A top-rated lacrosse team representing the Iroquois Confederacy apparently won’t be competing in the world championship of the sport their ancestors helped invent. The United Kingdom—which is hosting the tournament—has indicated it will deny entry to the team because its members are not traveling on U.S. passports. The players are understandably upset that despite years of training and commitment, they won’t be able to compete for a championship. In addition, the team members and their supporters have made this an issue of Iroquois identity. However, the British authorities are correct that the decision is a matter of border and travel security rather than Iroquois sovereignty.  Iroquois passports, which contain hand-written elements, simply aren’t as secure as the latest generation of U.S. passports.

To terrorists and other criminals, travel documents are as valuable as weapons. Altered passports and visas, or genuine documents obtained fraudulently, allow bad actors to cross borders in the course of planning or carrying out operations. Recognizing this, many countries in recent years have implemented higher security standards for these travel documents so they are considerably more difficult to counterfeit or for an impostor to use should it be lost or stolen. These upgrades significantly enhance the security of international travel. This is one reason, for example, that all citizens from newly designated Visa Waiver Program (VWP) countries are required to travel on electronic passports.

Electronic passports, or e-passports, contain a biometric identifier, either a digitized photo of the bearer or fingerprints or both. Digitized photographs and other biometrics are important because they are harder to substitute or alter than glued or laminated photos, for example.

In addition, e-passports contain a microchip that holds the digitized photograph, fingerprints (if used) and other information visible on the passport data page.  The data written to the chip is protected from alteration by the use of a Public Key Infrastructure (PKI) digital signature. When an e-passport is scanned upon entry, the face of the traveler, the data on the data page, and the data on the chip will all match if the traveler is the person to whom the passport was issued. As a result, border officials are better able to intercept suspect travelers and speed entry of legitimate ones.

E-passports also incorporate several other, more technical security measures (such as watermarks and the like) to guard against fraud or other tampering. Just as important as the security of the document itself is compliance with international standards for reporting lost and stolen passports. The INTERPOL Stolen and Lost Travel Document (SLTD) database – which is the preferred repository for these reports – is used at primary passport inspection by countries around the world to detect those who travel on fraudulent documents.

The United States should continue its efforts to encourage countries to not only produce and issue secure travel documents, such as e-passports, but also, to establish a daily, automatic means of reporting lost and stolen passports to INTERPOL. Both of these measures are requirements of the U.S. VWP because they close gaps exploited by terrorists and other mala fide travelers. Indeed, the Iroquois themselves recognize the benefits of more secure documents, having nearly completed a transition to a new generation of passports.