Stamping Out Passport
By Dialogo January 01, 2012
Fraudulent travel documents are as important as weapons to a terrorist, and
Interpol has described their use as “the biggest threat facing the world.” But through
international cooperation, countries in the Americas are improving detection of fraudulent
passports and other identification documents (IDs). Nations are sharing information through
Interpol’s lost and stolen passport database and through databases pinpointing terror
suspects. Countries such as Brazil are upgrading their travel documents with biometric
indicators, making forgeries a thing of the past. A few countries have even begun to tackle
government corruption – an important step, considering that the officials inspecting
documents at ports of entry are the first line of defense in denying terrorists the freedom
to travel and preventing the smuggling of humans, drugs, illicit cash and weapons.
As a country that has traditionally played an important role in collective security
efforts in the hemisphere, Brazil began issuing passports with biometric data stored on a
radio-frequency identification (RFID) chip in November 2010. The new passport meets the
International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) standard for machine-readable travel
documents, as well as the guidelines of the trading bloc Mercosur. The country also added
layers of security to its civil identity cards and birth, marriage and death certificates,
making it harder to forge documents that can be used to obtain a passport.
According to the Brazilian Federal Police, the new passport’s security features
Maps of Brazil on the back cover of the document that only appear when exposed to
The RFID chip, which stores a photo, two fingerprints and a signature.
A digital authentication certificate that allows officials to confirm that the
information on the chip was recorded by an authorized government authority.
Extended Access Control, which protects biometric information by only allowing
those with knowledge of a special digital certificate to access the data on the RFID chip.
In addition to making counterfeiting tougher, the passport also speeds up the
process of verification for international arrivals and departures at airports. Paraguay
Paraguay has increased its measures to strengthen the national identification
systems and overcome instances of corruption. The Millennium Challenge Corporation, an
independent U.S. foreign aid agency, contributed to the country’s efforts in 2009 by funding
the New Identification System (NIS), which added biometric information to national ID cards.
Having secure national IDs is important because they are not only used in issuing passports;
they are also valid documents for travel to other Mercosur countries (Argentina, Brazil and
Uruguay). Paraguay also redesigned its IDs and passports according to International Civil
Aviation Organization requirements, which the government described as tamper-proof
Before the ID card system was brought up to international standards, the Paraguayan
National Police was unable to file fingerprints electronically. The Millennium Challenge
Corporation reported that the reform required an overhaul of the information technology
infrastructure as well as comprehensive staff training in the collection of biometric data.
Entries in the NIS database are now linked to biometric identifiers — fingerprint images —
that are captured through live-scan technology; photographs and signatures are captured with
digital cameras and electronic pads, and are automatically verified as they become part of
the database, according to the foreign aid agency.
The system reduces the risk of fraud by tracking all entries, so each transaction
can be traced back to the staff member who logged in using a fingerprint scanner. The result
is a reliable ID and passport system that reduces the threat of identity theft and improves
In January 2011, President Felipe Calderón signed an order requiring all Mexican
citizens age 17 and younger to get a national identity card with biometric information
embedded, including an iris scan. “It is a constitutional obligation to offer this
identification card,” Interior Minister José Francisco Blake Mora said during the launch of
the program in Tijuana.
Once all children have been included in the database, a second phase will issue the
new ID cards to Mexican adults, the minister of the interior said. A third phase will cover
foreigners residing in Mexico.
The new ID cards include a photo, a unique ID number, a hologram, iris scan data
embedded in a bar code and fingerprint data. The government described the biometric IDs as a
big step forward in preventing identity fraud, and the data collected is expected to help in
cases of missing children. The idea of the database and accompanied information sharing is
to make it difficult for criminals to operate within the country.
In addition, Mexico has improved its Migratory Operation System, which keeps
records on travelers who arrive at airports, with funding from the Merida Initiative
security cooperation agreement with the U.S. Merida Initiative funding has also improved
security along Mexico’s southern border, where document verification software and biometric
equipment have been delivered to Mexico’s National Institute of Migration (INAMI), according
to the U.S. State Department. INAMI and the Office for the National Registration of the
Populace have also worked alongside U.S. officials to integrate biometrics at border
checkpoints. The Narcotics Affairs Section at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico has developed
standard operating procedures for immigration officers enrolling and verifying biometric
data. That has been the basis for a Central Biometric Database that aims to identify and
match traveler biometric data to international databases of known and suspected terrorists
Since the 9/11 Commission identified it as one of the most effective tools for
fighting terrorism in 2004, curbing terrorist travel has become part of the U.S. national
security strategy. To keep terrorists from entering the United States, the country provides
security assistance to nations to modernize passport systems and improve detection of
document fraud. For example, the State Department’s Terrorist Interdiction Program gives
countries the tools to develop and use terrorist screening information. About 150 foreign
ports of entry used this program in 2010, according to government statistics.
However, a July 2011 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office said
these programs don’t go far enough. “Some countries do not have their own database systems
with terrorist screening information or access to other countries’ terrorist screening
information to keep track of biographical and biometric information about individuals who
are known or suspected terrorists,” the report reads. “Even when countries have terrorist
screening information, they may not have reciprocal relationships to share such information
or other travel-related information such as airline passenger lists with other countries,
thereby limiting their ability to identify and prevent travel of known or suspected
A Serious Problem
Terrorists rely on forged travel documents to move around the world with ease to
conduct surveillance, train for a mission or carry out an attack. That is why measures to
prevent passport fraud are so critical, according to Ron Noble, the secretary-general of
Interpol. “The No. 1 risk confronting airlines and countries around the world is the risk
terrorists or other dangerous persons will carry a fraudulent identity document and move
from one country to another.”
Sources: L-1 Identity Solutions, U.S. Transportation Security Administration,
infosurhoy.com, San Diego Union Tribune, Mexico’s El Universal
Key Steps in Building Capacity to Prevent Terrorist Travel
Share information about known and suspected terrorists
through international databases.
Address the use of fraudulent travel documents by increasing
penalties and improving detection.
Upgrade passport security by replacing easily counterfeited documents with ones
that meet international standards and include biometric information.
Combat corruption in passport issuance and immigration agencies.
Source: U.S. Government Accountability Office
Types of Passport Fraud
Counterfeit passport created by a vendor
Passport with altered photo (photo-subbed passport)
Blank passport stolen and filled in
Genuine passport intentionally issued in a false identity by a government
Genuine passport issued based on fraudulent identification documents (birth
certificate, driver’s license, etc.)
Source: Strategic Forecasting Inc. (STRATFOR)