Passports Come of Age
New identity documents are devised to defy counterfeiters
At first glance, travel documents appear to be the most benign of objects. Sporting merely a photo here and a few stamps there, a passport seems nothing more than a bland collection of official papers whose most redeeming feature is that it gets its owner from one place to another. But behind the deceptively innocuous passport cover lies an entire world of historic and modern-day struggles to make sense of the world, and the people in it. For Lithuanians, the right to hold a passport not issued by a foreign government was just an abstract dream 15 years ago. And even in its short history, the contemporary Lithuanian passport has been transformed from a proud symbol of national independence to an active participant in the international initiative against terrorism.
In 2003, Lithuania began issuing a new series of personal identification documents, including passports, that are among the most secure and technologically advanced in the world. Yet the road to the futuristic documents that Lithuanians now use on a practically daily basis was not nearly as smooth and as shiny as the new cards and booklets appear to be.
The precursors of the modern passport first came into use in Europe as early as the 15th century as a means of cracking down on vagrants. Residents of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania were issued documents proving their identity, usually a letter signed and sealed by a nobleman, beginning in 1588.
When the grand duchy was absorbed by the Russian Empire at the end of the 18th century, residents wishing to travel abroad were issued imperial passports.
But passports first became obligatory in Lithuania only in 1915, when the occupying German forces required that all residents carry identification documents with them at all times.
In the chaos that engulfed Eastern Europe following the First World War, proving one’s citizenship and identity to the various forces that washed over Lithuanian territory was more than a passing nuisance. When the country declared its independence in 1918, one of the government’s first acts was to exercise its sovereignty and pass a law replacing the old German documents with newly minted Lithuanian ones. In the summer of 1919, all Lithuanian citizens over the age of 17 received a “passport” that was used mostly for domestic affairs; passports for foreign travel were issued separately.
Virgilijus Poviliūnas, director of the Trakai History Museum, recently organised an exhibition of Lithuanian passports in his museum. According to him, the old passports played a much different role in interwar Lithuania than the present ones.
“When citizens started their studies or military service, they would hand in their passports and receive a ‘student’ or ‘soldier’s’ passport instead,” he said. “Passports were used more for professional purposes.”
One of the oddities of Lithuanian documentation was the so-called “yellow ticket” passport used by prostitutes.
“They would bring their yellow passports to a doctor twice a week to have a health check, which was recorded in the passport,” Poviliūnas explained.
To add to the confusing variety of documents, Klaipėda and Vilnius issued their own distinct types of passports to their residents for historical reasons.
Regardless of the bewildering range of interwar documents, it was nonetheless a major accomplishment for the fledgling state to develop its own system of personal identification. Lithuanian passports meant for foreign travel could take their bearers to any European country, with the notable exception of Poland, whose government was technically at war with Lithuania for much of the early 20th century.
During the Second World War, documents once again became a matter of life and death. The Soviet invasion in 1940 made Lithuanian citizenship, and documentation, defunct. But a greater threat to many former Lithuanian citizens existed under the German occupation of 1941–1944, when the authorities required that Jews register to receive “work permits”.
“But not everyone was able to get a permit, and those who didn’t have them were the first to be executed,” Poviliūnas said.
The documents given to Soviet Lithuanians displayed their personal identity in a language that was not their own and confined them to a country of which few wanted to be a part. But even in the years when Lithuania did not officially exist, the country’s diplomatic representations in Washington and the Vatican continued to look after their citizens, issuing passports to émigrés in the name of a phantom regime.
When the state became a reality once more, it was one of the government’s first orders of business to replace its citizens’ Soviet passports with independent Lithuanian ones. After a year-long spat with Moscow, the resurrected Lithuanian passport was distributed once again beginning in 1991.
Yet the familiar green book bearing the imprint of Vytis, the national emblem, was hastily thrown together. In spite of its symbolic significance, the passports produced from 1991 until 2002 were ill-equipped to cope with counterfeiters.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve spent an hour in an airport as a border guard examined my passport to make sure it’s real,” said Kęstutis Verseckas. As assistant director of the Finance Ministry’s Service of the Technology Security of State Documents, Verseckas is one of an elite few who know the true value of a well-crafted document.
In recent years, Lithuanian passports have become a sought-after target for forgery. The outdated lamination technique used to cover the holder’s photograph has meant that an increasing number of non-EU citizens are willing to risk doctoring a stolen or lost Lithuanian passport.
With this in mind, the government began exploring options for new passports as early as 1999. Verseckas’ agency was charged with designing an entirely new document that would rival those of any other European country.
The service, which employs an entire team of full-time artists, immediately began drafting models of would-be passports. One option would have decorated each page of the new passport with images of historic Lithuanian castles, while another sported stylised images of the most famous paintings by Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis, Lithuania’s most renowned artist.
“Our finished drawings were sent to the president, the prime minister, and the chairman of parliament for consideration. I imagine they must have sat around looking at our sketches.”
In the end, however, a less ambitious but equally aesthetic compromise was agreed upon. And, more importantly, the new passport was armed with as much security protection as was available.
Each page of the passport contains a different set of coats of arms from Lithuanian cities and is spotted with UV fibres and security threads. The swirly security grids are also used on the inside covers, which boast an additional optically variable image that changes colour when held at different angles. Verseckas and his team keep track of every gram of the unique inks used in creating the passport books to make sure that none escapes into criminal workshops.
In addition to adopting a new look for the passports, the government decided to reinstate the split between internal and external documents used in the interwar republic, with the introduction of the personal identity card. Like passports, personal identity cards are proof of Lithuanian citizenship and are more convenient for use in daily circumstances, like at the bank or post office. Plus, an increasing number of EU countries are allowing Lithuanians to cross their borders using only an identity card.
With plans for the new document duo in place, all that was left to be done was to start putting them into the hands of citizens.
More than just papers
On the bank of the River Neris in Vilnius sits a discreet facility housing high-tech lasers that work around the clock. But instead of conducting clandestine scientific research, the people using these lasers are producing the passports and identity cards that will soon be shipped off to their new holders.
Watching over workers as they slide prefabricated passport books into a laser engraver worth more than half a million litas, Aldona Gudelienė, deputy director of the Interior Ministry’s Personalisation of Identity Documents Centre, explains how fancy equipment has made passports and identity cards virtually impossible to duplicate.
“The identity card and the data page of the passport are nine layers thick. Personal information, including a digital black and white photograph, is burnt on to the middle layers using the laser engraver.”
Passports, which must be hand-fed into the machines, take considerably longer to print than identity cards and driver’s licenses, which were introduced at the same time as the other new documents. The centre’s nine engravers work around the clock, ensuring an output of almost 3,000 documents per day.
In spite of the documents’ already high security standard, Gudelienė’s group is already preparing for more big changes. An EU directive will soon mandate that computer chips be used in foreigners’ residence permits and possibly even visas. Chips storing detailed information on routes and cargoes will also have to be inserted into licenses for commercial lorry drivers. Identity cards could also begin to store information ranging from pension accounts to health records, with built-in chips.
But the most high-profile alteration to Lithuanian documents will be the eventual addition of coded biometric information in passports. The EU is expected to introduce soon a directive in response to demands by the US government that passports must carry encrypted fingerprints or other distinctive data tying a person’s body to his passport. While Lithuania is not a participant in the US Visa Waiver Programme, which allows citizens of certain nations to enter the country without the usual visa, the EU directive will be binding on all member states.
“We will be ready for the introduction of biometrics,” said Interior Minister Virgilijus Bulovas. “The new documents have been a great improvement, but we are always looking for ways to get better.”
Experts along the length of the chain of design and production claim that passports and identity cards were constructed with the idea in mind that chips would be inserted in the future.
In the meantime, citizens can enjoy the benefits of Lithuania’s new documents knowing that it wasn’t always this easy to prove who you are and where you’re from.
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