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An iPad Passport? Why Not?

Christopher Sands

Last week, Martin Reisch of Montreal was reported to have used a scanned image of his passport to cross into the United States. Having realized that he had forgotten his actual Canadian passport, he showed the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officer his driver license and an image of his passport on his iPad that he had scanned (in case he ever lost it).

There was a subsequent denial from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security that the iPad scan was acceptable, noting that Reisch had both his driver’s license and a birth certificate, and the CBP officer had used his discretion to accept these as proof of identity and citizenship. Reisch told Wired magazine that he did not have a birth certificate and so it was the scanned image of his passport that verified his citizenship.

Setting aside the particular circumstances of this case, in future, why couldn’t we use a scanned image of out passports on an iPad or smart phone to cross the border?

Passports are the “gold standard” of tamper-proof identification preferred by border agencies around the world. Following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the U.S., member countries of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) negotiated new standards for machine-readable, secure passports backed by biometric identifiers that could be used to verify identity.

Under the U.S. government’s Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI) the State Department gives passport applicants the option to request a passport card that can be used to return to the U.S. by land or sea from Canada, Mexico, Bermuda, or certain Caribbean countries.

The passport card is not as secure as a passport and does not contain all of the information in the passport, but contains a chip with a digital code that can be swiped by a CBP officer to call up the passport record of the individual in the CBP database. Once the officer has the passport database record, he or she can access biometric data (such as fingerprints and a photo suitable for facial recognition matching) and quiz the traveler using information in the record.

Several U.S. states and Canadian provinces followed up on this idea and developed enhanced driver’s licenses (EDLs). Citizens applying for a new license in Washington, Vermont, Michigan, and New York can opt for an EDL that contains a chip issued by the U.S. Department of State that allows the license to be used as a passport card.

The EDL chip has the same digital code to point to the traveler’s passport record. Canadian citizens in the provinces of British Columbia, Ontario, Manitoba and Quebec can opt for EDLs as well, with chips issued by the federal government and pointing to Canadian passport records.

The scanned image of the photo page of a passport includes the passport number which can be manually entered into the passport database to call up the same record. While it is easy enough to doctor an image with Photoshop or similar software, all that a border officer needs to do is run the passport number and call up the full record: if the photo or other information in the scanned image doesn’t match the CBP database, the fake will be instantly revealed.

President Obama and Prime Minister Harper announced the agenda for the bilateral Beyond the Border Working Group on December 7, 2011. Included in this agenda is a commitment to building an integrated entry-exit recording system. The idea behind this is that both countries at some future point would require passports for all border crossers including citizens returning home (a change in current Canadian policy).

Passports would be swiped and a record of entry made. U.S. and Canadian border agencies would exchange entry data to provide records of who has left each country by land borders — allowing officials to know for sure when someone who has been ordered deported has actually departed.

The U.S. and Canada are committed to making border security more efficient and effective through the Beyond the Border Working Group negotiations. That does not mean lowering security standards or scrutiny levels. What it could mean, however, is that officials screen travelers fully, quickly, and that the screening process is made easier for travelers to comply with.

Which raises the original question: Why not an iPad passport? If the U.S. already accepts passport cards and EDLs as passport alternatives for border crossing to Canada, couldn’t other options be explored to allow our border security personnel to quickly confirm traveler identities, using convenient devices many of us carry with us every day?

Confirming citizenship and identity at the border is necessary to the national security of both countries. Shouldn’t there be an app for that?

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