Top Ten Reasons Why a Heist of 3,000 Blank UK Passports Matters

By Janice Kephart on July 30, 2008

The UK Guardian report today of an old-fashioned criminal heist of a van carrying 3,000 just-printed blank UK passports and "vignettes" (used for visa inserts) from Oldham, England (just outside of Manchester) southwest to London should give us pause here in the United States. UK law enforcement says these passports have a street value of about $5 million, or over $3,000 each. While the UK Foreign Office confirmed that 24 parcels of passports and vignettes were stolen, the government glossed over what it means, with one agency claiming that the passports are rendered 'unusable' due to the fact that the chip that replicates personal information was blank, and the other stating that it is a "highly complex task" to personalize the documents.

The UK government is not being disingenuous; to a large degree they are right technically about the forensics of these documents. What this tells us is that we should appreciate the progress made so far in securing against terrorist travel, including the International Civil Aviation Organization's standards for secure chips in passports that hold a bearer's personal information. These chips do make it much harder for a terrorist or criminal to assume a lost or stolen passport identity of the original bearer. US policy insisting that visa-waiver countries have e-passports to stay in the program is right on. But the mere fact that these passports have a street value potential of near $5 million is enough to tip us off that there are still many ways to use a nice, new blank passport from a country of stature like the UK that have little or nothing to do with the chip it contains.

So here are the top ten reasons why a heist of 3,000 blank UK passports matters:

10. Those vignettes. The UK government didn't address the fact that vignettes were stolen too. Finessing those on a legitimate passport makes travel for a terrorist courier a whole lot easier.

9. If travel documents are as important as weapons — as we said on the 9/11 Commission for good reason — we should treat them like weapons, secure in every aspect. Take currency. For years currency has been treated with the utmost care in its printing, storage, and shipment. We need to think of travel and other identity documents the same way. Currency gets transported in armored trucks. Travel and ID documents — perhaps — should be aligned with similar policies and principles.

8. Control numbers. The UK passports have them. This means that the passports stolen yesterday can be entered into lost and stolen passport databases around the world, including the UK, US and INTERPOL's lost and stolen passport database that holds about 7 million records, nearly half — as of last year — of the number of records US border agencies obtained through bilateral agreements. That means if the passport gets scanned at a port of entry it will be tagged as lost or stolen and subject the bearer to more scrutiny, and the passport should get confiscated and taken off the black market of travel documents. Note that not all states have control numbers on their batches of driver licenses they produce. With all the squawking by states over REAL ID, Americans should be squawking about that.

7. Securing the documents is nearly as important as making a secure document int he first place. A couple of guys in a van traveling a couple hundred miles with no means to secure the high-tech, costly passports they are hired to transport means all that effort put in at the front end to make the documents secure is partially wasted, when all that needs to be done is hire a criminal to follow the van, wait for a moment of weakness (in this case, the driver getting out of the van to get a newspaper), and drive away with the van. Sometimes the basics get lost amongst all the truly nifty efforts in high tech. Simple strategies to secure the secure documents matter too.

6. If you can't read the chip... Most countries do not yet have the ways or means to produce e-passports, and even more are likely to not have readers to read the chip in the e-passport for a very long time. If you are a courier for a terrorist organization — recognizing that terror organizations use couriers rather than risk being caught conducting financial transactions or discussing operations via the internet or the phone — the UK passport becomes a strategic means to an end. As long as the country you are seeking to enter can't read the chip and does not check lost and stolen passports, you have much to gain by assuming a new identity with a UK passport.

5. Recognize we've come a long way but still have far to go. We take fingerprints and photos with visa applications and at ports of entry. We read e-passports. We use trusted traveler programs to facilitate legitimate travelers through the border system so we can focus on those of concern. We have insisted on continuing a decade-and-a-half-old practice of vetting passenger manifest lists, and now we are doing so prior to take-off of carriers coming to our shores. We are doing better — if still not there completely — in attaining lost and stolen passport information. And hopefully in the next few months we will have instituted an electronic I-94 for all visitors coming to the United States from visa waiver countries, pushing out some basic vetting pre-travel. However, as good as all these improvements are for the controlled environments of air and sea ports, very few of these improvements are available on our land borders today. Until they are, those 3,000 blank UK passports pose a very real threat to the United States.

4. Terrorist travel is still alive and well. A CIA analytic report, "Clandestine Travel Facilitators: Key Enablers of Terrorism," dated December 2002 was quoted in the Commission’s 9/11 and Terrorist Travel monograph as follows:

The ability of terrorists to travel clandestinely — including to the United States — is critical to the full range of terrorist activities, including training, planning, communications, surveillance, logistics, and launching attacks. A body of intelligence indicates that al-Qa'ida and other extremist groups covet the ability to elude lookout systems using documents with false identities and devoid of travel patterns that would arouse suspicion.

Just because it is hard to misuse these passports, it is not impossible. In fact, they must be usable, with the estimated street value they have. Here's what a former Scotland Yard detective had to say about the incident according to the Guardian story:

"It would certainly appear they knew what was inside the vehicle," he said. "These passports are very likely destined for criminals, possibly even terrorists. Even if only 10% of them are ever used, that's a lot of criminal activity and a major headache for the security authorities." He estimated that each blank passport could fetch £1,700 on the black market and said that with the right equipment information could be loaded on to the passports' RFID chip, which carries its individualized information.

3. Passports are not just for crossing borders, they are breeder documents themselves. Banks don't have e-passport readers. Nor do federal buildings. Nor motor vehicle agencies. We still take a passport at its face value. Identity thieves, those who assume identities, the black market of travel documents abused by alien smugglers, travel facilitators, organized crime syndicates and terrorists, are all potential bidders for this heist. In other words, this heist isn't just about border security, it is about all varieties of crimes that threaten nations and communities.

2. Basic security should not be politicized. We don't need to be political about basic security of travel documents. A secure travel document properly secured protects our security, democracy, and civil liberties. We can argue all we want on how to 'properly' secure a document and come up with continually better means to do so, but we simply shouldn't argue about whether or not to secure documents as important as passports or, say, within the U.S., driver licenses under the REAL ID Act.

1. Pay attention. This could be us. The United States. We produce our passports overseas right now because the companies that apparently have the best products are not in the United States. Even assuming that is so, and even assuming this was a heist of blank U.S. passports with 'unusable' chips, a heist of U.S. passports in a foreign nation would not only be an international embarrassment, a heist of US passports in Thailand would seriously complicate any subsequent law enforcement action. At least the UK was producing their passports — by American corporation 3M — in the UK. We really need to rethink where we print ours. We wouldn't outsource our currency. Perhaps we shouldn't outsource our travel documents, either.