Counter-Terrorism: September 1, 2004


  In spite of all of the post-9/11 security measures around the world, people continue to travel on stolen passports. Few countries check to see if incoming passports are known to be missing. The majority of falsified documents are stolen or bought on the black market and easily changed with a new picture. At least one individual wanted in connection with the assassination of the Serbian Prime Minister in 2003 was taken into custody with a stolen passport that had been stamped by border control police 26 times across six countries, including many trips to Greece and Switzerland. 

Interpol is pushing an effort to link the 181 member nations into a stolen travel documents database that will let immigration officials around the globe screen incoming passports. The database holds information for 1.7 million stolen passports and other documents and is small enough to fit on a floppy disk. There are believed to be as many as ten million stolen and fake passports in circulation.

Unfortunately, participation by countries in better passport control efforts has also been slow, with only 49 countries regularly sending Interpol data. Privacy protection laws in many countries is preventing the disclosure of data on stolen travel documents. Interpol is developing methods to provide a "clearing house" whereby individual nations check their own databases when given a query rather than transfer information; once a hit has been discovered, the two counties involved can make direct arrangements to exchange data. Other systems for DNA and fingerprint comparison are also in the works.

Many travel documents in the existing Interpol database are blank passports stolen from consulates around the world. Unless the actual passport number is checked, there are typically no clues to indicate the document has been falsified. Belgium passports have been a particular headache. In that country, town governments issue passports, so thieves frequently break into the town hall and steal blanks. 

Finally, Interpol is pushing to make the database directly accessible to immigration service officials at border checkpoints. Even in the United States, access to the stolen documents database is only available through a secure Internet connection at the Interpol National Central Bureau. Interpol says nearly 200 stolen travel documents were discovered from January through July this year. Doug Mohney


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