It's not known whether stolen passports had to do with Saturday's disappearance of a Boeing 777 bound from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to Beijing with 239 people on board. But Interpol on Tuesday released an image of two Iranians who used valid Iranian passports to get to Malaysia, then boarded the flight with stolen European passports.
Up to now, only national authorities such as border police have been allowed to verify whether passengers' passports turn up in the database of some 40 million stolen or lost passports in the computer systems of the Lyon, France-based international police agency — not airlines or other private sector companies.
"I have announced today that Qatar Airways and Air Arabia are two airlines that have committed themselves to making sure that all passengers boarding their planes will have their passport data screened against Interpol's database," Interpol Secretary General Ronald K. Noble told reporters at its headquarters.
In essence, the two airlines will be able to query the database but not gain direct access to it, in a program called I-Checkit for private sector companies — which could one day include financial institutions or hotels too, officials said.
While the database has been available to authorities for more than a decade, only a handful of countries actively use it — primarily the United States, Britain and the United Arab Emirates. Noble said that more than 1 billion times last year, travellers boarded planes without their passports being checked against the database.
Air Arabia and Qatar were chosen to test the idea because they approached Interpol and expressed an interest, said Michael O'Connell, director of Interpol's operational police support directorate.
The Interpol chief said stolen passports have been a known problem since at least the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center: "We know that the terrorist mastermind in that bombing was carrying a stolen Iraqi passport to cross borders."
It takes less than a second for countries to query the database via Interpol software and an Internet connection, once a passport is scanned. Interpol says some of its 190 member countries have cited a lack of police resources, privacy concerns, or political hostilities for their failure to check passports against the global data.
"We are saying: Because of the limitations of access by the national authorities, then should we not consider providing access to the airlines themselves as well in a very controlled manner?" O'Connell said. He said the ultimate goal is to expand the airlines program. Now, "it's at the embryonic stage," he said.
The database contains passport numbers and nationalities, as well as birthdates. It has no biometric data, Noble said.
As for the two Iranians, Interpol said it obtained their identities from its office in Tehran, and neither man had a criminal record. In a statement, Noble said the task now is to identify the criminal network that provided the passports.