The challenges of fighting identity fraud

Paris, France

It is true that digitalisation has disrupted the world as we know it – changing the way we pay, travel, have fun and identify ourselves. But it is important to remember that at the start of every transaction, whether in the physical or digital space, there is a reliable, fraud-resistant identity document. Isabelle Poulard, VP Passport and Driver License at Idemia takes a closer look at how citizens’ identities are protected and how fraudsters are combatted.

Fraudsters rely on three main tricks to create fake identity documents. Counterfeiters create a completely new identity document, either from scratch or by integrating parts of genuine documents. We rarely see this type of ID fraud because the manufacturing process is far too complex and the fraudsters always take the path of least resistance. They usually find it easier to alter the personal data (photo, date of birth, name, etc.) on a lost or stolen document, this second type of fraud is called forgery. We call the third form of ID fraud “lookalike” fraud. In this case, imposters use a genuine ID document of someone with a physical resemblance. Lookalike fraud can become even more sophisticated if the imposter manages to apply for an official document using a morphed photo.

Forgery can apply on lost or stolen documents. The fraudster impersonates the rightful owners by changing the portrait of the document. If you’ve ever closely inspected your identity card, you’ve likely noticed multiple visual elements to protect the photo such as engraved textures or holograms partially covering the main portraits; secondary photos printed using other techniques, etc. They all contribute to the security of the document. To alter the portrait, forgers need to get past all these barriers – whether that means peeling back the top layer of an ID card or the data page of a passport, grinding down the back of the document in order to use the front on a new document or recovering the original photo by its own picture (using stickers, overlays for example).

To combat this kind of fraud, Idemia produces ID cards and passport data pages using polycarbonate, a material that cannot be split once the various plastic layers that constitute the document have been laminated. This material derails even the most industrious fraudsters from employing two of three forging methods. "We further bolster document security with our latest innovation Lasink, which allows the document holder’s portrait to be engraved in colour directly into the document. This patented technology combines the robustness of polycarbonate, the quality of a colour picture and most importantly, a main portrait that is very difficult to copy and very easy to authenticate." says Isabelle Poulard.

Lasink can indeed be authenticated by police officers as well as by non-expert eyes – meaning bank or insurance officers, merchants, pharmacists or universities – with a simple tool or a mobile app. "Alternatively, we add a secondary portrait, also embedded in the document itself such as our Stereo Laser Image (SLI), which consists of a very sharp 3D photo." comments Poulard. "If a fraudster attempts to alter the primary photo, the SLI will no longer match the main portrait. If the fraudster tries to forge the SLI as well, it will be clearly visible even to the untrained eye, as the 3D effect either will disappear or be altered. In the end, we want identity documents that are easy to inspect yet hard to reproduce."

With advancements in identity protection, identity cards and passports are so well protected against counterfeiting and forgery that it sometimes proves easier for attackers to focus on “lookalike frauds”. In general, the imposter will try to look like the photo on a stolen, yet genuine document. Fraudsters will often change their haircut, hair colour or add glasses or a beard to deceive law enforcement. When we consider that photos on ID documents remain valid for several years, it makes spotting a fraud very difficult to the human eye.

For manual control, the prevention of this consists of personalising advanced photo quality. "We have done a lot of work on the subject and developed software that allows governments to improve the “readability” of the primary photo printed on the document by enhancing contrast and sharpness in order to ease the comparison between the photo and its owner." says Poulard.

Nevertheless she stresses that the best prevention against an imposter remains facial biometrics where a photo of the individual taken on the spot is compared to the picture on the document or in the chip of the biometric passport.

"However, as I said,"  continues Isabelle Poulard, "the fraud can become more sophisticated if a morphed photo is used to apply for an official document (passport, ID card, driver license) at the enrollment stage. Morphing consists in blending the digital image of two individuals, creating a hybrid image that looks like both original faces. This is particularly tricky because the synthetic image contains the characteristics of both individuals, thus the importance of a solid enrollment process."

To further protect documents, Idemia encourages governments to exercise the utmost vigilance in ensuring the authenticity of the evidence provided to them when issuing identity documents including the photo. The best way to counter face-morphing attempts is to ban print photos and capture live photos by an agent on the spot or through controlled and secured channels (accredited photographer or in a secure kiosk).

For the future, security features clearly need to be adapted as the machine inspection of documents will become more commonplace. To that end, Idemia has developed security features such as Docseal, a signature of the user portrait and data, also printed on the document, that can be inspected by the camera from a simple smartphone and that enables the detection of any modification to the user’s personal data.

The document as a physical object, issued by a government from a face-to-face enrollment, is also the perfect basis and tool for the creation of mobile identities. By mobile identities, we mean here identities that are dematerialised and stored into a mobile device to be used and inspected in the physical world. Protecting these mobile identities is as critical as protecting physical identity documents. To this end, Idemia is also developing security mechanisms to protect these mobile identities against cloning and usurpation and to uniquely link identities with the rightful owners and their smartphones.


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