As many as 3,000 British passports, blank and containing official vignettes, were lifted from a van on its way to RAF Northholt near London in 2008. The passports were stolen when the driver of the van made an unauthorised stop to buy a newspaper while delivering them. At the time, it was estimated that the passports would have been worth several million pounds. They would have been so highly valued because they contained many of the most sophisticated measures put in place to guarantee their authenticity.
There is no evidence that this particular incident had anything to do with the entry of 11 people suspected to have played a role in assassinating a Hamas leader in Dubai last month, six of whom carried British passports. What is clear is that the system has been abused, and on a very significant scale. The example does serve as a reminder that human error can compromise even the most advanced measures developed to guarantee the authenticity of a passport and verify that its holder is indeed who he or she claims to be.
Even though passport security has improved remarkably over the past several years to limit fraud and forgery, the system is still far from fail safe. The latest generation of passports do contain hundreds of security features that make them incredibly difficult to duplicate. Many nations have also included a chip that includes biometric data unique to the passport-holder to prevent anyone else from using it. This is a dramatic change from a decade ago, when those who wished to contravene international law could purchase the passports of a choice of nations for the right price and manipulate them relatively easily. There are governments, most notably Israel's, who have form for doing so. It will take several years, if not a decade, for countries to phase out older passports that do not have the most advanced security features, and still they can be compromised.
When travellers of certain nationalities enter the UAE, they are not subjected to a retinal scan, meant to provide an extra layer of security. Passport-holders of 33 different nations are also permitted entry without applying for a visa beforehand. It's no surprise that the 11 suspects in the Hamas murder travelled with passports from countries given additional leeway upon arrival. This incident should underscore that the nations that have been given extra privileges have an even greater responsibility to ensure the involiobility of their passports, even as many have come a long way in this regard. It is unfortunate that the apparent cunning and cruelty of 11 suspects, intent on committing a murder, have shown the world that even greater efforts must be made to make passports more secure.