Biometric passports – how will spies cope?

Is the age of forged passports and bogus aliases drawing to a close?

February 19, 2010 19:35
3 minute read.
The Jerusalem Post

passports 311. (photo credit: Bloomberg)


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The unprecedented video images streaming out of Dubai in recent days showing what police in the Gulf emirate say is a professional hit squad at work raise new and profound questions about the future of covert operations.

In a world dominated by biometric identification, increasingly interconnected border control centers, and closed circuit television surveillance, will intelligence agents be able to travel under bogus aliases and carry missions deemed vital for the national security of their countries?

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“As technology improves, those who fight terrorism [on a covert level] will see a drop in their abilities,” Rami Igra, a former senior Mossad official, said this week.

“The world is becoming more transparent. [State] actors have to conduct themselves more honestly. The Dubai story is an illustration of that,” Igra said.

AS BIOMETRIC passports become more ubiquitous, enabling passport control officials to identify travelers by scanning their fingerprints and facial characteristics, covert agents will have a harder time forging identities. But the game will be far from over, said Cmdr. (ret.) Moshe Mizrahi, former Israel Police head of Investigations Branch.

“Even if the agents can fake their identities, their movements will be tracked very quickly because border controls are becoming one network,” Mizrahi said.

“The people who flew out of Dubai must have changed IDs after landing at their destinations, before moving on to other countries as they travelled through their escape route. But in the future, assuming that all authorities cooperate, someone with a biometric passport can be tracked throughout their journeys even if they try to change identities,” Mizrahi added.

Despite the increased challenges facing those who forge identities, determined intelligence agencies could opt for surgery to create false fingerprints and plastic surgery to create new facial features, allowing their agents to get past the new controls.

Still, Mizrahi said, “this is likely to be a one-time option for agents. Assuming that big brother reaches a sufficiently sophisticated stage, in which machines can compare fingerprint scans to an existing database, the agents would be able to pull off a trick like that only once.”

In the future, Mizrahi added, border control systems will quickly send the readings of a fingerprint scan to a database for a comparison with the original, making life “much harder” for covert agents.

Presently, one of the most effective means of biometric identification are eye scans.

“That is the ultimate recognition system, and it’s something that cannot be faked,” Mizrahi said. “At the same time, the technology will not become available in the immediate future.”

Mizrahi envisages an eternal cat and mouse game between increasingly hi-tech security systems and intelligence agencies who employ ever-more sophisticated means of circumventing them.

“For every technological solution there is a counter-move,” Mizrahi said. “This will always continue.”

Mark Kahlberg, a South-African born Israeli security consultant who served in the Israel Police for 12 years, said the new challenges will “just force the covert players to become much better players.”

Kahlberg added that in the near future, law enforcement will be able to take a fingerprint reading and a photograph of an individual at any time, broadcast the information back to a central database, and receive information on the individual in seconds.

“The whole world is going to biometrics and CCTV. In London, South Africa and Israel, cameras are everywhere. Most corporate buildings and strategic infrastructures require biometric access. It’s definitely becoming a much more complicated world. Big brother is really watching,” Kahlberg said.

At the same time, he added, “there are thousands of different ways to beat the system. It will mean that the people [involved in covert operations] will be much more professional, and the human element, though still vital, will play less of a role.”

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