Stuff You Should Know About Passports

Vernon Coleman

Passports, as we know them, are a relatively new innovation. The world managed very well without them for thousands of years. And the movement of people around the world contributed enormously to the growth and development of communities, cities and countries. Marco Polo, Captain Cook, Christopher Columbus and Hannibal all managed quite well without them.

When passports did exist in previous civilisations they were there for an entirely different purpose. The Chinese almost certainly had passports of some kind. But these weren't designed to restrict the holder in any way. On the contrary, they were medallions or certificates given to a courier as evidence of his bona fides. If an Emperor wanted to send a message he would give his emissary papers or a special medal to show to people who might try to stop him. The document was designed to make sure that people would let him pass.

Modern passports, designed as a means of controlling the movement of citizens, were, I'm afraid, originally conceived by the British. In particular, the aim was to stop lots of people from Africa, India and other outposts of the British Empire coming to England. But, conscious of the origin of the passport and anxious not to upset its own citizens, the British Government used to print a stern notice on the inside front page of its passports demanding that the holder of the passport be given free passage. It was a strongly worded announcement implying that if anything happened to the holder of the passport then the person responsible would find himself on the wrong end of a British warship. In this way the passport could be used to protect bona fide citizens and to stop outsiders entering the country without authority.

How things have changed.

Today the passport isn't issued to protect a citizen or a country's borders. Possession of a passport is no longer a right and the holder cannot brandish it with pride. Today, passports are issued to control the movement of citizens. And, as if passports aren't enough, we now have visas. Hundreds of thousands of people are hired to do nothing but issue passports and visas and to check them. Every year millions of people waste hours and days of their lives queuing up to show their passports, not with pride but with a dull knowledge that the passport is no longer a right or even a privilege but is nothing more than an identity card.

It is perhaps time to ask ourselves (as citizens) whether we need passports any more. Your passport doesn't even offer protection these days and (as thousands of travellers can confirm) no government will do anything to help you if you get into trouble while you are abroad. The politicians you helped elect to look after your interests are too busy pursuing agendas of their own to risk upsetting local politicians by trying to defend you. And the embassy staff who are well-paid to protect the interests of the British people are far too busy choosing the wine which the taxpayer will provide for their next Embassy party to spend time sorting out the problems of travellers who have been foolish enough to get themselves into trouble.

Passports don't protect the country against immigration. If people want to move into a country they will do so illegally if they can't get in legally. Britain is an island and has well protected ports and airports and yet even the authorities admit that hundreds of thousands of people seem to manage to get into the country quite successfully.

Passports don't protect the country from terrorists who want to do it harm. There is a whole industry out there busy making and selling false passports (or stealing and revising existing ones). Terrorists who wish to do a country harm will never ever have any difficulty obtaining whatever pieces of paper they might need to get into it.

Passports never stop people who shouldn't be travelling from travelling - and getting into any country they want to get into. Passports merely irritate people, waste time, waste resources and give power to uniformed guards who abuse it.

Although passports are today regarded as the ultimate in identity documents (the father and mother of the identity card), forged copies are becoming ever easier to purchase. In March 2004 it was reported that the going rate for a counterfeit European passport had fallen to 600 (from a previous high of 7,000) and were flooding Britain from factories in Eastern Europe where they were being made to order.

Biometric passports (being brought in by the European Union to please the Americans) will not make any difference to the way terrorists and criminals operate.

Government ministers talk about biometric identification as they though they've just cracked the atom and discovered the meaning of life. Biometric identifiers are, of course, as old as people. When you see a friend approaching along the street you use biometric identifiers to help you identify them. Eyes, nose, hair, shape of mouth - all the facial characteristics we use to recognise one another are biometric identifiers. When a relative rings you up you know who is on the other end of the telephone because you recognise their voice. That's another biometric identifier. In the olden days you would have gone into a bank and the teller would have given you cash out of your account because he would have recognised you. Even if you'd had a hair cut and worn new lipstick the teller would have still known it was you. These days the chances are that no one in your bank knows you by name. No one can identify you because all the `personal service' has gone out of banking.

When they are talking about biometric indicators Government ministers are talking about fingerprints and pictures taken by optical scanners. And the half-baked government ministers who boast about the efficacy of these techniques will usually claim that they are fool-proof and will protect you against identity theft.

Only the really, really hysterically stupid ones (the David Blunketts, Jack Straws and Charles Clarkes of the political world) actually believe this. The intelligent ones (er, well there is probably one somewhere but I just can't think of an example) know that machines that measure biometric indicators can be fooled just as easily and as efficiently as any other machine.

Fingerprint scanners rely on tiny amounts of natural grease in your skin forming an image of your fingerprint. Just breathing on some fingerprint scanners will fool them. Alternatively (as anyone who watched a movie made in the last two decades will know) it is possible to have plastic skin made which will give you someone else's finger print. Making a prosthetic finger which contains someone else's fingerprint is remarkably easy to do. (I'm not going to explain it here because I don't want you to be arrested for being in possession of dangerous material. But, believe me, it's easy to do. Just key a selection of words from `biometric', `fingerprint' and `fool' into a search engine when you're next online with nothing much to do.) And, of course, if you have fingerprints which you find embarrassing, you can burn them off with acid.

Facial recognition systems and iris scanners are also pretty easy to fool. They are much easier than fooling a bank teller who has known you for twenty years.

Copyright Vernon Coleman 2011

Taken from How To Protect And Preserve Your Freedom, Identity And Privacy by Vernon Coleman