This note considers passports and traveller surveillance
schemes in discussing privacy, security and identity.
It covers -
orientation to travel documentation, highlighting key
concepts and historical developments
- points of entry to the literature
- contemporary passport regimes, discussing standards,
legal frameworks and history
- questions about visas in Australia and elsewhere
and futures - questions about authenticity, risks and
developments such as the 'smart passport' (with biometric
and RFID features)
- restrictions on domestic and international travel
in the digital era and in the past
- the basis of passenger profiling
lists - questions about large scale traveller surveillance
schemes, such as the TSA regime in the US
- mechanisms such as the Oyster card used in major public
- the legality of searching bags and body cavities,
and copying laptops or other devices at border crossings
passport and travel data questions
- law and pactice regarding international child abduction,
rendition of terrorism suspects and other matters
- a discussion of refugees in relation to passports
- practice and policy in Australia and overseas
- border identification and policing
- in the development of passport regimes since the 1670s)
supplements discussion of the Australia
Card, privacy, identity theft, forgery, surveillance
and other matters elsewhere on this site.
A complementary note considers rights of assembly
and public protest, including the shape of monitoring
in the industrial and post-industrial eras and questions
about marches, pickets and other gatherings in Australia
Passports - official certification of identity and
authorisation of movement - provide individuals with the
credentials for participation in the "economic, social
and political dimensions of society". The absence
of those credentials, or identification as a member of
a stigmatised group, can conversely facilitate exclusion
and even extermination.
1990s forecasts that digital technology would result in
rapid demise of the state
(eg Negroponte's forecast that it would evaporate like
a mothball) and massive reductions in travel, with passports
either disappearing or becoming irrelevant as borders
dissolve, now seem deliciously utopian.
Passports and associated travel documentation have instead
survived. They form an integral part of ambitious schemes
for tracking terrorists and other offenders, with the
documentation being strengthened through inclusion of
in digital formats and communication mechanisms such as
RFID tags that facilitate
systematic capture of data by networks that increasingly
extend beyond national borders.
documents and databases
A passport is an official travel
document that -
allows an individual to leave and return to his/her
country of citizenship and to facilitate travel from
one country to another
issued by official sources and clearly "evidences
the officially accepted identity and nationality of
dependent for validity on the issuing government vouching
for the person named in the document
also dependent on other governments recognising the
issuing government (eg Saudi Arabia does not recognise
the state of Israel and Israeli passports)
visa is a corresponding official document
that authorises the bearer to enter a particular country,
generally on a short-term basis and subject to specific
conditions (eg not engaging in paid employment during
Passenger cards are independent of passports,
typically being used to gather information for immigration
management, quarantine and statistical purposes. They
relate to a specific departure or arrival; they are not
borne by travellers on successive journeys.
Passports are issued under national law, generally for
a period of ten years or less. Their use is subject to
restrictions imposed by the issuing nation, with some
jurisdictions accordingly requiring adherence to particular
International law has recognised a range of special travel
passeport diplomatique issued to diplomatic
personnel (recognising the status of the individuals
and accompaniments such as diplomatic pouches for the
transmission of confidential communications), consistent
with the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations
issued to government officials travelling on official
business but without diplomatic protection
temporary documentation for refugees (such as the international
Nansen Passport, named after the Arctic explorer and
Information from those documents - and more recently from
non-government sources such as travel reservation systems
and personal credit reference files - has increasingly
been used in the construction of networked databases.
Operation of those databases often involves international
sharing of information, justified on the grounds of international/domestic
security and public health.
Collection, mining, distribution and disposal of that
data poses a range of privacy,
and other concerns. They include the adequacy of global
and national data protection rules, problems with the
identification and therefore correction of faulty data,
and uncertainty the performance of datamatching schemes
in detection of terrorists.
Human rights also encompass freedom of assembly, in essence
the right to meet with groups and individuals.
As discussed elsewhere
in this site, that right has often been curtailed - whether
through explicit restrictions (eg the Napoleonic Code's
prohibition on unauthorised 'meetings' of more than twenty
people) or through covert and overt monitoring by participants
and surveillance devices.
Passports are issued under national law, with states assuming
- correctly or otherwise - that their documentation will
be recognised and respected.
There are no mandatory global specifications for international
identity documents, although in practice most nations
respect standards articulated by two United Nations agencies
- the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO)
and the International Labour Organization (ILO)
- and embodying broad international agreements.
Standards for the generation and exchange of transaction
information - transport/accommodation bookings and payments,
in particular involving large scale computerised reservation
systems (CRS) - has involved private consortia and industry
associations such as the International Air Transport Association
and Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication
Strengthening of those document and data standards has
been driven by the advanced economies. It has been reinforced
through entry requirements set by leading states such
as the US, which have a disproportionate influence in
the global community because most international travel
involves their nationals.
Standard-setting by the ICAO can be traced to the 1944
'Chicago Convention' on international civil aviation,
which sought broad consistency in cross-border travel
documentation that included passports, visas, health declarations
and passenger cards. In 1980 the ICAO's Document 9303
established a standard for machine-readable passports,
with all advanced economies thereafter upgrading their
passport formats through inclusion of core information
for capture using optical character recognition (OCR technology).
The ICAO has recently promoted development of 'smart passports'.
The expectation is that biometric
information will be held on a chip in each passport, with
access using RFID technology.
The intention is facilitate authentication of individual
passports and reduce processing costs when travellers
cross borders. The ease with which data can be captured
also facilitates surveillance
by government agencies and data matching as the basis
of the invisible 'electronic border'.
That monitoring and analysis is increasingly leveraging
a systematic exchange of information between databases
maintained by different nations, by 'agents' such as airlines
and by international law enforcement bodies.
The corporate history of the ILO, which predates the ICAO,
has resulted in international agreements about the identification
of seafarers. As of 2003 some 1.3 million seafarer cards
were in use, well under the estimated 380 million passports
in existence at that time.
The ILO and International Maritime Organization have moved
to emulate the ICAO, with the 2003 international convention
on seafarers identity encouraging adoption of more detailed
(and readily authenticated) identity documentation.
Official travel documents such as passports have historically
embodied the ambitions, capacities and preoccupations
of the state.
Absolutist regimes in early modern Europe used passports
to control the movement of their people, in some instances
to authorise places of residence. Those regimes also engaged
in searching of people and their possessions at border
crossings, particularly because customs dues were a major
source of government funds in eras before establishment
of universal taxation.
The 'steam age' saw a relaxation of formalities, arguably
inversely proportional to the bureaucratisation of society
and the growth of government administrative capacities.
Increased reliance on passports after 1941 to bind nations
and manage visitors was reflected international agreements
about document standards, although agreement about the
treatment of the people identified by those documents
– or seeking them – was less meaningful. Passport
forgery and fraud has kept pace with technological advances,
in a progression from one-off manuscripts to artefacts
that are primarily aimed at transferring information to
networked databases representing an electronic border
against terrorists, drug traffickers and other offenders.
Early modern theorists of the state grappled with questions
of borders, responsibility and social relationships. The
1557 treatise De Indis Noviter Inventis by Francisco
de Vitoria (sometimes characterised as the father of international
law) for example identified the jus communicationis
– the natural right of communications between peoples
He argued that
was permissible from the beginning of the world (when
everything was in common) for anyone to set forth and
travel where he could. To keep certain people out of
the city or provinces as being enemies, or to expel
them when they are already there, are acts of war …
it is unlawful to banish strangers who have committed
emergence of passports in Western economies dates from
around 1700, with Louis XIV of France issuing an edict
in 1672 prohibiting departure of his subjects or entry
of foreigners without an official letter of authorisation.
Contemporary theorists of the well-ordered state may have
envisaged a sort of paper Berlin Wall but in practice
most borders were distinctly permeable and, as a sequence
of high profile impostures demonstrated, lettres de
passage were not an effective certification of identity.
A few generations later Peter the Great reformed the tsarist
passport system, with guards providing a cordon sanitaire
on the borders and internal passports seeking to restrict
unapproved movement within the empire while providing
a basis for taxation, labour and military service obligations.
An 1807 law for example ordered all Jews to settle in
the cities, with residence depending on gaining an internal
passport; passport reforms in 1862 allowed Jews to travel
outside cities and remain in rural locations for a short
time for commercial purposes although permanent settlement
was absolutely forbidden.
Expansion of bureaucracies after the Napoleonic wars saw
codification of passport practice in advanced economies,
with an emphasis on identification and authorisation of
government officials (particularly diplomats) and businessmen.
Most passports were for a specific journey (albeit one
that was often vaguely described and might extend over
several years), in a letter format with a rudimentary
description of physical features and handwritten endorsement
by an attaché or consul representing the country
to be visited.
The expansion of international travel from the 1830s -
driven by economic growth, the steam engine and telegraph
- was reflected in winding-back of passport requirements
in several countries. Britain had abolished a requirement
to present a passport in 1815, followed by France in 1861.
They did not disappear altogether; the US State Department
for example issued over 369,844 passports between 1877
The number of passports in use across the world during
that period is unknown; some academics such as John Torpey
suggest that much international travel did not involve
presentation or verification of passports.
Stefan Zweig's nostalgic 1943 memoir The World of
Yesterday thus lamented that
were no passports, no visas and it always gives me pleasure
to astonish the young by telling them that before 1914
I travelled from Europe to India and America without
a passport and without having seen one. ...[After 1914]
the humiliations that once had been devised with criminals
alone in mind were imposed upon the traveller, before
and during every journey.
The forty years prior to 1914 were the first instance
of what Kenichi Ohmae welcomed in 1990 as the "borderless
world", with the emergence of mass tourism,
ready movement across many frontiers in both hemispheres
and free trade enjoying the same status it has had since
the 1980s. Some observers have attributed that waning
of passports in the belle époque to liberal government
conceptualisation of the state, with borders properly
involving quarantine rather than restrictions on the passage
of ideas, people and commodities.
Others suggest that ideology was less important than bureaucratic
problems, with the steam
train resulting in bottlenecks as border officials
sought to ascertain the validity of differing identity
documents. Timely verification was inhibited by the lack
of international standards and the proliferation of access
points, in contrast to the 20th century where most air
travellers enter/depart through a handful of airports.
As an explanation the 'bureaucratic bottleneck' is less
than wholly convincing, given the effectiveness with which
many states built postal networks, the development of
bilateral/multilateral agreements that loosened passport
formalities and maintenance of ethnic or other immigration
in the age of bombs and barbed wire
Restrictions were reintroduced after the outbreak of war
in 1914, often being strengthened in the 1920s as new
states sought to define their national identity and displaced
populations moved between countries and continents.
The new generation of passports - pocket-sized - typically
comprised a softbound booklet of several pages that featured
the subject's basic details (eg name, date and place of
birth) and photograph, a physical description of varying
exactitude, a unique serial number, the nation's insignia
and a rubric of suitable pomposity.
The League of Nations, predecessor of today's UN, convened
an international conference in 1920 that resulted in standard
passport and visa formats for all signatory States, including
uniform provisions regarding their content, layout, validity
and fees. It was reflected in a range of national legislation,
with the US Immigration Act of 1924 for example
establishing immigration quotas and requiring all arriving
aliens to present a visa.
A follow-up League conference in 1926 established additional
international specifications for the standard passport
format. The League had less success with protection of
stateless people, despite humanitarian measures such as
the Nansen Passport, and those within totalitarian states.
That was illustrated during the first stages of the Holocaust,
with the German government for example restricting access
by its Jewish nationals in 1937 and then confiscating
their passports in the following year. Few people living
in the Soviet empire were able to obtain passports until
The outbreak of global war in 1939 saw a strengthening
of visa and registration requirements, such as the Aliens
Registration Act 1939 and National Registration
Act 1939 in Australia and the Alien Registration
Receipt Card (Green Card) under the US Alien Registration
Act of 1940.
The 1944 Chicago conference noted above led to establishment
of the ICAO in 1946 as an agency of the United Nations
with a similar status to that of the ITU,
and creation of IATA in 1945 as the successor to the International
Air Traffic Association founded in the Hague in 1919.
Prior to late 2001 travel records received little systematic
attention from national security and police agencies or
from data protection agencies and privacy advocates, particularly
outside the EU. Travel data was essentially regarded as
a category of commercial transaction information. Individual
records were perceived as being of little ongoing interest
for government agencies and few observers identified a
need for special privacy protection, in contrast to treatment
of health services information, financial records and
even information about library borrowing and video rentals.
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