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New PHL ePassport: Faster, more secure and filled with national pride


When you open the new ePassport, a Philippine eagle will be staring at you, framed by the blue, yellow and red wings of the rare bird. Flip the next pages and you'll see a showcase of national pride: a fluttering Philippine flag, the proud lyrics of Lupang Hinirang and the statue of Jose Rizal. 
 
Then comes national landmarks—Metro Manila's skyline, the Banaue rice terraces, Bohol's Chocolate Hills, the windmills of Ilocos, and the colorful vintas of Zamboanga, among others.
 
In a country where a tenth of 100 million people work across the world, the big passport makeover aims to remind expat Filipinos of home, instill national pride and turn them into walking ambassadors to promote the Philippines to travelers in every corner of the globe.
 
"It tells you you're Filipino," said Jaime Aldaba, executive vice president and general manager of APO Production Unit, Inc., a government-owned corporation authorized to print the new passports, which would be made public starting first quarter of 2016.
 
"The passport is the country's highest form of identification," Aldaba told GMA News Online. "It's something that you can show to other fellow travelers."
 
The new concept, he said, was inspired by an emerging global trend of showcasing national identities and heritage in the travel document. "The Irish passport launch two years ago is similar to this and it won an award for design. The new US passport is coming out this year and it also tells the story of US heritage," Aldaba said.
 
But before it goes into final printing, the design, he said, would need to be vetted by the National Historical Commission and the academe because of its Philippine identity content.

Faster processing due to state-of-the-art system
 
Aside from the facelift, the new passports will also be issued faster, cutting down waiting time by about five days for express processing and 10 days for regular processing, amid an ever-increasing demand. More importantly, it will carry new security features to counter forgeries and counterfeiters.
 
It's not just the Philippine passport that's being overhauled, but the entire production system that's being modernized and made more secure and efficient, said Rafael Seguis, Foreign Affairs Undersecretary for civilian security and consular concerns, in an interview.
 
"It's a state-of-the-art kind of system that will enable us to promptly deliver passport services to the public," Seguis said. "It's faster, reliable and more secure and the Filipinos can be proud of this new passport.”
 
The new system, he says, can hopefully cut down processing time by 25 percent and aims to reduce waiting time by passport applicants at the same cost.
 
It's a major relief for both the Department of Foreign Affairs and passport applicants.
 
The DFA issues a staggering 10,000 passports daily or 3 million passports a year, but that huge demand still balloons to 25,000 per day during the peak travel seasons like Christmas season and the summer holidays, according to Seguis.
 
At the heart of the new printing system are four new machines from the Netherlands, which were put to a test and a demo witnessed by President Benigno Aquino III last Monday in a high-security government printing complex at the 485-hectare Lima Technology Center in Lipa City, Batangas.
 
The new machines can churn out passports 10 times faster than the old machines or roughly 500 booklets an hour, Seguis said.

Price
 
Despite the improvements, Seguis said passports will remain at the current P950 price tag each for regular processing and P1,200 for express processing.
 
"You get a better passport for the same price," he said.
 
The decision to contract the service of a national government printer, APO Production Unit, instead of a foreign company enabled the DFA to maintain the passport's current prices, Seguis added.
 
Under the existing system, the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP) prints the passports while French company Oberthur Technologies provides maintenance and repair under an agreement with the BSP.
 
The DFA, Seguis said, faced problems because the old printing machines have not been upgraded since they were installed in 2009, the year the Philippine ePassports were introduced.
 
In time, the old system developed glitches and suffered from slowdowns, causing production delays and compromising the system's security, Seguis said.
 
After the agreement between the BSP and Oberthur was terminated, the DFA sought an agency-to-agency agreement and negotiated with APO Production Unit, Inc. for the delicate printing work.
 
APO is a government-owned and controlled corporation (GOCC) under the Office of the Presidential Communications Operations Office. It's one of the three recognized government printers, along with BSP and the National Printing Office.
 
Seguis said the existing printing machines are more expensive to maintain and they break down often due to age and wear and tear. "It has been in operation for five years already and the system is outdated. We have experienced glitches in production so there is a need to update and a need for a new system," Seguis said.
 
The old system cannot handle the huge passport demand anymore, he said.
 
In terms of technology, the existing system relies on an old Microsoft operating system, and does not run on much newer available software. The machines are dependent on one specific model and brand of hardware, making it difficult to get spare parts.
 
Storage for the applicants' data has already reached its full capacity, Seguis said, adding that the entire system required too much manpower when such processing system can be automated for speed and efficiency.
 
With such a troubling prospect, the DFA had to act fast, he said.
 
"It is only a matter of time before the old system breaks down so it became necessary for the DFA to quickly transition into a new and more improved ePasssport system for the printing of new ePassports to fully resolve the problem which the old system had," Seguis said.
 
"Failing to do so would only compromise the integrity of the ePassport and result in more issues, such as quality control, delay and defects," he added.
 
The old system requires separate machines for printing, laminating, chip encoding and quality control.
 
But in the new system, he said the four processes are done in one machine that can produce 500 booklets in an hour and 4,000 in one shift.
 
Manpower can also be reduced from the previous 58 to just 15 to operate the four machines, he added.

10 years
 
The DFA and APO, Seguis said, are looking into a period of 10 years for the New ePassport Agreement, which according to him is a reasonable time for APO to recoup its large investment and also ensure continuity, maintenance and unhampered production, consistent with the nature and requirements for the ePassport system.
 
Lima Technology Center in Batangas was chosen as the site for the passport printing center due to its proximity to ports as most raw materials used for the passport are delivered by ship, Seguis said.
 
The new system will be in place as soon as budgetary and procurement requirements have been approved by the Department of Budget and Management, Seguis said.
 
The DBM, Seguis says, will have the final say on how much the DFA will pay APO, but hinted that the entire system is expected to cost "millions."

Security features
 
Aside from aesthetics, the most important improvements focused on the new passport's overt security features, Aldaba said.
 
The new passports, for example, will use intaglio or embossed printing of the Philippine national anthem's lyrics which is hard to fake. This type of printing technology is similar to what is being used on banknotes.  
 
"The old passport does not have that. That tactile feel is as very simple measure for border control offices to validate authenticity of a travel document," said Aldaba.
 
Moreover, the printing machines that will be used by the Philippine government have passed security standards and secured clearances from global security agencies like the FBI, the US Department of Homeland Security, Europol and Interpol.
 
As specified by the DFA, APO also upgraded the feature on the lamination of the data page. The transparent lamination material goes on top of the page and applied with an adhesive to protect the data page from tampering.
 
Optical effects or holograms on the laminate can be seen from direct light if you are moving the passport.
 
"Certain optical effects will have unique characteristics so if there would be counterfeiters, upgrading the technical specification of those optical effects will make it more difficult to copy," Aldaba said.
 
Aldaba declined to divulge the details of other hidden security features of the passports for security reasons.
 
Despite the major changes inside, the new passports will retain the same booklet covers and design—maroon for regular passport holders, red for government employees traveling on official trips and blue for diplomats.
 
The passports will be made tougher to withstand the rigors of travel and handling, Aldaba said.
 
The next generation of passports, the DFA assures, will be of sterling quality and can be issued faster to more Filipinos, who can carry them across the world with confidence and pride. —KG, GMA News
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