Stamping Out Passport

Fraudulent travel documents are as important as weapons to a terrorist, and Interpol has described their use as “the biggest threat facing the world.”
Print | 1 January 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 include:

  • Maps of Brazil on the back cover of the document that only appear when exposed to ultraviolet light.
  • 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 documents.

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 document verification.


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.

Brazilian passports include biometric data stored on a radio-frequency identification chip. [WIKIMEDIA COMMONS]

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 and fugitives.

United States

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 terrorists.”

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,, 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)

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