S'pore unveils new biometric passport

update The country's BioPass will first be issued to government officials and airline crew from next month, and eventually replace traditional passports.

update SINGAPORE--From August, all passport holders in the country can apply for new travel documents with additional security features designed for international standards.

The biometric passport, called BioPass, was unveiled Friday by Singapore's Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Home Affairs Wong Kan Seng.

Each e-passport contains a polycarbonate page that is embedded with a contactless chip, carrying the owner's facial and fingerprint biometric identifiers.

According to Singapore's Immigration and CheckPoints Authority (ICA), the BioPass carries enhanced security features that are difficult to tamper with, such as multiple laser images (MRIs). The MRI has been incorporated into Singapore identity cards since 1991. In addition, the cover of the BioPass carries the International Civil Aviation Organization's e-passport logo.

Wong noted that the BioPass has achieved Level II certification under the United States' Visa Waiver Program, which requires participating countries to issue e-passports by October 26 this year. "This means that tests conducted by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security have shown the BioPass to be in full compatibility with its passport readers," he pointed out.

Singapore, along with Australia, New Zealand and the United States, have been involved in an International Live Test since January. These trials are expected to be completed by April 15.

The BioPass will be issued to government officials and Singapore Airlines crew members from April 29, as part of a "careful and calibrated approach" in implementing the new e-passports, said Wong.

Traditional passports will continue to be issued in Singapore until August, and according to ICA, can be used until they are due for renewal.

The ICA added that the price of the BioPass has yet to be confirmed, but a spokesperson did not deny that the cost could increase. Currently, citizens need to fork out S$50 (US$30.85) for a new passport if they submit an application via the Internet, or S$60 (US$37.02) when they apply directly at ICA's office.

Tan Boon Chin, senior vice president and executive director of systems integration group, NEC Solutions Asia-Pacific, told ZDNet Asia that the chip and enhanced features "cost money".

Therefore, he added that a BioPass "cannot be [offered at] the same price" as a traditional passport. E-passports with basic features cost about 20 percent to 30 percent more than traditional passports, Tan noted.

In the United Kingdom, for example, the cost of passports was reported to have increased by 18 percent after the country made the switch to biometrics.

"Some countries adopt a BOOT (build, own, operate and transfer) model, [where] the passport authority outsources the whole procurement, registration and issuing function to a selector vendor and the price of a passport is charged at an agreed price," Tan explained. This model will appeal to administrations that lack the financial capabilities to undertake large-scale projects, he added.

Singapore is the second country in Asia after Thailand to introduce e-passports, he said. The Thai government's initiative, however, was not designed to meet the requirements of the U.S. Visa Waiver Program as Thailand is not a participating nation, but to enhance control of its borders.

Thailand went live with its e-passport initiative on August 1 last year, after awarding the tender to a Thai-led consortium which included NEC.

Economies such as Japan, Hong Kong, Malaysia and India, are in various stages of their e-passport initiative, NEC's Tan noted. Japan is working toward meeting the October deadline set by the United States; while India is currently conducting a feasibility study. Tan said that the readiness of a country in adopting e-passports is dependent on various factors, such as the government, political situation and financial stability.

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