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Tracing the evolution of the Finnish passport from a safe conduct document to a biometric ID

Published on 21.12.2020
Tampere University
Passi vuodelta 1937
The passport has evolved from a mere safe conduct document to a means of identification. Two researchers of Tampere University delve into a history of the documentation required for traveling in a book that has been nominated for the 2020 History Book of the Year Award in Finland.

Paula Haara and Asko Lehmuskallio, researchers at Tampere University, trace the evolution of the passport in their book Ruumiin ja dokumenttien kytkökset: Suomen passin historiaa (English: Entanglements between body and documents: A history of the Finnish passport). They place a special emphasis on how individuals have been identified and their movement controlled with the help of passports and other travelling papers in Finland. 

The passport has a long history as a means for governments to regulate and restrict mobility. It was not until the early 1900s that passports as we would recognise them today began to be used as travel and identification documents. The earliest Finnish passports resembled letters of recommendation and highlighted the prestige of the entity issuing the travel permit. 

“A passport was often supplemented with other documents that served as evidence of the holder’s good and moral character. Travel had to be justified, for example, by trade. A passport provided security and allowed the privilege of travel,” says Paula Haara, project researcher in the Faculty of Information Technology and Communication Sciences at Tampere University.   

The restrictions placed on the freedom of travel have changed rapidly in the past, for example, because of moral reasons and during times of labour shortages and epidemics – even before Covid-19. The movement of people will remain one of the key political questions in the future. 

“The mobility of people has a social dimension and can be regulated with the help of passports. From an international perspective, passport holders are treated very differently depending on the country that issued their passport,” says Asko Lehmuskallio, associate professor in the Faculty of Information Technology and Communication Sciences and scientific director of the Tampere Research Centre for Journalism, Media and Communication (COMET).  

Biometrics evolve to aid identification 

In Finland, standardisation did not expand to include passports until relatively recently. Convict photographs and mugshots were standardised in the early 20th century, but the systematic standardisation of passport photos did not begin until the 1960s.   

Modern passports include a wide range of security features that protect them against forgery and misuse. Digital versions are continuously developed of passports like any other identification documents.   

“It is possible that in the future we will only be issued with electronic passports, so the data stored on the passport can be quickly updated by the authorities, if necessary,” Lehmuskallio points out.  

Physical descriptions have been utilised for identification purposes throughout history, and future passports will increasingly feature embedded microchips containing biometric data. 

“The passport photo may become more important for assessing an individual’s eligibility to travel. This assessment increasingly relies on databases, machines and proactive risk assessments and may be carried our very discreetly,” Haara says. 

Currently only passports and new type of identity cards are accepted as official identification documents in Finland. Passports are still not routinely issued to all applicants. The Finnish passport allows the holder to visit almost 190 countries without a visa, but the passport is only valid for a specific amount of time.  

The book by Haara and Lehmuskallio was published at the exhibition Documenting the body – a history of the Finnish passport in the Finnish Museum of Photography in spring 2020. The book has been nominated for the 2020 History Book of the Year Award. The award will be given out by the Finnish Society of the Friends of History in February 2021.