Government to introduce e-passports

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MASERU – The government of Lesotho is in the process of introducing electronic passports.

An electronic passport, also known as biometric passport, looks like a normal passport but it has an electronic chip that contains the particulars of the holder.

The electronic passport bears the biometric details of the bearer, including their fingerprints or the iris, which are all features unique to an individual. 

The person’s picture will also be contained in the chip.

The information in the chip is only visible under ultraviolet light.

Information held in the chip would also appear in the page of the passport.

So even if the holder tampers with the details on the page, the details will be contained in the chip that cannot be manipulated.

The information on the chip in the computer is also contained in the database of the issuing authority. 

As such, a passport holder cannot beat the system by making multiple applications like has been happening in Lesotho over the years.

Also an applicant cannot claim that their passport has expired when it is still valid because the system will be able to instantly retrieve the information from the database.

The use of biometric information to link a person to a passport serves the dual role of detecting counterfeit or manipulated documents and confirming a person’s identity.

A 2006 report by ACI Worldwide, an IT company that provides payment systems for the world’s leading financial firms, says apart from improving the detection of forged travel documents, a primary benefit of e-passports is automated passenger clearance at border control points.

In such situations, the report said, a passenger presents the travel document to an automated reader device, which reads their biographical information and biometric data from the contactless chip or a central database.

“Then, when the passenger’s facial, fingerprint or iris image is captured in the reading system, the stored biometric image is compared to the one presented. If the images match, then the traveller passes through immigration without interacting with an immigration officer,” the report said.

“This process takes place quickly, and it has vastly reduced queues at immigration control points in countries where automated passenger clearance with biometrics has already been implemented.”

There are currently more than 70 countries using e-passports in the world.

Malaysia was the first country to use e-passports in 1998. 

Somalia was the first country in Africa to introduce an e-passport in January 2007. 

Botswana has already started rolling out the e-passport after it awarded the contract to Giesecke & Devrient (G&D), a German firm that is understood to be leading the race for the same contract in Lesotho.

Lesotho’s passport services department has been struggling to sort out a huge backlog of the travel document’s applications that date as far back as 2007.

The department has also been rocked by corruption with officers accepting bribes from applicants for speedy production of their passports.

In some instances it was discovered that immigration officers would refuse to release produced passports until the applicants had paid a bribe.

Last month a female immigration officer and her accomplices were arrested for soliciting a M300 bribe from a client so she could release a passport. 

Corrupt individuals have made numerous applications using different names and some people have been found in possession of more than one passport. Senior officials in the department have attributed the backlog to corruption and multiple applications.

Lesotho’s passports are also said to be easy to forge.

It is alleged that immigration officers would steal some pages from other people’s passports and insert them in different passports.

Over the years many companies which used to provide normal passports have moved on to e-passports.

But as the competition for lucrative government contracts increases, many companies have resorted to unorthodox business practises like paying bribes to senior government officials.

At the time of writing, a row was about to erupt after the government decided to award the e-passport tender through a selective tender, a process that experts say is susceptible to manipulation.

The world is littered with examples of corruption that involves passport
making companies and government officials.

In 2009 there was a controversy in the issuing of a tender for making new biometric passports in Serbia where the economy minister was alleged to have had some “personal” connection with a German company Mϋhlbauer Group which was involved in the printing of the passports.

Coincidentally Mϋhlbauer Group is one of five companies that were invited by the home affairs ministry to tender for the supply of e-passports.

Last year the Nepal government had to cancel a passport printing deal with an Indian printer after controversy emerged in the tender bidding process.

The foreign affairs minister had ordered that the bidding process should be cancelled and given to the Indian company in order to meet the government deadline.

The minister said the company would speed up the making of the passport because of the “diplomatic ties” between the two countries.

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