Ralph Markert, assistant director, international partnerships & development at Interpol, looks at the Interpol I-Checkit solution and its uses within the aviation industry
On 8 March 2014, Malaysia Airlines flight 370 disappeared, seemingly without a trace. As the international community desperately looked for answers, it was discovered that two Iranian nationals had boarded the flight using stolen Austrian and Italian passports. With this revelation, the attention of the world was brought to what INTERPOL has long understood: the use of stolen and altered travel documents is a daily reality around the world.
It was for this reason that in 2002 INTERPOL, the world’s largest international police organisation, created its Stolen and Lost Travel Document (SLTD) database as a tool for law enforcement to detect and prevent the use of fraudulent identity documents. Today, the database includes more than 40 million records from 167 countries. In 2013 alone, the database was checked more than 800 million times, generating more than 67,000 hits where individuals tried to use travel documents registered as stolen or lost.
Despite the existence of this rich police tool, it is estimated that four out of every 10 passports are not screened against INTERPOL‘s SLTD database during international travel, creating a gaping hole in aviation security.
Travellers are crossing borders unscreened every day. Because of the increase in transnational crimes such as human and drug trafficking, crimes against children and terrorism, INTERPOL strongly believes that enhanced standards of identity checks must be implemented wherever there is a movement of people across borders.
Any hit can save lives
When access to INTERPOL’s SLTD database is provided and used effectively, it can make an astounding difference in detecting the use of fraudulent travel documents and preventing serious crimes often associated with concealed identities. And when a hit occurs, it often makes a big difference, as a man travelling by the name of Yecid Parra discovered. A check against the SLTD database at Lisbon airport revealed that Parra’s Mexican passport had been stolen and altered to camouflage his fugitive status. That single ‘hit’ resulted in Guillermo Perez Trujillo (his true name) being detained, arrested and extradited back to Colombia to serve a 15 year sentence for grievous bodily harm and possession of illegal weapons. And yet there are frequent instances of wanted criminals who travel freely from country to country, using a fraudulent passport to obtain services and cross borders. There is Samantha Lewthwaite, known as the ‘White Widow’ of one of the London July 2005 suicide bombers. Under the alias of Nathalie Webb, she was able to travel, obtain employment, sign leases for apartments and secure loans, all of this thanks to the use of fraudulent identity documents. She is currently wanted by Kenya for possession of explosives and weapons, but she could be anywhere, under a new stolen identity – just like any dangerous individual carrying a fraudulent identity document with full impunity.
Only a handful of countries are systematically screening passengers entering or leaving their territories. In fact the three top users of the SLTD database (United States, United Kingdom and United Arab Emirates) conduct 60 per cent of all searches. The costs and risks associated with not screening passengers are substantial, not just for governments, but also for commercial airlines. If a person is refused entry into a country due to the possession of an invalid travel document, the airline in many cases will have to pay a penalty fee and transport the individual back at their own cost. To put it simply – the legal, financial and reputational consequences of transporting unverified individuals can seriously harm the private entity, as well as endanger their customers.
A new strategic approach
INTERPOL’s I-Checkit Project was developed to be an original and innovative tool to detect criminals using stolen or lost travel documents to access commercial services, such as opening a bank account, booking an air ticket or registering at a hotel. By joining forces with the private sector, INTERPOL seeks to strengthen the use of the STLD database and disrupt the activities of international criminals.
I-Checkit will facilitate the secure transfer of information held by private industry to law enforcement for screening against INTERPOL’s global police databases. Only the number of the travel document, document type and country code will be transmitted. This process will have no negative impact on the airlines’ operations, in fact, it takes less than 0.5 seconds for a document to be screened. The software can be seamlessly integrated into any existing booking system and be accessed by airline and airport staff on the ground.
If a travel document is detected by INTERPOL, alerts will automatically be sent to the relevant law enforcement agencies in different countries which can take whatever action appropriate.
As a highly operational and cost-effective tool, I-Checkit will enhance screening capacity for law enforcement and at the same time give airlines the means to protect their business and promote the security of their passengers. By liaising with law enforcement in detecting stolen and mis-used travel documents, private entities will contribute to the fight against transnational crime and help INTERPOL in achieving its mandate for a safer world.
The challenges will remain the same and criminals will continue to exploit vulnerable crossing points to carry out their illegal activities. However, by engaging new partners and developing innovative solutions to these long-term problems, we can together take the necessary steps to turn back crime.