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Passport Applications: Digitisation

Volume 778: debated on Wednesday 18 January 2017


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what representations they have received from the Photo Marketing Association and the Imaging Alliance about their proposals to digitise the passport application process, and what consideration they have given to enhancing and protecting passport security as part of the digitisation process.

My Lords, Her Majesty’s Passport Office has been working closely with the Imaging Alliance and previously with the Photo Marketing Association to consider their proposals to further enhance HM Passport Office’s digital passport application process. HM Passport Office works alongside the International Organization for Standardisation to ensure that the UK passport remains a highly secure and trusted document. System developments will enhance security and keep ahead of any evolving threats of fraud.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that Answer, but when I met the Imaging Alliance four weeks ago it did not feel that it was being as fully consulted as she suggests. As I understand it, the Government are seeking to arrange that any of us can send what is essentially a selfie to the Passport Office to form our passport. The passport is the gold standard as far as identity assurance in this country is concerned. Why is the opportunity not being taken to prevent a situation in which people can Photoshop images and to make sure that there is proper certification about when an image has been taken, that it was taken in a proper way and that it is a secure and viable basis on which we can prove our identity?

The noble Lord is absolutely right that security standards are paramount, whether under the old system, as we can call it, or under the new digital system. I reassure the noble Lord that security standards are exactly the same under both systems. The USA and New Zealand allow people to take their own photograph. A photograph identified as a selfie that does not meet those security standards and requirements is rejected in the examination process. As the noble Lord is right to point out, that gold standard is paramount for the robustness of and the confidence in this very important document.

Does this Question not take us straight back to the issue of authenticity of information in national identity documentation? Do Ministers realise that once an amateur takes a photograph, we could end up with civil servants arguing about whether that photograph is an exact image, whether it is dark, whether it was taken at the right angle, and whether it presents an image of the quality necessary to be put into an official document, with the result that they may end up having to return it to the sender for the sender to resubmit it? Is that not a waste of Civil Service time? It will cost the state money.

The noble Lord points out precisely the criteria that are used to measure quality and are required for photographs. Those security standards are no different in the online application process than they were in the old paper process. There was no more risk of the customer getting it wrong under the old system than there is under the new system.

My Lords, under the old system, as it is called, somebody has to certify on the back of the photograph that it is a true likeness of the passport holder. How is that going to be achieved if it is a completely digital application process?

My Lords, the current service, which has been in place since April last year, is available only to adults over the age of 26 who have previously held a British passport. That is where the rigour is in the new process.

My Lords, with the increasing threats of terrorism and of identity theft, does the Minister agree that the Question highlights the need for a proper biometric identity card?

The Government have rejected the idea of an identity card, but noble Lords will notice that when they go through passport gates now their face is compared with the photograph on the passport. The machines that do the face recognition, which is a form of biometrics, are very accurate indeed.

My Lords, is it not a fact that a photograph is merely a rather unsophisticated form of biometrics and that the only safe way of doing this is for the biometrics of any individual to be held centrally? When a person seeks to be identified, the person trying to identify them can, online, compare the biometrics of the person in front of them with those held centrally. That means that you cannot use a fake card or anything else. You need not an identity card but a number, with the biometrics attached centrally to that number.

There are a number of biometrics through which a person can be compared—it could be a photograph or fingerprints. The biometrics that we use on the British passport are very robust.

I almost get the impression that the noble Baroness is saying that we have identity cards, but we simply call them passports. To go back to the Question, she seemed to give the Answer that the new system is exactly the same as the old one. I am not knocking the advances, as with facial recognition you have an electronic means of verifying that the individual in front of you is the person they say they are. However, that was clearly also true with old-fashioned photographs, which were much more difficult to manipulate. The problem surely is that digital photographs are much easier to manipulate and the possibility of fraud rises. I do not believe they are exactly the same, and if she wants to persist in that argument—I am sure it is what her brief says—I would be grateful if she would write to us with a little more explanation of the security measures that guarantee the validity of the electronic image.

The noble Lord suggests that a passport is the same as an identity card, but actually it is a form of ensuring that the person’s identity is what they say it is.

A passport is a form of identity document. Whether you want to call it an identity document or a passport, it is a form of identity documentation. The noble Lord is absolutely right that digital photographs are easy to manipulate, but paper photographs are actually as easily manipulable, should someone wish to do so. That is the point that I am trying to make.