Despite admitting that it was “too soon to speculate about any connection between these stolen passports and the missing plane,” Interpol officials did not hesitate to use the fact that two passengers on the missing Malaysian Airlines flight used stolen passports as the opportunity to step up its longstanding campaign for a global travel control system in which all travelers worldwide will be required to: (a) show standardized government-issued travel credentials, and (b) have those credentials “vetted” against a global blacklist maintained by Interpol, before being given permission to buy an airline ticket or “open a bank account, rent a car or check into a hotel”.
Interpol began compiling a global travel document blacklist after September 11, 2001, but with no legal authority to issue or enforce no-fly orders or require that anyone obtain Interpol’s permission to travel.
By 2006, Interpol’s vice president was calling on national police, border guards, and airlines at an ICAO seminar we attended to implement an “Authorization to Travel” system in which all travelers would be required to obtain express prior government permission for air travel or cross-border travel. This was the first time we had heard any national or international government official speak explicitly about a permission-based travel control system or about changing the default from “yes” to “no”.
By 2013, Interpol was taking its authority for travel control for granted, denouncing the “failure” of governments and airlines to report all prospective travelers to Interpol, change travel from a right to a privilege, and cede to Interpol the power to decide who is “permitted” to exercise their right to travel.
A day after holding an opportunistic press conference trying to exploit the fact that two passengers on the missing Malaysian Airlines plane were traveling with stolen passports, the same Interpol official admitted that “the evidence emerging about the two travelers suggested that they were not likely to be linked to any terrorist groups. ‘The more information we get, the more we are inclined to conclude it is not a terrorist incident.’”
As of now, it appears that stolen passports were used by two Iranian citizens, one 19 and one 29 years old, who ended up on Malaysian Airlines merely because it was part of the cheapest flight set of flights to Europe. The mother of the teenager was waiting for him in Germany, and actually contacted Interpol herself with a “missing person” report when he didn’t arrive.
The majority of asylum claims by Iranian citizens who are able to reach Germany are granted. The most difficult hurdle for a persecuted Iranian seeking to flee is being permitted to board a flight to a country of refuge. It’s impossible, or creates a grave risk of additional persecution, to apply for a visa for the purpose of seeking asylum while one is still in Iran. But most countries of potential refuge require Iranian citizens to obtain visas in advance. And European and US laws that penalize airlines for transporting passengers who are later denied entry have turned into airline check-in staff into de facto immigration judges of first and lest resort, with a heavy financial incentive (which is the intent of these laws) to err on the side of denial of transport even to qualified asylum seekers. Immigration and travel document “fraud” and other more desperate measures have become necessary prerequisites for legitimate asylum seekers to reach most countries of potential sanctuary including the US and European countries in the Schengen zone.
Interpol is a police “cooperation” agency with no legislative authority. The obvious way for Interpol to get its travel-control vision made mandatory, and the path Interpol appears to be following, is through the incorporation of document-vetting requirements into ICAO “aviation security” standards.
The US, in particular, has for many years been using ICAO as a “policy laundering” venue for globalization of the US vision of a new norm of permission-based, worldwide government controls on freedom to travel.
Many countries have already delegated de facto national legislative authority to ICAO through the adoption of domestic laws, in the name of “aviation safety”, mandating compliance with ICAO “security” standards. Anything added to ICAO’s standards automatically becomes binding on and within these countries.
Most ICAO member nations and parties to the civil aviation treaties pursuant to which ICAO is established are also parties to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which guarantees the right to freedom of movement. But the ICCPR and this right are rarely, if ever, included in the terms of reference for ICAO decision-making. Within ICAO, proposals for “standards” of this sort originate with the Technical Advisory Group on Machine Readable Travel Documents, which has no expertise on human rights. ICAO is an inter-governmental organization, but national delegations to ICAO are composed primarily of police, border guards, and other security agencies. There’s no technical expertise, no voice, and no seat at the table in ICAO deliberations for privacy, civil liberties, or human rights.
It’s unclear how far Interpol has already gone in developing and deploying its travel-control scheme. Interpol has announced that “No checks of the stolen Austrian and Italian passports were made by any country between the time they were entered into INTERPOL’s database and the departure of flight MH 370.” That suggests that queries by airlines or governments checking lists of traveler’s passports with Interpol are logged. But we can find no publicly-available information about what information is contained in Interpol’s travel history logs. Nor can we find any information about whether an individual can find out what records Interpol has associated with her passport, or how, from whom, according to what procedures, or in what jurisdiction someone whose passport is blacklisted by Interpol would seek redress.
We strongly suspect that, like other data aggregators, Interpol would disclaim responsibility for its data, and claim that redress must be sought through whatever entity provided the data to Interpol. But there is no apparent way for an individual to find out what’s in Interpol’s data or who the data source(s) might be.
(Others have raised similar questions about other Interpol data about travelers, such as aggregated hotel registration records provided to local and national law enforcement agencies and “shared” with Interpol.)
Interpol is billing its vision as a “document checking” system, but it’s obviously much more.
Once the infrastructure is in place to require approval form Interpol, based on an ID-based query, before tickets or boarding passes are issued, it will be trivially easy to to add other categories of disfavored travelers’ IDs to the blacklist of allegedly stolen passports, and/or to require similar Interpol pre-approval for other transactions, as Interpol is already suggesting. And it’s only slightly more difficult to “vet” ID queries against other databases or algorithms such as those based on “risk scores”.
The query logs make this a metadata surveillance system as well. We don’t know, and Interpol hasn’t said, who has access to these records about our travels and other uses of our passports. But we presume that they are equally available to all Interpol members, including the police forces of the world’s most repressive nations.