Industries in Depth

In the wrong hands, your passport is a weapon of mass destruction

A pedestrian holds her and her child's passport while waiting to cross into the United States from Mexico at the San Ysidro border crossing in San Ysidro, California January 31, 2008.

For a terrorist, your passport can be more dangerous than a bomb Image: REUTERS/Fred Greaves

Jürgen Stock
Secretary-General, International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL)
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According to German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, what we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history. Year after year, we see this play out in the travel industry: when it comes to keeping travellers safe, we keep making the same mistakes.

In 1993, when Ramzi Yousef carried out the first World Trade Centre bombing, he did so after entering the United States on a stolen Iraqi passport. In 2004, Alan Jay Horowitz fled the US while on parole after having spent 13 years in jail on multiple counts of child sexual abuse. Years later, after travelling extensively through Asia, he was arrested in India in possession of a stolen British passport. We will never know how many children were sexually abused as a consequence of his ability to travel the world freely using that passport.

Time and again criminals, terrorists and fugitives rely on stolen and lost travel documents. And yet while we know how dangerous these documents can be in the wrong hands – the 9/11 Commission Report said they are “as important as weapons” for terrorists – not enough is being done.

Today, when you travel, you have to throw away liquids, remove your belt and shoes, and pass through an x-ray scanner. Access gates are heavily guarded. Terminal entrances, fuel depots and luggage storage facilities are constantly monitored.

But another, even more simple step is often overlooked. In 2002, INTERPOL created the Global Repository of Stolen and Lost Travel Documents. With a simple swipe, authorities can see whether an individual is attempting to travel using a document that is not theirs. As simple as it is, this step is not systematically carried out in most airports – leaving a gaping, senseless hole in the security systems trusted by passengers worldwide.

The failure by countries to systematically screen identity documents leaves the air traffic industry alone to face this threat, leading to delays and disruption to passengers. While the situation is severe now, it risks becoming unmanageable, with passenger numbers forecast to reach nearly 2 billion by 2030.

So where does the solution lie? Around the world law enforcement and border agencies face budget cuts, yet are still expected to do more with less. At the same time, political considerations and interagency rivalries often prevent the most common sense solutions from being adopted, despite decades of innovation, a global digital revolution and the number of times the aviation industry has been a terror target.

It is time for change, and passengers should be at the centre of this.

In partnership with states, passengers should get joint control of their digital biometric record through advanced visa clearance systems, allowing them to “push” this virtual identity to authorities for pre-clearance. In doing so, the passenger helps join the information dots, allowing us to better focus on those individuals who pose a threat, while at the same time reducing disruption.

Enabling passengers to voluntarily participate in a biometric data-sharing programme which would enable swift and more accurate identity checks will add another layer to aviation and border security.

To me, international borders are at a crossroads – and so is our global security. We can continue to ignore the associated risks, or we can bring about change on a grand scale, proving that technology and security systems can work for and with us.

Passengers can become part of the solution, mitigating the risks and ensuring borders are not an open door to threats, but a gateway to opportunity.

Read the Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Report 2017 here.

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Industries in DepthResilience, Peace and Security
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