The revelation that at least two passengers on the Malaysia Airlines flight that disappeared after taking off from Kuala Lumpur were travelling on stolen passports, though likely not linked to the plane's disappearance, has underlined the security problems posed by the global trafficking in fake travel documents.
In the days since the plane went missing, Interpol, an international administrative agency that facilitates co-operation between law enforcement agencies, has chastised authorities in Malaysia and elsewhere for not relying enough on its database of lost and stolen travel documents when verifying the passports of travellers at ports of entry, including airports.
Currently, only the U.S. the U.K. and the United Arab Emirates systematically cross-check travellers' documents against the database, which has accumulated more than 40 million entries from 167 countries since it was first created in 2002 in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks in the U.S.
"Last year, passengers were able to board planes more than a billion times without having their passports screened against Interpol's databases," the agency said in a statement. "Unfortunately, few member countries systematically search these databases to determine whether a passenger is using a stolen or lost travel document to board a plane."
Of the roughly 800 million queries that are made each year, about 60,000 turn up positive matches with lost or stolen documents, Interpol said.
Passport check comes on arrival
In the case of airports, however, even if countries were more actively using the database, the document match would likely only be made once an individual had already reached a destination, said Michel Juneau-Katsuya, CEO of the Ottawa-based security consulting firm Northgate Group and a former intelligence officer with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS).
"There is rarely a [passport] check that is done when people are boarding a plane," he said. "There is a little bit of verification, but just a little bit, and the countries do not necessarily have any inclination to reinforce checking the passengers before they go."
While airline staff do check a traveller's passport when issuing a boarding pass and again at the gate before boarding, this security measure is mostly a superficial check of whether the photo matches a person's appearance and whether their name matches the one on the boarding pass and the flight manifest.
"The only verification we have in North America is, since 9/11, the list of passengers will be verified through the system to see if the name is on the wanted or no-fly list or if you are associated with a terrorist group or anything of that nature," said Juneau-Katsuya.
Airline staff are not security personnel and do not have access to the Interpol database, which is available only to law enforcement agencies within countries that are members of Interpol, so to institute more rigorous passport checks, countries would have to deploy customs or security agents at the point of departure.
Governments and law enforcement agencies have little motivation to do that, says Juneau-Katsuya.
"If you find a fraudulent passport, it’s very likely to be of a criminal nature. Then, you have to arrest the person, you have to go to court and maybe keep the person in detention later — it's all at the cost of the country that has intercepted that person, so you would rather prefer to let them go, so somebody else at the other end will have to arrest them and pay for that," he said.
CBSA intercepts some travellers abroad
There are some exceptions to this process. Canada and the U.S. have an agreement that allows customs agents to verify documents at the departure point before passengers board a plane.
The Canada Border Services Agency also has liaison officers in strategic locations around the world who are responsible for "identifying and mitigating border-related threats at the earliest and farthest point possible from Canada's physical border." According to the agency, these offices work with local authorities and airlines to "verify the validity of travel documents and to prevent those who are inadmissible or pose a security threat from reaching Canada."
The CBSA said that in 2012 it intercepted 5,369 travellers abroad, including those who attempted to use fraudulent passports or passports that had been reported lost or stolen.
"The CBSA has implemented a comprehensive strategy to combat document fraud," the agency said in an emailed statement. "We screen people at several points along the travel continuum: at the earliest opportunity overseas, in transit and on arrival at the Canadian border."
Canadian passports prized
In the past two decades, passports have gotten a lot more sophisticated, and security features such as holograms and electronic chips storing biometric data have become the norm. It was a Malaysian company, Iris Corp. that first introduced biometric passports in 1998.
These features are aimed at helping security agencies better identify travellers and make it more difficult to alter or forge the documents, but this has not eradicated the problem of counterfeiting and passport theft and is only effective if the machines that read these security features are deployed at the right time and place.
"We don't have the sense of how many fake passports there are because, by nature, it is illegal, but we know one thing: there’s 65,000 Canadian passports missing," said Juneau-Katsuya.
Passport Canada verified that number and said it represents about 0.3 per cent of the 23 million valid Canadian passports in circulation.
"The majority of these cases are due to the holder of the passport misplacing his or her travel document," the agency said in an emailed statement.
Canadian passports are some of the most sought after by people who traffic in travel documents.
"It carries good will," Juneau-Katsuya said. "If you show a Canadian passport, usually you raise less suspicion than if you were showing a passport from Jamaica or Botswana."
According to a Guardian media report, Thai security officials estimate Canadian passports can fetch up to $3,000 compared with $1,000 for passports from European countries, but the price can vary widely depending on how desperate those who need the documents are and also on factors such as the date of expiry and the condition of the document.
"Very often, they come with a package deal for illegal immigrants," said Juneau-Katsuya.
Tourist areas a target
Traffickers in stolen documents tend to source their materials in areas frequented by tourists. The passports used by the Malaysia Airlines passengers were stolen in the Thai resort area of Phuket, for example, and Thai authorities estimate that more than 60,000 Thai and foreign passports have been reported stolen or lost in the country between January 2012 and June 2013.
Thailand has been one of the global hubs of counterfeit activity, often linked to other criminal activity such as drug smuggling. In 2009 and 2010, authorities uncovered a passport ring operating out of Bangkok with links to the Pakistani militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba, which was behind the 2008 attacks in Mumbai. The international counterfeiting ring is believed to have supplied fake documents to al-Qaeda, the Tamil Tigers and some of the individuals who carried out the 2004 train bombing in Madrid.
The uses of fake travel documents are varied and include drug smuggling, human trafficking and terrorist activity, but illegal immigration tops the list, says Juneau-Katsuya.
People looking to claim refugee status in another country will often travel on fake documents that they dump before arriving at their destination.
"Before landing, they go in the toilets of the airplane and throw it in the chemical toilet and destroy the documents because they're useless, because the moment they arrive on the ground they claim refugee status," he said.
These asylum seekers freely admit they travelled on false documents, but security officers have a hard time tracing their origins because officials in the countries they travelled through are often complicit in facilitating the use of such documents.
"It makes it very complicated to stop this racket, because, basically, too many people are on the take," he said.