March 10th, 2014

Stolen passports: is checking too much to ask?

Ever since 9/11 and the subsequent attack attempts, airport security has used each new incident to come up with new safety measures. Some of them are rather esoteric, and many inconvenience passengers before every flight: an obvious example would be requiring the removal and placing of shoes in those little bins after the shoe bomber’s attempt.

The justification for all these picayune rules is our safety. Everyone knows that safety can’t be perfect, and that they can’t think of everything. But can they not think of the most obvious things?

Such as for example, checking passenger manifests against databases that list millions of stolen passports?

Apparently not. Apparently this is only done in “a handful of countries,” according to Interpol secretary general Ronald Noble, who seems none-too-pleased about it. After all, why does Interpol go to the trouble to list the passports in a database if most countries don’t check them? With computers, that should be easy enough, shouldn’t it?

No one should be able to travel on a stolen passport, even if they’re just ordinary criminals rather than terrorists. If I report my credit card as stolen, they cancel it soon enough, and everyone seems to get the word immediately. Why would a passport be any different?

It’s not as though the problem wasn’t known about, either. Not only has Interpol repeatedly issued warnings, but there’s a history:

A war crimes suspect who tried to attend a conference in Congo, but was instead arrested; the killer of the Serbian prime minister crossed 27 borders on a missing passport before he was caught; Samantha Lewthwaite, the former wife of one of the suicide bombers in the 2005 attack on London’s transit system, escaped capture when she produced a fraudulently obtained South African passport.

Which countries do check against against the Interpol list? The article indicates that the United Arab Emirates, US, Britain, France, and Switzerland do. Countries that don’t often cite lack of police personnel and privacy concerns.

The stolen-passport market has been enhanced by the development of technology that can alter photos or match people to already-existing photos. The story of one of the men whose passport was stolen and used on the Malaysian plane is chilling:

Maraldi, the 37-year-old Italian, had deposited his passport as a guarantee at a motorbike rental shop. But when he returned the bike, the shop said they’d already given his passport to some guy who looked like him.

Some guy just appeared who looked like him? Seems exceedingly odd. Or was the clerk at the motorbike shop part of a stolen passport ring?

[NOTE: All this talk of fake and/or stolen passports makes me think of one of my favorite movies, the 1973 "Day of the Jackal." Passports and identity theft are featured prominently in this chilling portrait of an international assassin-for-hire:

If you've never seen it, you'd do well to rent it.]

[ADDENDUM: Authorities say they now know the identity of one of the fake-ID passengers. He's a non-Malaysian, but they're not announcing the identity yet. What's more:

During a Monday press briefing, a reporter asked [Malaysia's Transportation Minister] Hussein about reports that a media personality received an open letter from the Leader of Chinese Martyr Brigade claiming responsibility for the incident. When asked about the letter, a Malaysian official said, “Yes, there is sound ground to say it is true, but again, we have said from the beginning that we are not taking anything for granted.”.

Also, according to a “senior police official” in Kuala Lumpur:

“We have stopped men with false or stolen passports and carrying explosives, who have tried to get past KLIA (airport) security and get on to a plane,” he said. “There have been two or three incidents, but I will not divulge the details.”

That’s not good.]

15 Responses to “Stolen passports: is checking too much to ask?”

  1. Uncle Bill Says:

    Years ago I visited Malaysia on business. On the way home I checked my luggage with Malaysia Air in KL, then flew to Tokyo for a connecting flight on United. When I arrived in Tokyo, United informed me that my luggage would have to be pulled and hand inspected because they were not confident of Malaysia Air’s security.

  2. alanstorm Says:

    I’m pretty sure that “Day of the Jackal” was made after 1073.

    I know: picky, picky , picky.

  3. neo-neocon Says:



    Will fix.

  4. Passport Cost 2014 Says:

    [...] Stolen passports: is checking too much to ask? – Neo-Neocon [...]

  5. Glen H Says:

    I have two problems with this:
    1) If the stolen passport is replaced, how will a database block the guy with the stolen passport, and let through the guy with the valid reissued one?
    2) Rather than depend on a database, why don’t they just look at each passenger and see if he/she looks like his/her picture? How hard is that?

    I hope against hope that customs checks at incoming American airports are more rigorous than the airlines seem to be.

  6. neo-neocon Says:

    Glen H:

    I believe that the old passport also has a number and a date of issue and that sort of thing, so there are fairly simple ways to distinguish between the two.

    As far as the photos go, even though it’s difficult with modern technology, passport photos can be altered by those in the know. Plus, people sometimes can get passports that have photos that already resemble them. There are millions of stolen passports, and the people who deal in this are probably very knowledgeable and experienced.

  7. Geoffrey Britain Says:

    “2) Rather than depend on a database, why don’t they just look at each passenger and see if he/she looks like his/her picture? How hard is that?” Glen H,

    “The stolen-passport market has been enhanced by the development of technology that can alter photos or match people to already-existing photos.”

  8. Geoffrey Britain Says:

    Certainly all reasonable means to ensure safety are important but to focus strictly upon the terrorist or even the terrorist organization is to fail to see the forest for the trees.

    Long ago Margeret Thatcher pointed out that,
    “Rogue states never turn out to be quite the pariahs they are deemed. They are only able to cause, or at least threaten to cause, mayhem because they enjoy the covert support – usually by means of technology transfers – of one or more major powers within the charmed circle of global ‘good guys’.”

    Terrorism’s infrastructure consists of; the individual terrorist or team, the terrorist organization, the individuals that provide monetary support for terrorist orgs, the rogue states that provide logistical support to the terrorist orgs and the enabling nations; the “major powers within the charmed circle of global ‘good guys’” who prevent actions being taken against the rogue nations.

    The consistent obstruction in the UN by Russia and China of effective international sanctions against the rogue nations… is not accidental. Nor is Russia’s critical assistance and facilitation of Iran’s pursuit of nukes…

  9. blert Says:


    I’m at a loss to comprehend how Putin can imagine that he can ‘aim’ the mullah’s rage against the West.

    Some Russian immigrants hold to the view that Putin is a frenemy of Tehran: making it impossible for the fanatics to ultimately be successful in their enterprise.

    This is a faith built upon a presumption: that across all the years to come, the Persians will stay stupid and never figure out Russian perfidy.

    To top that faith, we have Barry telling Jerusalem to stop knocking off evil technicians — those fine fellows who’re trying to give atomic weapons to suicide troops.


    The last time Moscow got so clever, Stalin was enabling Adolf so that the latter could destroy Western democracies — after which the Red Army was to move in as ‘Liberators.’

    And we all know how that perfect plan worked out.

  10. Richard Aubrey Says:

    Wandering around the Madrid metro about ten years ago, I saw a woman on one of the stair landings with a couple of white towels laid out on which was a selection of passports. Cops were all over the metro, so this was apparently okay with them.
    Any security system can be beaten. But it’s tougher to beat the better ones, which means fewer attempts succeed, and some don’t even start.
    Whatever it takes to get everybody on board with checking the stolen passport register, let’s get it done.

  11. Geoffrey Britain Says:


    Putin has absolutely no need to ‘aim’ Iran at the US. We’re the ‘Great Satan’ remember? So Iran is already aimed at us. Putin certainly is as aware as Kerry is right? So Putin knew long ago that,

    “the region will be far less stable and far more threatened if Iran were to have a nuclear weapon. It will spur a nuclear arms race. It has risks for greater terrorism. It will be destabilizing. ” Kerry said the threat extends beyond the possibility that Iran could actually use the weapon on its enemies, specifically Israel. Iran simply having a nuclear weapon would “spur a nuclear arms race” in the region and could be used to support terrorists groups like Hezbollah, he said. Interview with SecState John Kerry – March 5, 2013

    But it’s not a possibility, it’s a certainty. Iran getting nukes leads to nuclear proliferation into the hands of unstable, third world nations and other jihadist states. That will, sooner or later result in terrorists getting their hands on nukes. They will use them on us, as we are pathetically vulnerable to a nuclear terrorist attack from a nuke concealed within a shipping container on a commercial vessel bound for a US port.

    What Putin is really interested in however is the psychological impact of a successful nuclear terrorist attack upon a US city(s). The domestic reaction will be the formation of a ‘fortress America’ mindset. An isolationist mindset on steroids.

    We’ll retreat to our borders and seal them and the rest of the world can go hang and Russia and China will be there to seize upon the geopolitical ‘opportunity’. And it will be their turn to rule the seas with all the military advantages that confers.

    Neither the Mullah’s nor Putin are stupid, they’re using each other. It’s a marriage of temporary common interest. As for their planning, the fact that no plan survives contact with reality has never stopped aggressors from scheming.

  12. Charles Says:

    Glen H: “why don’t they just look at each passenger and see if he/she looks like his/her picture? How hard is that?”

    Um, US passports are valid for ten years – TEN YEARS. Do you think people don’t age? People don’t change over time?

    Now just imagine the immigration officer, the ticket agent, etc. who is looking at passports all day – just how many of those valid passports look exactly like the legitimate holder of that passport?

    Not to mention – is it really that hard to change the photo? I would imagine with the right equipment it would be fairly easy to “doctor” the passport in any way possible.

    So, unless we are going to start including fingerprints on the passports, or include DNA screenings before flights . . .

  13. Beverly Says:

    It’s easy for them to change the photos, in a way that the casual scrutiny of a TSA agent, e.g., wouldn’t detect.

    Also, think of our men in the Nazi POW camp who engineered the “Great Escape”: they created fake passports almost ex nihilo.

  14. Matt_SE Says:

    “If I report my credit card as stolen, they cancel it soon enough, and everyone seems to get the word immediately. Why would a passport be any different?”

    Because the former is regulated by companies that can be (and have been) sued, the latter is regulated by bureaucracies.

  15. Ymarsakar Says:

    The latter are run by tin pot deus ex machina gods. Gods don’t let mortals tell them when they are wrong.

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