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The New e-Passport

The Government of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta Opt for Turnkey Solution

The Sovereign Military Order of Malta, established with his government exterritorialy in Rome, has enjoyed since centuries a sovereign status. His Most Eminent Highness the Price and Grandmaster Sovereign Order of Malta is internationally recognized as Head of State.

As sovereign entity it maintains under the provisions of International Law diplomatic relations with today 94 states on level of Embassies, maintains Permanent Missions with the United Nations and its International Organizations in Paris, Rome, Geneva and Vienna. The Order is active in more than 120 countries.

As sovereign state-like entity the Sovereign Order of Malta under the provisions of International Law does enjoy a passport issuing capacity and issues traditionally its own diplomatic- and service passports, which are recognized not only by above mentioned 94 states but also by a substantial number of additional states as valid entry/exit travel document.

Unfortunately, the absence of effective security features historically has made these documents easy to counterfeit, that much that the passport’s popularity on the black market - prices up to US $ 50,000 have not been uncommon - made it necessary for the government of the Order to replace its currently used traditional passport with a new e-passport that meets the latest ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organisation) requirements.

The old diplomatic passport’s popularity on the black market is to be attributed to the prestige of the Order and to the fact that the passport holder enjoys diplomatic privileges. Besides, the passport was manufactured using traditional and outdated techniques, making it easy to counterfeit. The old passport was bigger (i. e. 10.2 x 15.2 cm) than a standard ICAO-sized document (i. e. 8.8 x 12.5 cm) and contained watermarked, however unprinted, visa pages. The passport was personalized by hand, while the holder’s photograph was simply glued into the document.

Three-Letter Code

To improve passport security, the government of the Sovereign Order of Malta decided to introduce a machine-readable document that would comply with the latest ICAO biometrics recommendations. The basic requirement for issuing an e-document was machine readability1). Therefore the Sovereign Order of Malta applied for an ICAO three-letter code. Following consultation, ICAO agreed to assign the code XOM, where OM stands for Order of Malta. The new code will be published in the 6th edition of the ICAO Document 93032).

New Security Features

The new passport concept was developed in close cooperation with the Austrian State Printing House (OeSD), which was also contracted to supply the booklet. The passport layout fully complies with ICAO requirements, featuring the machine-readable biographical data page on page 2 of the 44-page booklet. The biographical data page and the visa pages include high-quality security features, such as security printing, intaglio, guilloches, a relief design, UV print, microtext and conical laser perforation. The booklet is made of high-quality security paper that features invisible fibres and a registered multi-tonal watermark depicting the Order’s coat of arms. The paper has also been chemically treated, immediately revealing any attempt to counterfeit the document.

The back cover of the booklet contains a 72 kB contactless microchip. On the chip the same data that is shown on the data page is stored, i. e. personal information (name, date of birth, validity, etc.) and a jpg-file of the photo, which is printed on the data page.

Data Protection

In line with the ICAO requirements all these data are digitally signed by a Public Key Infrastructure. If someone attempts to manipulate the digital data, the digital signature will become invalid and, when the chip is read, show that the data have been changed. Hence the digital signature verifies the authenticity of the data.

In addition, the chip is locked and can only be accessed by a code for reading. This code is hidden in the two machine-readable lines on the bottom of the data page. Therefore, it is necessary to voluntarily place the passport on a passport scanner (at a border crossing), which can extract the code and afterwards access the chip. Unauthorised reading becomes impossible.

Passport Application

As government officials and members of the Sovereign Order’s diplomatic service live all around the world, the Order asked the Austrian State Printing House in Vienna to personalize the passport (rather than having to establish a passport application centre in Rome). The application forms are processed in accordance with a secret code procedure (in batches) to the Austrian State Printing House, which collects the data, and scans the photograph and the passport holder’s signature.


OeSD’s proprietary Optidata software is used to screen the feasibility of the data (e. g. ensuring that the applicant’s date of birth is not in the future). The Optidata package is also used to adjust the size and contrast of the photograph and generate the "Machine Readable Zone" (MRZ). All data are subsequently linked to the passport number (a sequential number), and digitally signed to create the "Elementary File Document Security Object" (EF-SOD).

The above data are also used to personalise the passport, a process that is carried out as a three-level process: - optical personalization of the biographical data page and page 3, which contains holder-related information (diplomatic status); - electronic personalization of the chip (whereupon the chip is locked in read-only mode); - lamination of the biographical data page with a protective layer.

Once the documents have been personalized, they are securely dispatched to Rome, from where they are sent to the respective duly authorized members of the Sovereign Orders diplomatic service.

Proven Interoperability

The configuration of the new e-passport of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta was recently tested at the InterFest Interoperability Tests in Singapore on 7 to 8 November 2005. The e-passport was tested with 22 readers of different manufacturers from all around the world. The average reading speed of the passport across all 22 readers was 4.03 seconds. Tests were successful on the first try in each case; the fasted reading time was 2.98 seconds and the slowest 5.72 seconds.


The Order of Malta is among the first sovereigns to issue an e-passport that complies with the latest ICAO recommendations. The Austrian State Printing House was assigned the responsibility for the development, production and personalization of the document (including the development of the application forms and data capture solutions). Interoperability of the chosen solution is guaranteed by the test results of the Singapore Interoperability Test. By closely cooperating, the Order of Malta and the Austrian State Printing House were able to launch a high-quality document that minimizes the risk of counterfeiting and illegal immigration.

___________________________________ __________________________________ Author: Claudia Hager has been working in the security document business for many years and currently heads the International Sales as Executive Director of the Austrian State Printing House (OeSD). She advises governments of different countries on how to accommodate the special needs in e-passport and ID projects based on ICAO recommendations and modern production technologies. She studied Sinology in Vienna and Beijing and received her Executive Master’s degree in Business Administration from California State University, Hayward. Being chairlady of the Document Content and Format Working Group (one of three ICAO working groups), she is directly responsible for the release of the new 9303 specification for e-passports, which is currently on the way. Claudia can be met at international security conferences, where she regularly speaks about biometric e-Passports and other new technologies.

Eigentümer und Herausgeber: Bundesministerium für Landesverteidigung | Roßauer Lände 1, 1090 Wien
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