VILNIUS - From now on the passports of Lithuanian diplomats will be among the most secure in the world. Starting next year, its citizens' will follow suit.
In addition to standard information, the new generation of e-passports presented to the public this week will contain a digital photograph and biometrical information stored in a microchip.
Initially, the passports will contain a digital picture of their owner, and will eventually include digital fingerprints and other biometrical data, such as encoded information regarding facial characteristics or a detailed image of the iris.
The first of these high-tech passports, also called machine-readable passports (MRPs), were issued in Belgium.
Antanas Valionis, minister of foreign affairs, was one of the first to receive such a passport on May 2. He told reporters that the new technology would significantly increase the safety of the documents. "This is a high-tech document that absolutely complies with and even surpasses global standards," he said.
Thanks to the new technology, border guards will be able to verify the authenticity of documents and detect forgeries within a few seconds, simply by scanning the passport with a special card reader. Currently only border officers in Belgium and Los Angeles International Airport use this state-of-the-art equipment, though Vaidotas Verba, an official at the Foreign Affairs Ministry, said the microchip readers would be distributed in Lithuania.
According to a European Council regulation that came into effect in February, all member states will have to be prepared to issue passports and other travel documents containing biometrical information by autumn 2006. Scandinavian countries plan to start issuing such IDs this autumn.
Depending on the variety of applied security elements, the price of the new passports ranges from 15 to 25 euros. For Lithuania's diplomatic passports, it was decided to apply all security measures required by the EU and several additional ones as well. One security measure, for instance, is the so-called "safety wrap," in which one can spot an image of the Trakai palace when placed under ultraviolet light.
The introduction of biometrical passports is one more step in Europe's struggle against terrorism. It is also hoped that the new documents will improve cooperation between special services and police in terms of intercepting electronic messages.
To be sure, decisions related to the type of information that will be uploaded to the passport chip has not yet been coordinated. It could be a blood group, a taxpayer's identification code, or other unique data. However one thing remains clear; the biological passport will contain a digitalized image of its owner and a special section for digital fingerprints.
Another motive that impelled Lithuanians to introduce passports with biometrical information sooner, was America's requirement to hold such IDs for national entry. All countries participating in the U.S. visa-revocation program will be required to issue such passports by Oct. 26, 2005.
It is expected that the e-passports, as well as other travel documents containing chips, will become compulsory worldwide in all major countries within the next three to five years.