraved core personalization, protected by printed security backgrounds
  • Tactile laser engraving protecting key data (e.g., document number)
  • Key data repeated (e.g. additional colour photo positioned on page 3)

Sources:

ingroupe.com/en/key-features-modern-epassport

ingroupe.com/en/key-features-modern-identity-card

IN Groupe

platform.keesingtechnologies.com/new-french-digital-id-card-eid-launched-in-2021

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Joachim Caillosse joined IN Groupe in 2016 as Product Manager for ID and travel documents, with a focus on e-passports. Prior to that he worked for KURZ (parent company of OVD Kinegram) and within the Arjowiggins Security group, two providers of highly secure components for ID documents and banknotes. Joachim regularly collaborates with identity and document fraud experts from various countries. Since 2021 he has chaired the ‘Document Security’ working group for the Secure Identity Alliance (SIA).

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Pierre Warnez joined IN Groupe in 2010 and is heading the Identity Documents Business Line. Previously he has held various positions in engineering and industrial project management.

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