Going overseas? Prepare to get scanned. Your passport may no longer be the only thing you need to hand over when traveling internationally. As a result of the increased scrutiny over security procedures following the disappearance of a Malaysia Airlines flight with 239 passengers on board, fingerprinting and multiple database searches may soon become an airport requirement.
Biometric screening, the process of logging traveller’s fingerprints (and in some cases facial data) so they can be checked against a database to confirm someone’s identity, is being considered due to the discovery that at least two passengers on board the missing flight were traveling with stolen passports. It’s led to speculation about whether a terrorist act might be responsible for the flight’s disappearance, and therefore questions have been raised about lapses in security prior to takeoff.
Even if these passengers were merely identity thieves, their ability to pass airport security using stolen passports suggests serious problems in the screening systems being used in some countries.
Biometric security protocols -- including exit point screening and the use of e-passports, which are encoded with biometric data -- are already in play in a number of countries throughout the world. But in order to stop a terrorist, or to identify a person traveling under a false identity, the available database has to be queried by individual security agents who have access to them—a step that seems to have been skipped at the Kuala Lampur airport where the two passengers used stolen passports to board their plane.
Interpol, the international police organization, maintains a database of stolen passports and lost documents that could have alerted authorities to the travelers using false identities, but it is a voluntary check that most countries choose not to use.
In a statement on Sunday, Interpol’s Secretary General Ronald Noble said, “We have a real case where the world is speculating whether the stolen passport holders were terrorists, while Interpol is asking why only a handful of countries worldwide are taking care to make sure that persons possessing stolen passports are not boarding international flights.
Susan Ginsburg, an expert in terrorist travel and border controls who served on the 9/11 commission, asks, “If it is true that Malaysia does not have the capacity yet to query a lost and stolen passport database, I would ask why hasn’t the United States made more progress with Interpol in using security diplomacy to foster the installation of systems using the Interpol database? It is a good tool.”
Another good tool, according to Ginsburg, is the additional biometrics checks that could occur if the U.S. implemented exit point screening.
Currently, the two types of screening being used with foreign travelers upon entering the United States are biographic, which checks details like age and appearance on travel documents against the information on record in a database; and biometric, which checks for a fingerprint match to ensure that the individual is traveling under their own confirmed identity. Former Department of Homeland Security official, Stewart Verdery, describes it as “The largest fingerprint database in the world.”
When foreign nationals leave the country, however, there is no comparable exit point screening procedure—despite Congress’ attempt to make it a requirement since 2001.
While he doesn’t think biometric screening will be used on American citizens traveling within the country—“It’s hard to imagine it could get any traction at all,” Verdery says—he believes adding biometric checks for foreign nationals at exit points could improve security by identifying suspected terrorists, individuals attempting to flee for criminal offenses, or those using false identities.
There are two key advantages of biometric over biographic checks according to Verdery. Biographic checks are prone to human error, and issues like misspelling foreign names can prevent officials from identifying someone who is wanted or, conversely, to false positive matches. Plus, says Verdery, “The people you’re most concerned about—terrorists and criminals—are the people who would have gone to the greatest lengths to avoid biographic checks.” (By, for example, forging documents or using other means to conceal their identities.) “And it’s only by biometric that you can catch them,” he adds.
“An exit system would enable DHS to know better who is leaving, and to detain individuals who are attempting to abscond after committing a crime or being sought for other reasons,” Ginsburg says.
Ginsburg and Verdery both also note that exit point screening would be useful for other non-security concerns like measuring visa compliance.
The balance between security and privacy is not lost on Ginsburg. “Public concern about privacy violations is another consideration, as is being clear that the right to travel is a fundamental liberty,” Ginsburg says. “All three issues need to be resolved to the satisfaction of the public before going forward. But I’d like to see that effort made.”