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Home Office boffins slip out passport-scanning Android app

'Very good, Jones, but what's the point of our latest gizmo?'

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Android owners with NFC handsets can now read their passports with an official Home Office app - and civil servants want to know what other features could be added to it.

UK passports have had chips in them since 2006, containing a digital version of the photograph and other details, all cryptographically signed. Phones equipped with Near Field Communications (NFC) tech can read that data, and various apps have been developed to do just that.

But this is the first app of its type from the Home Office – and the first to publicly ask: Why bother?

The Home Office didn't fund the app – at least, not in any meaningful way – as it was developed by staff in their own time to prove the concept.

The chip in a UK passport won't hand out data to just anyone, so users have to manually type in the passport’s number, expiry data and the owner's date of birth - all of which would be optically scanned at border control - to prove they’re not lifting the details from a fellow traveller.

A comprehensive FAQ explains that these details could be captured using the camera, but that was considered unnecessary. The app is just intended to establish if there's any value in developing the concept further.

The details stored in the chip as the same as those visible on the passport, so they're of little value to the holder. Anyone else would need to have possession of the passport to use the facility, which would seem to render it redundant.

Hotels and other institutions often photocopy passports for security, so perhaps they could use the app to take a digital version instead. Checking the digital signature relies less on human faculties than the old-fashioned scrawl, so digital copies could be valuable in picking up forgeries (which was the point of the chip), but that seems a limited market.

But anyone with any ideas for making legitimate use out of passport data, or just interested grabbing their passport pic for use on Facebook, is invited to download the app and let the Home Office know what they think.

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