November 08, 2017
Since their inception, passports have come a long way. Once considered "offensive" because they placed the trustworthiness of an individual in doubt (What, you don't believe that I just flew into London a day ago?), passports today are essential to opening up people to travel—and travel to the world. When it comes to the information they contain, there are few personal documents that are more powerful.
It's understandable, then, that security around passport design has been studied and significantly improved over the years to prevent the theft of information and to make our documents that much harder to forge. Each U.S. passport, for example, is printed with 60 different materials, and has some 30 security features in place. Here are some elements of design that reveal your passport is the real deal.
Those plastic passport covers may look pretty straightforward, but they're one of the first indicators that a document may not be authentic. Each country has its own seal, applied to the booklet via a process called hot foil stamping, in which foil is stamped into plastic and the excess peeled off. Learning how to do this type of stamping is difficult, and the seals are proprietary, so the odds of forgers getting this specialized knowledge—on two counts, no less—is rare.
Printing techniques for ID cards and passports are so complex in detail that most patterns and text exceed the "resolution available via any other copying, printing or scanning device in the printing industry," according to a 2011 report from security identification expert Robert Smith in the Keesing Journal of Documents & Identity. Put more simply: Some elements of your passport's printed pages aren't visible without a microscope.
Thumb around the front or back cover or back page of your biometric passport, and you'll most likely feel a small rectangle—these are embedded microchips that carry information used to identify you (on a U.S. biometric passport, these chips are in the back cover). All of the passport's critical information—the number, your name, date of birth, and more—is printed on the data page of the passport, but also stored here, thus adding a second layer of data verification. Forging passport chips is difficult, not to mention costly, so it makes sense that more and more countries are opting to issue biometric passports. (According to CityLab, some sources put this number at 135 countries, and estimate that 90 percent of the world's passports have chips in them.) Unsure whether or not your passport is biometric? Just look for this symbol.
Holograms and inks
Holograms first began appearing on passports in the 1980s, and today, nearly every country has added this feature to their documents as an anti-counterfeit measure. Given that holograms on passports are most often layered with specialty inks and fine line engravings, according to Gizmodo, they are incredibly hard to copy. Plus, many governments hire firms to create propriety holograms for them—and hey, even if you were planning on getting into the business, hologram machines are expensive.
Optically variable inks
To the naked eye, most ink is static, one color. But as we all know, looks are deceiving: Take out your passport and find the "USA" on your biodata page: depending on the viewing angle, this will look green in one light, and gold in another. There are also inks that change color when heated or cooled, and inks that appear (and disappear) under certain types of light. Finland's passport transforms into a flipbook of a walking moose, and Canada's newest passport, for example, looks dull under regular light. But put it under an ultraviolet light, and fireworks, maple leaves, geese, starry skies, and more "etchings" pop out of the pages. Yet another reason it's good to be Canadian.
You won't find any Comic Sans here. Typefaces chosen by governments are—you guessed it!—kept under lock and key, and even have intentional imperfections so as to make them more difficult to digitally recreate. Copying it exactly, then, would mean getting ahold of the original file.
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