If you travel around the world, you have probably noticed that many airports have “automatic” checkpoints, giving speedy access to owners of passports with biometric data. However, Bulgarian biometric passports are not compatible, and even if you hold such passport, you will need to wait in line to undergo a check by a border police officer.
Something else is happening as well. Your brand-new and super-protected biometric passport can cause suspicions of border police precisely over the biometric data in the chip that cannot be validated by the system in any way. This appears suspicious and it is even possible that you will be asked for a second ID document. Our editorial office received complaints from travelers, who have been subjected to such stricter control, prompting us to carry out a journalistic investigation.
We found the reason encoded in an announcement of a public procurement tender of the Ministry of Interior entitled “Expansion of Systems for Public Key Infrastructure (PKI) Which Have Been Created in the Process of Issuing ID Documents with Embedded Electronic Chip, Including Single Point of Contact (SPOC) and Connection with the International Civil Aviation Organization – Public Key Directory (ICAO – PKD) of the Border Control System.”
This complex wording translates as follows: Bulgaria does not maintain a database of biometric information which border authorities’ systems in other countries can consult in real time in order to validate data stored in the chip of biometric passports. Respectively, in the opposite direction, Bulgarian authorities cannot check and validate data from biometric passports of foreign nationals who enter the country.
To connect with other countries in compliance with international standards, Bulgaria must first have connection to the PKD of ICAO. This system, to which Bulgaria will have yet to adjust its biometric database, allows border authorities to ensure that the travel document has been issued by a trusted institution (Ministry of Interior); that the biometric information in it has not been altered after issuance; that the passport has not been duplicated or invalidated.
The public tender to upgrade the system, worth 1208 333 levs, was announced in the middle of last year. However, it was terminated on May 9, 2013, as no bids were received. It is not clear why these requirements have been omitted in the original biometric passports public order granted to Siemens in 2010. In addition to the false start and the scandals, these new passports did not come cheap for Bulgarian taxpayers – 120 million levs. For such price it would be logical to ask for the embedding of a system for compatibility with international standards, but this was not done.
Thus, currently the Bulgarian border control system is not linked to others, which makes the validation of electronic passports impossible.
Order on the order of Siemens
We approached the press office of the Interior Ministry for more information and for comments, but they preferred to remain silent. Bivol also consulted experts in the sector, who, under conditions of anonymity, reported that the Ministry does not provide any documentation whatsoever on the existing system that was built by Siemens. This deters potential bidders and confirms suspicions that the upgrade of the system has also been lined up for Siemens, which after the scandal with the new passports was renamed „Atos IT Solutions and Services.” In other words, the company that has built something for a lot of money will now upgrade it for extra money.
The new task, however, does not mention audits of the security of the passport system as required by ICAO. Such audit has not been conducted to date, while ICAO calls for annual ones. Without it, connections with other countries cannot be established, making improvements costing 1.2 million levs largely useless.
It turns out that even if this money is to be spent, five years after the launch of biometric passports, Border Police will still remain in international informational isolation. We can only hope that someday, after another very costly upgrade of the upgrade, Bulgarian biometric passports will become true ePassports worldwide.