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Global Airline Security Threat: ‘Fraudulent Travel Documents’

We posted on the illegal identities trade involving Syrians and Palestinians in Honduras and Mexico  in a NatSecDaily Brief this Memorial Day, weekend in the US, “Does Illegal Identities trade in Mexico and Honduras threaten US National Security?How problematic that is to global airline security is illustrated by this Air Travel World report on the concern raised by security specialists this week at the Barcelona SITA Air IT Summit, Fraudulently obtained travel documents a growing security challenge .”  The author, Ms. Anne Paylor, wrote:

Matthew Finn, managing director at independent security consultancy AUGMENTIQ, told the SITA Air Transport IT Summit in Barcelona this week that there had been a shift away from people trying to falsify travel documents, but an increase in identity fraud involving genuine but fraudulently obtained passports.

“You can’t assess the risk of a person if you don’t know who they are,” Finn said.

He cited one European Union government as having recently declared that it issued some 6 million passports in 2015. However, it estimated that of these, as many as 650,000—or roughly 10%—were issued to false identities.

Finn of AUGMENTIQ  noted how daunting  the verification problem is:

“They were genuine documents, but issued to someone who doesn’t exist. The weak link in the chain is the breeder documentation used to establish identity,” Finn said. He  pointed out that in many states, particularly failed or fragile states, fake birth certificates and other “breeder” documents are relatively easy to obtain. The integrity of breeder documentation, he said, should be considered as important as the integrity of travel documents themselves.

Finn pointed out that governments and industry need to be able to verify the identity of passengers in order to address security and other challenges.

According to AUGMENTIQ, identity fraud is increasing dramatically and the share of fraudulently obtained genuine travel documents accounts for a growing share—as much as 23% in 2009 (the most recent figures available).

“Our challenge now is more about determining that the document truly belongs to its holder rather than whether the document itself is a forgery or counterfeit,” Finn said.

He also urged much greater collaboration between all stakeholders, pointing out that Interpol holds a database of 57 million lost and stolen ID documents that, if more widely distributed, could help flag cases of ID fraud.

“Where vulnerabilities exist, they will be exploited,” he said. “If there is no confidence in the integrity of the document issuance process, there cannot be any confidence in the authenticity of the document being presented or the veracity of the holder’s identity.”

Finn concluded:

 If we cannot establish a person’s identity, we cannot ascertain the risk he or she may pose to the aviation industry or, indeed, to the countries they are traveling to along the way.

We don’t  know  whether EgyptAir and the Egyptian Civil Aviation Ministry has availed of the opportunity to run checks of the passenger manifest on Flight 804 against the Interpol data base cited by Finn of AUGMENTIQ.  Nor do we know how complete that data base is and the process for updating it.  Surely the proportion of false identifications since 2009 has grown with the mass flight  from hot spots in the Muslim Ummah since 2011 and the rise of the Islamic State in 2013. The magnitude of false identities using legitimate passports, birth certificates and driver licenses has soared given the Middle East refugee crisis. This has exacerbated the infiltration of Islamic terrorists, among the stream of refugees and migrants, whether in the EU or in the Western Hemisphere.  This ATW report illustrates the huge problems confronting the TSA and the DHS ICE in  the  US given what is already a hot air travel season with massive travel delays and failures to vett screeners, let alone detect possible terrorists.

EDITORS NOTE: This column originally appeared in the NatSecDaily Brief.