The Past, Present, and Future of Passports

Why write about passports?

At their most basic, passports provide permission to travel.

Burdened by a contentious history, passports today face myriad security and accessibility challenges, as well as increasing pressure to merge with digital forms of identity. Given the relative youth of today’s passport standard (~100 years old), it’s worth our time to examine how passports will change because of the access & mobility they afford us.

One’s passport can determine extreme privilege or extreme anxiety depending on where it’s issued. A well-functioning society should strive to ensure any technical or cultural change to passports makes travel more equitable and safe.

Recently, the term “passport” has also been bastardized by digital communities, hotels, and other internet-fueled hospitality businesses. This essay will discuss passports in the most traditional sense, but we’ll address the convergence of traditional passports and their newer interpretations towards the end.

A brief history of passports

Their origin is diplomatic. Before the “modern era” of passports, sauf conduit (safe conduct passes) were nothing but written pleas - intended to grant an enemy passage in-and-out of a kingdom for the purpose of negotiations.

Developments in roads, ships, and commerce/trade led to non-diplomats needing border-crossing documentation too, as did colonialism. Despite similar use cases from country to country, there was no consistent passport template.

Passports from 20th century Gibraltar, 1855 Hungary, and the Qing Dynasty in 1898. Designs were inconsistent.
Passports from 20th century Gibraltar, 1855 Hungary, and the Qing Dynasty in 1898. Designs were inconsistent.

After travel permissioning, passports’ secondary purpose became conferring status. When Ben Franklin issued some of the first US passports in Paris, they were closer to letters of recommendation than to methods of identification. People often sought passports for the admiration of their peers, rather than true desire to travel.

In many places, men were the only ones who were able to easily access and use passports. Married women were listed as “and wife” on their husbands’ passports. Gender wasn’t added as a field on US passports until 1977 (a non-gender-conforming option was added this past spring).

Today’s passport originates in the aftermath of the First World War. A century before the coronavirus pandemic, The League of Nations introduced a worldwide passport standard in 1920. Western powers needed a way to keep peace in Europe and it was hard to enforce border-crossing rules without an agreed upon set of rules to follow.

1920s passport standard
1920s passport standard

Passport adoption since then has been slow. Despite the standardization, and despite US legislation like the 1921 Emergency Quota Act and 1924 Immigration Act that formalized the passport as the finish line of the citizenship procurement process, only 15% of Americans held a passport in 1997.

Globalization and a post-9/11 security apparatus have driven that number to 46% in the US and into the 85-90% range in some European countries, though India only crossed 5% in 2017 and China is still below 10%.

All this to say: we’re still early. Passports are relatively young in their lifecycle and will undergo significant changes in the coming decade. Speed of technical innovation is increasing globally across disciplines and passports won’t be unaffected by changes in biometrics, AI, and travel.

Passports today

If we accept the premise that a passport’s primary functions are to grant travel permissions and to confer status, we must also accept the modern commodification of those things via the purchasable passport.

Not all passports are created equal. The Passport Index ranks countries by the mobility they afford their citizens. Some passports are more desirable than others - especially if they afford one more mobility or greater economic opportunity.

While one’s first passport is an accident of birth, there exists today a legal market for buying passports. “Citizenship-by-investment” programs have skyrocketed in popularity this past decade. Dual citizenship offers a range of benefits: increased mobility, increased economic opportunity, a hedge against global upheaval, more favorable tax optionality… different benefits will appeal to different people.

But while the wealthy among us are arbitrarily investing in Caribbean real estate to procure a St. Lucia passport or forking a quarter million to Cambodia’s government for the same end goals, the rest of the world is still dealing with serious equity & access issues. Many are either too poor to afford a passport (and its associated benefits) or their passport doesn’t provide the same opportunity and mobility as another country’s.

There are also two types of security flaws presently facing passports.

Fraudulent documents

Passport security against forgery is generally robust. In addition to biometric tech embedded in radio-frequency identification (RFID) chips, many passports have intricate designs that make their replication difficult by nefarious actors. Whether it’s 36 individual drawings of Mt. Fuji in Japan’s passport or a flipbook of a galloping moose in the Finnish passport, most documents are hard to clone.

Hungary’s passport under UV light reveals a hand-drawn music score
Hungary’s passport under UV light reveals a hand-drawn music score
Canada’s passport reveals maple leaves and other detailed symbols under blacklight
Canada’s passport reveals maple leaves and other detailed symbols under blacklight

US passports are issued exclusively by the Department of State with strict protocols governing their creation. I’ve seen the passport manufacturing apparatus first-hand in both Paris and in Mexico and it would be challenging for criminal enterprises to mimic.

Concerns pertaining to fraudulent documents and morphing are legitimate. Morphing is when pictures of two people (or a person and an AI-generated face) are digitally combined, making it possible to assign multiple identities to a single document.

Morphing can trick artificial intelligence used at passport control into ‘recognizing’ different individuals. Humans are easily tricked by morphed passports, missing manipulated images 68% of the time in a controlled study.

Stolen documents

A blackmarket for passports is real and thriving. Selfies with a passport can earn someone $100 and real passports can fetch $13,000+.

One US State Department official I consulted with on background for this piece told me “Fraudulently obtained but genuine passports is the most dangerous threat to US borders by criminal elements.”

So long as passports remain paper-first documents, sovereign nations run the risk of stolen documents helping someone to sneak past border control and cause genuine havoc.

Passports tomorrow

Solving the security issues

There won’t be a single solution for the problems posed by fraudulent & stolen documents. Border security & customs will need to implement layered approaches to screening for possible fraudulent and stolen passports. This apparatus will lean on humans, AI, and biotech together.

The biotech layer exists to bond facial recognition/retinal scanning/fingerprinting with someone’s true identity and prevent someone with a stolen physical passport from traveling without verification of their genuine identity.

The human layer exists as a failsafe to combat and audit the errors made by biotech and AI. Some individuals in a study published by the NIH demonstrated elevated capacity as facial analysts or “super-recognizers” - meaning that it is possible to identify and train individuals to notice most discrepancies between real passports and morphed ones.

There are fair privacy concerns with some of these surveillance suggestions. I imagine much of the biotech layer will need to start as opt-in, and wouldn’t be surprised by future growth of programs like Clear or TSA pre-check for consumers who worry less about surveillance/being “in the system.”

Network States & passports

Previously in The Future of Living, we’ve discussed the possibility of Network States. One thing that separates a startup society from a Network State (none technically exist yet) is official diplomatic recognition. Such recognition is likely many years away (if it ever happens) but it’s worth considering how possible legitimacy of a Network State would affect the availability, recognition, and issuance of passports for “netizens.”

Cabin and other digital communities have a different interpretation/use-case for passports in the near term
Cabin and other digital communities have a different interpretation/use-case for passports in the near term

Remember, passports confer status and provide permission to travel. Digital communities like Cabin can lean on tokenized tech to adjust a member’s roles and access levels within that community on their internal “passports”. We think as analogous to Boy Scout badges - participation in past experiences (like Build Weeks or Creator Residencies) are certified on-chain via NFTs and can signify competency in a certain discipline. This amalgamation of certifications prove who you are and what you do in a community, which can both confer status and allow one to travel to a future community experiences if one possesses the right badges (or “visas/stamps”) for that experience.

Network states will be able to use their own internal passport tools to have interoperable permissioning as it relates to their own events and possible residency mdoels.

This Eagle Scout earned all 139 merit badges - others within the Boy Scout community know that a badge verifies knowledge of a particular skill. That’s a useful social technology!
This Eagle Scout earned all 139 merit badges - others within the Boy Scout community know that a badge verifies knowledge of a particular skill. That’s a useful social technology!

If a Network State ever achieved diplomatic recognition and desired to issue a passport that permits border crossing, it would need to negotiate visa permissioning with nation states and likely issue its own physical passport. I imagine that this would be a hilarious and fascinating process debating design internally and negotiating externally with confused governments (Good luck to Plumia, an organization that is already starting to think about this). Diplomatic recognition by traditional nation states will only happen if a Network State gains serious traction/netizenry consisting of a high number of individuals with capital & influence.

Until then, Network State “passports” will likely be internal tools that help unbundle access and governance while also serving as a credentialing mechanism within a circular economy.

An updated passport standard?

Somebody extremely bullish on Network States might contend that the way digital communities like Cabin use permission composability in passports could one day be combined with traditional passports. Nation states and/or network states could issue something similar to the Singpass model.

DMV test results, vaccination status, college certifications, identity and more could all be centralized in a single application tied to biometric signatures, which has a certain convenience benefit for travelers and security alike.

A preview of Singapore’s Singpass
A preview of Singapore’s Singpass

The challenge is implementing a global passport standard like this in a way that is consistent, secure, and doesn’t infringe on one’s privacy. The United Nations faces a daunting coordination problem if they choose to try this. A far more likely outcome is that innovative countries, communities, and programs like Clear set a precedent (like Singpass) that works well for citizens and a state and then that model is replicated and developed elsewhere.

Conclusion: An evolved passport will improve security & convenience

Passports provide permission to travel and confer status. The rise of the global citizen and AI + biotech innovation will fuel global desire for digital passport infrastructure and processes. The rules governing how they are issued and screened matter because those rules affect our ability to move freely, safely, and quickly through the physical world. Rulemakers should opt for options that do little harm while maximizing societal utility and convenience.

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