Passports and Identity – Don’t you know who I am?

Passports and Identity – Don’t you know who I am?

by Tom Topol for the Kessing Journal of Documents & Identity, February 2018

“You present a passport, a booklet, and have to prove to the border guard that you are the document. Lots of people assume it’s the other way around”. “It’s this notion that the most authoritative representation of you is not your embodied identity, but the piece of paper.” (Passport historian Craig Robertson)

To “pass a port” is the meaning of the word passport. Not so much seaports anymore but airports. “Port” means also “Gate”. When we are at airports, what we pass then? Right, “eGates”! I guess as long we hold a physical booklet to prove “you are the document”, the word PASSPORT will remain, and that’s ok. We use this wording just for 500 years. But is it good for the next 50 years or even only the next 10 years? Fast forward to 2030: “Your Gatepass, please”.

When you hear this sentence in 2030 then we don’t have physical travel documents anymore. “Your gatepass, please” is then the request of border control officers to put your biometry on a scanner device, no matter if it’s your fingerprint, iris or vein pattern. But make no mistake, when you get this request, then it’s already your 2nd or 3rd identity screening because as soon you enter any airport building you are already identified by the vast amount of face identity cameras. Authorities will already know who you are when they decided to perform another detailed personal security screening on you. An officer will say your name even you never ever met him before. They will ask how was your flight in business class on seat 9A from New York to Tokyo on Sky Airline 232, even you never told them about this flight. They know your hotel room in Tokyo Shinjuku district was a tiny box as they read your TripAdvisor evaluation of the hotel. Fiction? Nope, as US authorities can already ask you for pref light personal data, including social media profiles before you enter US soil. (, New Social Media Screening for U.S. Visitors Goes Into Effect).

The future of travel documents, in which form they will however develop, will be a most interesting one. The global passport market is booming. No wonder. More travelers, more flights, more tourism, hence more passports and more secure passports. Designing a passport nowadays is a challenge by considering graphic design, security features and technical feasibility. Is there any other personal document you can imagine to be more high tech than your biometric passport aka eMRTD? So much high tech for a document, permitting or restricting someone, only to travel from A to B. Well, we are living in a global world with global challenges.

Passports and Identity – Don’t you know who I am?

250 years back the world wasn’t such a global place, the United States of America didn’t even exist then. A modern passport system established by the French (due to the French Revolution) was just in the beginning. How simple was a passport then compared to a multi-material & multi-security features passport booklet nowadays. Why? Because document security wasn’t a big issue back then, not even the identification of a person. A passport – then had a pure functional character. “Mr. Jones is travelling with his wife and two daughters to the continent”. As simple as that. No physical description of a bearer.

But exactly these old travel documents attract me since more than fifteen years, by researching and collecting them. These old passports are not only beautiful collectibles, considering colorful stamps, visas, handwritten entries and later on the curious passport pictures at strange places and in strange outfits and poses. These passports are documented history of bureaucracy, geography and the bearers personal life and destiny. Valuable by historical aspects of course but also of monetary valuable, partly of significant monetary value. So was e.g. a 1931 passport of US Baseball legend Lou Gehrig auctioned in 2015 for $263.000! But think about “ordinary” passports from tiny or defunct countries like Tanganyika, Free State of Fiume, Heligoland. They sound like fantasy countries today but they really existed, some only for a very short time. Especially the British Empire is rich on passport types, some are truly hard to find nowadays and a collector has to invest solid money to acquire such a treasures.

When there are no physical passports anymore these documents will tell their (passport historical) stories…and gain in collectible value.

Don’t you know who I am? Oh yes, we know very well who you are!

Passports and Identity – Don’t you know who I am?


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