News / Asia

    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.

    Carla Babb

    Carla is VOA's Pentagon correspondent covering defense and international security issues. Her bylines include Ukraine, Turkey, Pakistan, Korea, Japan and Egypt.

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    Comment Sorting
    Comments
         
    by: Dan micky from: Ondo Nigeria
    March 14, 2014 12:43 AM
    I pray GOD will help us discorver the missing flight

    by: Tunde Ladimeji from: Verona,Italy
    March 11, 2014 12:12 AM
    The issue of stolen passports is not new.It is called photo change(PC) by experts.People sell their passports at very high cost to nationals of other countries who could not secure visas on their own countries' passports.

    by: Douglas from: Spain
    March 10, 2014 9:06 PM
    Look I strongly believe that missing plain is not on the sea.there should check desert around that zone or there have dirrected that plain to other direction
    In Response

    by: reans from: hongkong
    March 11, 2014 4:57 AM
    Well...I thought they were kidnapped right now!

    by: Jeab from: Rayong.Thailand
    March 10, 2014 8:47 PM
    If the so called saleslady in Pattaya..says "Ali' booked for two people and she goes by saying she only the Iran guy by "Ali"...The same ali has been doing business with her for sometime now..coming to thailand..does the "ali" thing only gives "ali" as personal details when buying tickets from her..something fishy here...ask the lady she knows something..i am even ali told the lady the guys are using stolen passport...just a thought"

    by: Cantina from: USA
    March 10, 2014 8:39 PM
    Surprised Luigi held up his passport in a way that a picture of it would include all his info including his passport number.

    by: seaul8ter from: Texas
    March 10, 2014 8:30 PM
    Instead of spending our tax dollars building a customs facility in Abu Dhabi Congress could spend a little to insure our safety when we travel abroad.

    by: Daniel
    March 10, 2014 8:10 PM
    This cowardly act of terrorism begins to look more and more like an Iranian IRGC operation...

    if it turns out to be the Iranians - Obama must give the Israelis the "green light" - HE MUST..!!!
    In Response

    by: Dickinson from: USA
    March 11, 2014 6:08 AM
    Green light on what!

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