Secure Passports and IT Problems


In 2003 Greece, in response to new international requirements for secure travel documents, revised the application process and contents of its passports. From January 1st 2006 passports are no longer issued by the prefectures, but by the police, and from August 26th passports include an RFID chip. The new process has been fraught with problems; many of these difficulties stem from the IT system used for issuing the passports. On December 12th, the Greek Ombudsman (human rights section) issued a special 22-page report on the problems of the new passport issuing process. The report is based on 43 official citizen complaints.

In the report's introduction the Ombudsman stresses the sinister symbolism of transferring the authority for issuing passports to the police — a body organized under quasi-military principles: international travel has nowadays become mainly a security issue. The Ombudsman details many procedural problems of the new process. At least three of them appear to be related to the new IT system handling the passport application.

  1. The system used can't handle the correct entry of some names, apparently because it doesn't support some characters or symbols, like the hyphen.
  2. If a passport application is rejected, and the citizen subsequently appeals successfully against that decision, the IT system doesn't offer a way to resubmit the original application; a new application has to be completed and submitted.
  3. The passport IT system appears to have been linked against databases containing the details of wanted persons, such as fugitives and those with pending penalties. Thus persons appearing in the wanted person database get arrested when they go to a police station to apply for a passport. According to the Ombudsman, this is problematic for two reasons. First, the data in the wanted person file may be wrong. Second, through this procedure the police performs a blanket screening of all citizens that wish to exercise their right to travel outside the country. Paradoxically, one other database, that listing persons actually prohibited to leave the country, is not consulted when the application is filed.

In sum the Ombudsman finds that the new system of issuing passports emphasizes the security of the travel documents at the expense of citizens' rights, decent governance, and efficiency.

The report also contains recommendations for minimizing the effects of the current seasonal rush, which has resulted in queues forming at 3:30 in the morning. The Ombudsman recommends a system for setting up appointments by phone and the addition of seasonal staff. However, an obvious way of streamlining the process is overlooked. Currently citizens fill-in data entry application forms. Police officers then enter the details from the forms into the IT system; typically at a snail's pace, because most of them can't touch-type. The whole process can easily last 15–20 minutes for a single application. Allowing the citizens to complete the forms on-line, would allow the police officers to print the forms from a reference number supplied by the applicant, and have them signed in person. This would speed up many of the applications and would also eliminate transcription errors.

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Last modified: Wednesday, December 13, 2006 12:25 am

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