A missing plane and a stolen passport mystery
THERE are 40 million stolen passports in Interpol's Stolen and Lost Travel Documents (SLTD) database, including at least two that were used to board the ill-fated Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.
Naturally, speculation about what might have caused the plane's disappearance has fallen on the two people who boarded with those passports.
Did they carry out a terrorist strike? Or, like the other 237 passengers and crew on the flight, were they also victims? A global law enforcement effort is currently focused on determining the answers to those questions.
But there's no overlooking the fact that it wouldn't have been necessary had Malaysia, or China, followed the lead of a handful of other Interpol member countries and checked passenger passports against Interpol's SLTD database.
The SLTD programme, which allows law enforcement agencies to input and then access data on stolen passports worldwide, was launched in 2002 in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.
Unfortunately, the programme has had relatively limited buy-in by Interpol's 190 member countries.
The reasons vary, from cost and technical issues of linking passport-control computers to the database, to a generalised lack of urgency.
On Saturday night, both China and Malaysia failed to avail themselves of Interpol's resources, according to Interpol.
But responsibility for screening passports doesn't belong only to the country of departure. The United States, for example, collects passport data of all incoming international passengers before they depart their country of origin.
Had China followed that protocol on Saturday, there would likely be no need for an investigation this week. Indeed, despite the Chinese government's best attempts, blame for the breach cannot be pinned entirely on Malaysia.
Nonetheless, much of it should be. Immigration and security procedures at Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA), departure point for Flight 370, are notoriously lax. Last November, an international flight from Indonesia arrived at a domestic terminal and passengers were allowed to disembark without passing immigration or Customs. Had a local politician not been a passenger on the flight, the lapse might never have been noticed.
While this is hardly scientific, my own experience, based on 12 transits I've made in and out of KLIA over the last 15 months, seems to indicate a decline in security, including the abandonment of passenger fingerprinting at immigration.
Fortunately, the safety of air passengers isn't just the responsibility of governments with limited accountability. It also belongs to airlines with financial interests in being perceived as safe.
In 2011, Interpol recognised this, when Secretary-General Ronald Noble told an industry conference that "global aviation security requires the industry to step in where governments fail". Mr Noble announced i-Checkit, a programme in which passport numbers are screened at the point of airline ticket purchase.
This places the burden of security on the entities most likely to be harmed by a breach: the airlines.
Malaysia Airlines, which was pummelled in Monday trading, and China Southern, the code-share partner on Flight 370 (and the airline from which the tickets were purchased using the purloined passports), would be well advised to be among the first airlines to sign up for i-Checkit.
The safety of their passengers, and the credibility of their businesses, depends on it.
The writer is a regular contributor to Bloomberg View. Based in Shanghai, he is the author of Junkyard Planet, a book on the global recycling industry