Blockchain: the future of the passport?

29 August 2017

The UK Border Force has five key priorities including facilitating the movement of individuals and trade, providing an efficient service for customers and preventing security threats. All of these aims could be facilitated by blockchain technology. In 2016, nearly 20,000 British passports were either lost or stolen, which can lead to identity theft. In addition, manual passport checks are inefficient. They cause delays in airports and, as Reform has previously shown, this challenge will continue to grow with increasing numbers of people travelling. Government needs to find new ways to solve these issues and blockchain technology is an avenue to explore.

Blockchain could become the future of the passport. It is a transparent and tamper-proof ledger, which can be used to verify a person’s identity. Blockchain technology stores data across a distributed network, rather than a single ledger. It can be used to trace the authenticity of a transaction, item or even a person. Its transparency and tamper-proof elements mean that any alterations to the information stored in the blocks must be verified by all members of the network.

Unlike current paper passports, personal information could be encrypted and stored digitally on an individual’s smartphone (accessible via fingerprint scanning), which, to allow access through the border, would have to be verified alongside biometric information. This digital passport reduces the risk of identity fraud and the information being lost or stolen.

For the passenger, the blockchain-enabled digital passport enhances their control over their personal information. There is no need for a passenger’s details to be stored by various border agencies, such as airlines, airports and governments, as data is kept on the encrypted blockchain. Instead, these agencies would simply verify the encrypted data with the biometric information – giving the individual full control over their identity. Increased user control of personal data and the transparent nature of a blockchain ledger should address concerns raised about blockchain being used to monitor a person’s data.

A digital passport could improve the airport users’ travelling experience. In June, the Dubai Government announced its intention to test blockchain technology, aiming to create a ‘gate-less’ border that cuts waiting times and verifies passenger information prior to their arrival at the airport. Blockchain technology could reduce long passenger queues by ending multiple checks of information by border staff. On arrival, passengers would simply walk through a ‘tunnel’ that would scan their face, checking it against the digital passport supplied through the blockchain. This can be done without the biometric details being stored by any agency involved in the process.

In Estonia, blockchain technology has been adopted across a wide range of public services – demonstrating the broader possibilities of its implementation. The blockchain-supported Estonia ID is a digital identity card that grants Estonians access to public, financial and medical services. The Estonia ID serves as a simple replacement to the many cards and IDs that used to take up wallet space.

As demonstrated in Reform’s digital borders report, technological innovation has the ability to improve the efficiency and security of the UK’s borders. If adopted, blockchain could signal the end of the paper-based passport. Reform is now working on a new report on the use of blockchain within public services for identity management.

Luke Heselwood, Research Assistant, Reform 

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