Most Countries Don’t Check Whether Passports Are Stolen. Here’s How to Change That.

What's to come?
March 11 2014 4:42 PM

Papers, Please

How to make every country check passports to make sure they aren’t stolen.

An airport security officer (L) checks a passenger's passport and boarding pass at Taipei Songshan Airport on March 10, 2014.
Although 167 countries contribute to the Stolen and Lost Travel Documents database, Interpol estimates that fewer than 20 use it systematically to check travelers’ documents.

Photo by Mandy Cheng/AFP/Getty Images

How two Iranian passengers managed to board a plane using stolen European passports is far from the biggest mystery surrounding the sudden disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH 370—in fact, it turns out to be one of the least surprising pieces of the otherwise perplexing and tragic story. Last year, airplane passengers boarded planes more than 1 billion times without their passports being checked against Interpol’s Stolen and Lost Travel Documents database, which would have flagged the MH 370 passengers’ documents as stolen, had it been consulted.

It remains unclear whether the two passengers using the stolen passports were in any way connected to the plane’s disappearance, and the ongoing investigation suggests that neither of them had ties to terrorist groups, but that has not stopped Interpol from seizing the opportunity to stress the importance and underutilization of the SLTD database.

“It is clearly of great concern that any passenger was able to board an international flight using a stolen passport listed in INTERPOL's databases,” Interpol Secretary General Ronald Noble said in a statement. “If Malaysia Airlines and all airlines worldwide were able to check the passport details of prospective passengers against INTERPOL's database, then we would not have to speculate whether stolen passports were used by terrorists to board MH 370. We would know that stolen passports were not used by any of the passengers to board that flight.”

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Created in 2002, the SLTD database now contains more than 40 million entries and is queried more than 800 million times per year. It averages 60,000 hits annually, according to Interpol data. However, although 167 countries contribute information to the database as of 2014, Interpol estimates that fewer than 20 of its member nations use it systematically to check international travelers’ documents.

Interpol has been fighting this battle since long before the disappearance of MH 370. In a 2010 interview with the World Policy Journal, Noble noted:

[I]f you or I are traveling internationally via the United States or Europe, we are required to take off our shoes and belts, give up our bags and our computers, and sacrifice whatever liquids we might not have consumed before passing through security. We do that for everyone. But each year, there are 500 million international air arrivals whose passports aren’t screened against Interpol’s database. And we have the technology to identify false passports being used by war criminals, terrorists, assassins, drug traffickers, and fraudsters. That’s what is most shocking and frustrating to me.

In a speech just last month, Noble raised these concerns again, warning that the failure of countries to make use of the SLTD database creates a “major gap in our global security apparatus that is left vulnerable to exploitation by criminals and terrorists.”

To hear Noble explain it (as, indeed, he must now be getting rather tired of doing), using the SLTD database is a no-brainer—a cheap, quick way to screen flights for criminals, easier than regulating the size of everyone’s tubes of toothpaste and much more effective. Border control agents perform the query, which takes less than a second and can be done over the Internet using specialized Interpol software. A 2011 study in the Journal of Law and Economics seemed to back up Interpol’s perspective, finding the SLTD database to be an effective counterterrorism tool whose benefits far outweigh its costs. So why isn’t everyone using it?

For one thing, the 2011 study took into consideration only the money Interpol spent on the system, not the costs to individual countries of implementing and integrating the database with their border-control procedures.

An anonymous Interpol official assured the New York Times that the costs to countries of using the database were “nominal.” But it seems many countries view the benefits of such screening as even more insignificant. For whatever reasons—perhaps because people boarding planes to leave a country are of less interest to border authorities than those who are trying to enter, perhaps because in some regions fraudulent travel documents are so common that they don’t seem worth the effort required for a crackdown, perhaps because the necessary technology and infrastructure to perform these screenings is not in place in some airports—most countries aren’t incentivized to make use of a huge international database of stolen travel documents and take what seems like a fairly basic security precaution. If that is the case, then the international community needs to overhaul the incentive structures so that countries decide it’s worth the time and money to run documents through the SLTD database.

One idea is to shift responsibility for security screenings away from national governments, giving it instead to bodies that may be better equipped to use the database (or that may be more easily incentivized or pressured). In a test announced Tuesday by Interpol, the two airlines will “be able to screen information against Interpol’s databases,” says an Interpol spokeswoman. “It’s an added layer. … A check can be made before they get to the airport.”* Air Arabia and Qatar Airways are the only airlines that will be granted access initially, but if the pilot is successful, the program may expand to include other airlines.

There are several reasons airlines may be better suited to this role than national border authorities. Notably, airlines may have to bear the costs of return flights for passengers who are traveling with stolen documents and are therefore not allowed to enter the country upon reaching their destination. By screening these passengers prior to departure, airlines can prevent such unforeseen costs. Additionally, airlines may be less constrained than governments by political and privacy concerns, as well as limited resources, when it comes to implementing the SLTD database.

“We are saying: Because of the limitations of access by the national authorities, then should we not consider providing access to the airlines themselves as well in a very controlled manner?” Michael O'Connell, director of Interpol’s operational police support directorate, told the Associated Press about the new airline access program.

Creating better incentives for systematic passport checks could also mean trying to address some of those limitations directly, perhaps by developing further privacy protections for the database queries, providing financial assistance to countries with insufficient border control resources, or even regulatory requirements for security checks on international flights destined for certain countries.

The importance of incentivizing travel document screening may well turn out to be entirely peripheral to the story of MH 370. But all the same, it would be a lesson well worth remembering even as new information comes to light.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.

Correction, March 11, 2014: Based on a report from the Associated Press, this article originally misstated that, in a pilot test by Interpol, two airlines will be able to directly access the agency’s Stolen and Lost Travel Documents database. The airlines will not have direct access to the database, and the piece has been updated with a quote from an Interpol spokeswoman about how the process will work. The piece also misstated that previously, the information was provided by border control agents to Interpol; border patrol agents were one of several groups that were able to provide the information.(Return.)

Josephine Wolff is a Ph.D. candidate at MIT and a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Follow her on Twitter.