Passports are Passé

The Dubai passport row points out the dirty little secret that is being overlooked in the debate over how to secure borders and air travel -- a passport is now useless as a means of verifying the identity of the individual carrying it.

Modern passports and other symbols of identification like drivers licenses are no different from the "papers" examined by border agents and assorted goons in countless B movies, credentials that can be paper or plastic, but are never close to reliable.

It is relatively easy to create a fake passport, or a fake drivers license or other form of identification document, but even valid passports and identity documents can be misused. Proper authentication of an individual's identity in current day paper-based systems is a two-step process. First, a proper credential must be issued (e.g., passport, drivers license, etc.). Second, whenever identity must be established, the identifying credential must be presented by an individual, then verified and matched with the bearer (e.g., in the case of passports, an agent at a border control station has to visually inspect and match the passport to the person presenting it).

This two-step process opens the door to human error or corruption interfering in either creation or use of the credential, making the system inherently unreliable.

What undermines the security of border crossings is that we have no established means of effectively verifying the identity of individuals. Relying on passports for that purpose is not going to cut it anymore. It is clear that we can no longer rely on the effectiveness of the screening process for either when credentials are issued or presented for review. Using paper-based passports for authentication of the bearer's identity simply deludes society into a false sense of security, and hand-wringing by politicians is a bit disingenuous.

The time is ripe to move to paperless-based identification schemes, most likely through a biometric identifier that is easy to collect and verify, like an iris scan. This is not an enhancement of the quality of a paper-based system, but replacement with a scheme where an individual carries his identity as part of his presence, not as a credential in his wallet. With a biometric system of verifying identity in place, we can assure that a person trying to enter a country is permitted to do so only if his identity can be verified directly without relying on the presentation of an artificial credential that can be easily faked, stolen, or improperly processed. After all, the verification process is usually done by the imprecise science of visual inspection of a photo in the bearer's presence.

Dubai has multiple digital images of the members of this hit squad on their journey. That's the degree to which data can be amassed on one's travels today - legitimate and illegitimate - but, if a society concludes that it needs to verify identity, the problem must be framed and addressed in terms of systems of identity verification, not of the sanctity or quality of passports and other identification documents as a means to that end.

Mark A. Shiffrin, a lawyer, is a former Deputy General Counsel of the U.S. Department of Education and Connecticut State Consumer Protection Commissioner. Avi Silberschatz is the Sydney J. Weinberg Professor and Chair of Computer Science at Yale.