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Mysterious Travelers on Malaysia Flight Raise Questions on Passport Security


Italian Luigi Maraldi, left, whose stolen passport was used by a passenger boarding a missing Malaysian airliner, shows his passport as he reports himself to Thai police at Phuket police station in Phuket province, southern Thailand, March 9, 2014.

Italian Luigi Maraldi, left, whose stolen passport was used by a passenger boarding a missing Malaysian airliner, shows his passport as he reports himself to Thai police at Phuket police station in Phuket province, southern Thailand, March 9, 2014.

Two of the passengers sitting next to each other on the Malaysia Airlines flight that mysteriously disappeared Saturday were traveling with stolen passports. That chilling fact has raised questions about the security of international travel, and why countries might fail to use security tools that are availble through international agencies.

Imagine Luigi Maraldi's surprise when officials reported he was on the Malaysia Airlines flight that vanished Saturday with 239 people on board. The Italian desperately tried to explain to reporters in heavily accented English that he had no clue his stolen passport could get a passenger on board an international flight.

"I think my passport maybe nobody can use again because when I come back to Italy I talked with police, Italian police, for look my lost passport and so nobody can use," he said.

So if the stolen passport was reported to international authorities, how could it have gotten through security?

"If there's no check against the Database of Stolen Passports, you can get on a flight," said Chris Bronk, a passport technology expert at Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy in Houston, Texas.

And if you think Malaysia was unique in not checking Interpol's database for stolen passports before letting passengers board flight MH307, you would be mistaken.

"Just about everyone else in the world isn't using this database, and that has to change," Bronk said.

Bronk says the United States, Britain and the United Arab Emirates are the only three countries determined to use the database to check passports on all international flights. And only 38 countries use e-chip technology to help verify and track passports as part of a visa waiver program.

"So we've put a lot of technology in passports over the last 10 to 15 years now, and they are harder and harder than ever to forge, but if you don't have the digital backend running, it's just a document," he said.

So what could be stopping countries from using these tools of the 21st century?

Bronk says the infrastructure needed to integrate Interpol's database is time consuming and expensive. He encouraged the State Department and other concerned parties to consider aiding others with this integration, because the process of identifying passengers like the two who got on Flight MH307 is significantly harder without accurate passport data.

"Now they are going to have to go back through and figure out if any other information about them was captured in the process of buying the ticket, getting on the plane -- so that goes through everything from 'How was the ticket bought? Was it bought with cash? Was it bought with a credit card?' All the way up to, 'Was there a photo captured? Was the person cleared by security at the airport?' It really depends on what evidence exists," said Bronk.

It's unclear how often people travel internationally with stolen documents, but with nearly 40 million stolen passports out there, Bronk says it's safe to assume it happens fairly regularly.
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    Carla Babb

    Carla is VOA's Pentagon correspondent covering defense and international security issues. Her datelines include Ukraine, Turkey, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and Korea.

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