August 31, 2009

Step Backward From Digital Bangladesh: E Passport Option Dropped

Government's goal of issuing secure passports by the ICAO mandated deadline of April 2010, is in disarray due to frequent changes in plans.

According to reliable sources, the government after several failed attempts now plan to finally float the tender by early next month leaving just enough time to meet the deadline for the TK 283 crore project.

After in principle deciding to go with electronic passports for a brief period, the officials at the Department of Immigration and Passport (DIP) under the Ministry of Home Affairs have finally concluded to go with Machine Readable Passports for now.

Representatives of top international security printing and passport manufacturing companies such a Bundes Druckerei GmBH, Gemalto,
Garsu Pasaulis, Oberkur, Canadian Bank Note, Kiet and Iris are showing interest in the project. Several of the players have formally presented to the DIP and discussed technological options.

Few months back the Department of Immigration and Passport changed the core team responsible for the passport project. The government as part of this reshuffle abandoned prior plans of using a foreign consulting firm to help define requirements and conduct evaluation and execution of the project. Members of the armed forces were brought in to form a new team. Brigadier General Refayet Ullah as part of this change became the new project director to head the initiative.

Today the latest and greatest in passport technology involves embedded RFID chips that contain biometric information which are an integral part of e-passports. Such e-passports provide the highest level of security and protection against counterfeiting.

Machine readable passports on the other hand relies on bar coding to store security information. The government has decided to enhance the standard MRP with Polycarbonate Data Page providing additional level of security. While MRPs are about 20 percent cheaper according to experts in the field, these cannot match the level of security provided by e-passports.

The MRP which was introduced in the 80s is an aging technology gradually being phased out by e-passports in various parts of the world. Neighboring Nepal is planning to go with e-passports. Their tender document is expected to be released within few weeks. India has already introduced e-passports for diplomats and government officials.

The government's decision to go with MRP as an interim step towards full fledged e-passport implementation exposes itself to several major risks. First, within few years just like current implementation requirement by ICAO for MRPs, Bangladesh may be forced to reissue e-passports in the near future when it becomes mandatory by other countries. And second, since MRPs can be counterfeited the entire investment in the passport project may end up being wasted if foreign countries lack confidence.

According to a leading security printing company official, "Since the government has already decided to go with MRP, it should at the least ensure that a migration path exists to allow seamless transition to e- passports in the near future."

Over 5.5 million Bangladeshis were working abroad until April 2009.

Remittance from Bangladeshi workers abroad is the second largest source of foreign exchange in the country. Even yesterday's papers speaks about 29 Bangladeshi's in Bangkok being detained due to lack of proper travel documents. According to a representative of foreign manpower company in Bangladesh, secure passports will definitely reduce harassment cases of Bangladeshi workers traveling abroad.


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