Sir Hugo Swire is a former Foreign Office and Northern Ireland Minister, and the Conservative MP for Devon East. He is a consultant to KIS (France).
A few weeks ago a Belgian court convicted 14 people of falsifying ID documents, some of which were sold to Islamist militants involved in the terror attacks on Paris and Brussels.
For many of my generation fake IDs were about getting into pubs and clubs, or buying a pint and a packet of cigarettes a couple of years before we were supposed to. For this generation, as the families of those slain in Paris, Brussels and countless other attacks will testify, the end results of fake IDs can now be unimaginably awful.
As a former Minister for Northern Ireland and more recently Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office I am all too aware of the threats we face at our borders. As a father of two teenagers I am also more than aware that we live in the “selfie” age. You only have to step outside the gates of Parliament to see hundreds of tourists with selfie sticks smiling in front of Big Ben. When it comes to passport and other ID documents, people are increasingly demanding a similar quick DIY approach.
The Passport Office has been testing the idea of selfie photos since April 2016 in line with the Government’s drive to get more business online. The idea was unsurprisingly popular as photos are free, quick and easy to take. Unfortunately it also exposes the passport process to unnecessary risks and it is often difficult for people to capture an acceptable image. Such selfies can easily be manipulated, for vanity or for more sinister criminal purposes, creating convincing false IDs.
Having already allowed the use of self-taken photos for their Passport card, the Irish Passport Office have identified the need and importance to provide a fully secure but easily accessible digital photo upload system. The Photo-Me photobooth has been approved for this process.
France has already rolled out that system. Here in the UK we are trialling a similar system, but it will not be operational until next year at the earliest.
In Ireland the Department for Foreign Affairs is working with Photo-Me International, a company I once chaired and one of the many providers of photobooths in the UK and across Europe. Following the Brexit vote one of the most important areas in need of resolution is the preserving of the Common Travel Area between the UK and Republic of Ireland, a vital aspect of which is commonality in terms of documentation. The DFA is working on an innovative scheme which will mean 90 per cent of the population are located within 10km of a photobooth.
Pictures taken in these booths will possess a number of key security features which smart phones do not. It will be impossible for the photo to have been edited in any way as the encrypted image is always held on secure servers. The images submitted have the highest acceptance level in meeting International Civil Aviation Organization standards which saves a considerable amount of time and money as the need for manual checks is greatly reduced. The images are automatically deleted six months after being taken providing passport providers with 100 per cent assurance the maximum six month old photo regulation is complied with. In addition, the technology present in the photobooths is already fully scalable for future biometric security regulations such as 3D, Iris reading, signature, fingerprint and facial recognition. This service will also be available in selected booths across the UK but for Irish citizens only. Importantly there is also no cost to the Government.
We already know that the number of forged passports seized at our borders is on the rise, with more than 1,000 confiscated a year. Britain’s exit from the EU gives us a golden opportunity to redesign and modernise our passports. It might be nice and convenient if we could upload selfies for our passport pictures. However, we live in an incredibly dangerous world. We owe it to our citizens to do everything we can to make sure our passport system is as secure as possible to help combat ID fraud and its sometimes deadly results.