Interpol Chief Wants Databases To Track Criminals

Interpol chief wants databases to track criminals

Declan McCullagh, for
Published: July 12, 2007

SAN FRANCISCO–The head of Interpol believes terrorists and other criminals are traveling freely around the globe in ways that police agencies find difficult to track, but he says he knows how to cripple their movements.

Interpol Secretary General Ronald Noble on Wednesday suggested two solutions: first, airlines should forward passenger data on international flights to Interpol; and second, nations that arrest foreign visitors should share those fingerprints with the international police agency as well.

Noble, who is meeting on Thursday with American Airlines to discuss the proposal as a pilot project, said linking databases can help detect people flying on passports reported as lost or stolen. Ramzi Yousef, who was convicted of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, entered the United States carrying a stolen Iraqi passport.

“The goal is to test something, to pilot something, to have all airlines participate in it,” Noble said in an interview at CNET's headquarters here. “We're a global organization, but it's a question of who's going to (pay for it) and go first.”

Eventually, he envisions expanding the database to encompass other forms of travel, including trains, ocean liners and cruise ships. “It could be needed for any international travel requiring a passport where reservations are made,” said Noble, a former New York University law professor and Clinton administration official in the U.S. Treasury Department.

The pilot project would gather only passport numbers and the country that issued the passport, and not individual names or other details. (American Airlines did not respond to a request for comment on Wednesday.)

The federal government has worried about fraudulent travel documents in the hands of terrorists, especially when those passports are issued by countries whose citizens can enter the United States without a visa. In May, the Department of Homeland Security announced it would begin using Interpol's database of 7 million lost or stolen passports to screen foreign travelers. The U.S. began reporting its own lost or stolen passports to Interpol in 2004.

Airlines on U.S.-bound flights originating abroad already submit what's known as Advance Passenger Information System data–including names and passport numbers–to Homeland Security before the flight lands. Federal agents compare that information with data in a Treasury Department computer system that includes wanted persons, violent felons, suspected terrorists and international fugitives. Agents can mark passengers for more intensive screening that takes place when they go through immigration.

But there is no centralized international database of passports used in travel, which Noble said could eventually be expanded to track fugitives and people such as sex offenders who may be barred from traveling to certain countries known for sex tourism as part of their probation. “I believe that a country has a right to know where its passport goes,” he said. “Wherever a country wants to track the passport, as long as its laws allow it, and it doesn't violate (Interpol's) constitution, we're prepared to support it.”

Important details of any pilot project remain murky, including privacy concerns and the question of which nations could access the central repository of passport data. Noble did suggest that the numbers would be accessible only to the nation that issued the passport in the first place–meaning the United States could track its own citizens but not, say, Iranians.

Privacy advocates said they wanted more details about a pilot project, but expressed concern that data-sharing with Interpol could bypass U.S. privacy laws.

“If DHS held this data, it would be subject to Privacy Act safeguards,” such as notice to the public, the right to access, and the right to correct misinformation, said Marcia Hofmann, an Electronic Frontier Foundation staff attorney who has filed a lawsuit against Homeland Security to obtain information about a passenger profiling system.

“But if it's Interpol,” Hofmann said, “that's an international organization and it's not subject to the same Privacy Act obligations that a United States agency would be.”

Interpol is not alone: a few days after failed car bomb attacks in London and in Glasgow, Franco Frattini, the European Union's justice commissioner, announced plans for more aggressive data collection on air travelers. Frattini said last week that he was drawing up a plan that would let member nations collect and share data from air passengers in much the same way as the United States already does through what are called Passenger Name Records. (A U.S.-European Union dispute over the use of those records was recently resolved.)

Global DNA, fingerprint databases?

In the interview on Wednesday, Noble also outlined his plans for national police forces to share more fingerprint and DNA data with Interpol.

“All non-nationals that are arrested should have their fingerprints sent to Interpol and run against its database,” Noble said. That rule would include tourists, H-1B visa holders and even permanent residents with green cards who are arrested.

When asked whether U.S. citizens who are arrested should be included as well, Noble replied: “The data would overwhelm Interpol, and from a political perspective, the likelihood that a country would accept sending the criminal information of a U.S. citizen to Interpol, I'm not sure if that's politically viable or even advisable.”

In the U.S., the FBI's Combined DNA Index System includes more than 4.7 million DNA profiles, including 178,000 that were taken from crime scenes. Nearly all of the rest comes from convicted criminals.

A 2000 federal law called the DNA Analysis Backlog Elimination Act requires that DNA samples be taken from anyone convicted of or on probation for certain serious crimes. This was challenged in court on Fourth and Fifth Amendment grounds, but a federal appeals court upheld (PDF) the DNA collection requirement as constitutional.

A DNA-sharing network linking all G8 nations–meaning Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States–was activated last week, Noble said. It already includes about 65,000 to 70,000 DNA profiles, mostly from crime scenes, and nations can send DNA samples with or without names attached, he said.

In addition, Noble said, nations should work through Interpol to create “a global database of convicted terrorists.” He has also recently criticized Britain for failing to check immigrants against Interpol's list of suspected terrorists, and said in an open letter that “no country should take the risk of allowing travelers to cross its borders without having their passports checked” against Interpol's files.