The Peculiar Evolution of Identity Documents (Part 1)

At EYN, we are very enthusiastic about identity and identity documents. We sometimes get asked why we decided to work on this topic and why we are betting more on technology. This article aims to address this fundamental question. First, let’s start from the beginning:

A Brief History of Identity Documents

For hundreds of years, travel documents such as passports have existed in the form of a sovereign state’s letter of recommendation or a “safe-conduct pass”. It can be seen as a written plea that acted as a type of gentleman’s agreement between two rulers that recognised the authority of each other. Such documents allowed the bearers safe passage and protection through the lands of the issuer without causing conflict usually during wartime (and thus were more like a modern visa than a current passport).

The first time an object which we might recognise as a modern passport was mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. Such a document was used to grant safe passage to Nehemia (an ancient prophet) to the kingdom of Judah. Nehemia was allowed to travel under the protection of ancient Persian king Artaxerxes beyond the lands of the Euphrates (modern-day Syria and Iraq) [2]

Map of the region in the 9th century BCE, The Northern Kingdom is in blue while the Southern Kingdom of Judah is in yellow.

The first-ever recorded passport-type document is from the reign of King of Henry V in 1414 in the act of the British parliament mentioning the concept of “safe conduct” document. The bill was for punishing Breakers of Truces and Safe Conducts: and for appointing Conservators in every Port. At that time, documents like these could be issued by the king to anyone, whether they were English or not. For the next 500 years and before World War I, most people did not have or need an identity document. [3]

Carl Hans Lody [7]

During World War I, European governments introduced border passport requirements for security reasons, and to control the immigration of people with useful skills. However, there was another unusual use of passports: Spying.

During the first few months of world war I, Carl Hans Lody, was serving as a reserve officer for the Imperial German Navy with a mission to spy on the Royal Navy in the United Kingdom. Carl was warned that he will attract suspicions and will be heavily investigated when trying to enter the U.K as a foreigner:

When you are in England, Lody, you are not in Germany or France with a neutral frontier close at hand to assist your escape. You will have to get through a port, and it will not be easy … It will mean death if you are in the slightest degree careless. You must remember that all foreigners will be watched everywhere. Your correspondence will be opened and your luggage will be ransacked. They will go over your passport with a microscope to see that it is not forged and they will make you notify every change of address that you have. [4]

Lody’s American documents, in the name of Charles A.
Lody’s American documents, in the name of Charles A.
Original passport of Charles Inglis used by Carl Lody to enter the U.K.[7]

Understanding the complexity of the mission, German naval intelligence officials prepared him well: Carl was speaking fluent English, with an American accent, as he was married to a German-American. Furthermore, he was given a U.S emergency passport stolen from an American citizen in Germany in the name of Charles A. Inglis (as displayed in the accompanying image). As the passport lacked security features such as the holder’s photograph or fingerprints, being merely a single-sheet document, it was well-suited for the use by a spy. This was one of the first forms of identity theft, commonly known as imposter attack, that the world has seen and that has allowed Lody to send sensitive information about Royal Navy ships during his stay in Edinburgh. Carl was eventually captured by British secret service (MI5) who intercepted all his letters to the NAZI party and was finally executed by a firing squad at the Tower of London. [8]

Even though photographic identification appeared in 1876, it only became widely used at the beginning of the 20th century, and Lody’s spy scandal has significantly contributed to it. As a result of Lody’s episode, London advised that is was introducing a photograph-based passport format[5]. A new era of passports was born.

In the aftermath of the first world war and an increasing demand to identify immigrants, the idea of a worldwide passport standard emerged championed by the League of Nations, a body tasked with the heavy burden of maintaining peace now known as the United Nations.

First passport standard by ICAO [2]

In 1920, the League of Nations held a conference on passports, the Paris Conference on Passports & Customs Formalities and Through Tickets. The first standard passport guidelines and a general booklet design resulted from the conference, as shown in the image. Standards included visual characteristics like the template, physical size, number of pages, and space where to put visas. While the United Nations held more travel conferences, no new passport standards saw the light of day until 1980. Under the auspices of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a UN organisation established in 1944, a new international standard was born. This was the start of issuing international standards for travel documents that are followed by most countries in the world.

ICAO: the Internationally Recognised Organisation for Issuing Travel Document Standards

ICAO logo

Intending to enable border controllers and other law enforcement agents to process travel documents quickly and reinforce identity document security to detect forgeries, the ICAO started to define international standards for all machine-readable travel documents used in the world. This includes passports, identity cards and visas.

These standards are endorsed by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). Furthermore, in 2005, the 192 Member States of ICAO approved a new standard that all states must start to issue machine-readable passports. No later than by 2015 all non-machine readable travel documents must have expired. [2]

The Use of Technology in Document Security Features and Standards to Combat Different Types of Document Fraud.

The ICAO has always encouraged the use of modern technology to not only facilitate the automation of reading identity documents by machines at borders but to also to quickly and securely verify their authenticity.

Types of document fraud include [6]:

  1. Counterfeit: the creation of all or part of a document which resembles the genuine ID with the intention that it be used as if it were genuine. Counterfeits may be produced by attempting to duplicate or simulate the genuine method of manufacture and the materials used therein or by using copying techniques;
  2. Fraudulent alteration or forgery: involves the alteration of a genuine document in an attempt to enable it to be used for travel by an unauthorised person or to an unauthorised destination. The biographical details of the legitimate holder, particularly the portrait
  3. Imposter fraud is defined as someone representing himself to be some other person. Remember Carl Hans Lody? He was an imposter.

ICAO first started by defining structure features and standards. These involve the appearance of visual characteristics when using materials which are not readily available, combined with highly specialised design systems and manufacturing processes requiring specialised equipment and expertise. [6]

One of the first standards was an area known as Machine Readable Zone (MRZ). The MRZ presents information otherwise written in textual form, as strings of alphanumeric characters. The MRZ is printed in a manner suitable for optical character recognition (OCR). The addition of the MRZ has significantly improved the speed of reading identity documents without having to type the information manually into a computer.

The second major innovative technology encouraged by ICAO to secure identity documents was the use of holograms. Security holograms are very difficult to forge because they are replicated from a master hologram that requires expensive, specialised and technologically advanced equipment to reproduce. The most common use of holograms is to place them on top of face photographs to prevent a fraudulent from replacing the picture of a genuine document’s owner. Holograms are particularly useful to combat counterfeits and forgery.

The third promising technology in use to help prevent forgeries of essential documents such as driver’s licenses and passports is embedding security features only visible under ultraviolet light or infrared light. Usually, the paper on top of the identity document may include a UV watermark or fluorescent multicolour fibres that only show up under UV or infrared light.

Finally, one of the most recent and promising technology to secure travel documents is laser engraving. Pictures and text are engraved in plastic laminates or cards using a laser. Such advanced printing techniques require access to advanced machinery, which makes them very hard to reproduce or forge.

In 1957, an Egyptian-American engineer and a cryptography expert named Mohamed M. Atalla [7] invented the metal–oxide–semiconductor (MOS) transistor which revolutionised the electronics industry. Nowadays, nearly all modern integrated circuits (IC) chips are (MOS) integrated circuits. Why this invention was a game-changer for travel documents? Answer: Now we can have embedded microchips in travel documents.

This e-passport symbol is usually printed on the cover of biometric passports.

The IC introduced what we now call biometric passports, also known as an e-passport. A biometric passport is a traditional passport that has an embedded microprocessor chip inside. The chip contains biometric information that can be used to authenticate the identity of the passport holder. All of the passport critical information that is printed on the data page of the passport, the MRZ, and a very high-resolution face photograph is stored in the chip.

Forging an identity document with an IC chip? Harder than Mission Impossible

Three main characteristics make IC chips in e-passports a game-changing technology in securing identity documents:

  1. All the stored data in the chip are cryptographically protected and digitally signed, which makes it expensive and extremely difficult to forge.
  2. The integrity of the data on the chip can be mathematically proven via cryptographic methods and does not rely on pattern matching methods such as checking visual features.
  3. There is a mechanism to detect cloned IC chips which makes it extremely hard to create authentic replicas.

The combination of these three characteristics makes forging e-passports chips nearly impossible unless you have access to the machines which made the passports and access to the private keys used to sign the digital certificates during the manufacturing of the passports. Furthermore, proving the integrity of the data and the authenticity of the chip is mathematically proven and leaves no room for false positives when asserting the validity of chipped identity documents.

The technology behind embedded chips in passports made a worldwide success for ICAO’s electronic document initiative, which has led to the issuance of millions of eMRTDs as specified in ICAO Doc 9303. [6] Many countries are moving towards the issuance of biometric passports and, by 2017, more than 120 countries have issued e-passports. Furthermore, it has brought a new era of automation to immigration border control. The technology is used in automatic immigration barriers, so-called e-gates, at airports that you have probably used more than once.

The different categories of identity documents currently in circulation

The majority of identity documents in circulation are ICAO standardised documents, and these documents are becoming more and more chipped. However, there are still other country-specific standards documents like driving licences and some national IDs which do not follow ICAO standards.

As such, we can categorise documents into three categories:

  1. Non-ICAO specific documents: e.g. Driving licences.
  2. ICAO specific documents: e.g. Some national IDs and passports.
  3. ICAO specific and chipped documents: The majority of modern passports and national IDs.

This summarises the evolution of identity documents and the emergence of modern document verification technologies.

Stay tuned for Part 2, where we are going to explain the different methods for checking the presence of security features and how to verify document authenticity.




[4] Steinhauer, Gustav; Felstead, Sidney Theodore (1930). Steinhauer, the Kaiser’s Master Spy. London: John Lane. p. 39.

[5] Doulman, Jane, and David Lee (2008). Every Assistance & Protection: A History of the Australian Passport. Federation Press. p. 56. ISBN 9781862876873. Retrieved 31 December 2015.




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