Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Passport Photo Flap Makes Little Sense

In a recent post, I wrote that if I was manning the passport station in Kenya when Suaad Haji Mohamud came through, I too would have refused her passage based on the photo in her passport.

Passport 'loaning' is a rampant scam whereby a legitimate passport is used for the short period that it takes to pass immigration controls. Before boarding the airplane the passport is returned and the passenger lands in Canada as an undocumented traveller claiming 'refugee' status. It is legitimate for consular and passport officials to be suspicious when documents don't match the bearer, either because the photo or the personal details such as age don't match.

That being said the actions by Canadian consular officials in resorting to DNA testing to prove Ms. Mohamud 's bone fides shows a disturbing lack of sophistication that is not only puzzling but disheartening.

Does it really take DNA evidence and three months to uncover the truth? There are a lot easier ways to establish one's identity without resorting to such a drastic, expensive and time-consuming process.

Thirty years ago, before boarding an EL AL flight to Israel, I was (along with every other passenger) put through some pretty thorough vetting by Israeli security agents.

Regardless of your feelings about Israel, you've got to give them credit for having the most effective security in the world. For them, establishing one's identity is more than keeping illegal refugees out of the country, it's about keeping the airplanes in the air.

To the Israeli security team a passport is an essential element in establishing an identity, but it is by no means the only criteria.
Each passenger, before boarding the airplane is subject to an interview by a security screener. The agent's role is to establish that the person before them is the same person represented in the passport and that their travel aboard the El Al airplane is non-threatening.

Back then, my screener was a young slip of a girl who didn't look more than nineteen years old, not the hard nosed sort you'd think you'd come up against. She was friendly and polite and explained that she needed to ask me a couple of questions. She asked for my driver's license and studied my travel documents, the airline ticket, hotel reservation, etc. The questions started out with the standard queries that you'd expect.
Who packed your bag? What's the purpose of the trip? Did anyone give you a package to take on the airplane. etc.etc.
Pretty standard stuff, but then things got personal.
Tell about your neighborhood? What's the name of your Member of Parliament? What's the closest food store to your address? etc. etc.
The questions were harmless, but incredibly effective in determining that I was who I said I was. If I was an impostor there's no way I would have successfully passed the screening.

If EL AL can successfully confirm an identity in a short interview, why couldn't Canadian officials determine Ms. Mohamud's identity by using the same method?

Would it be so hard to ask her questions that a passport 'borrower' would never be able to answer.
They could ask her personal questions that only she would be able to answer and they could add questions about life in Canada and Toronto in particular, that a long time resident would easily answer, but which would prove difficult for an impostor.

Unless Ms. Muhamid was a spy out of a John LeCarre novel and had undergone months of intensive training at a KGB type of school that taught the art of assuming another identity, she'd be hard pressed to fool her interrogators.

The interrogators could ask the questions, email the answers to Canada for someone to verify and during this verification period Ms. Mohamud could be kept incommunicado in order to make sure she doesn't communicate her answers to anyone.

Under this scenario it wouldn't take more than 24 hours to establish whether she was who she said she was.

Just for fun, here's a list of questions that I would ask her. I bet you could come up with an effective list of your own.

  • Describe your apartment building and tell us about your neighbors?
  • Describe the view from your bedroom window.
  • How much rent do you pay and whom do you pay it to?
  • Describe your kitchen? What's in the pantry?
  • Where do you work and how much do you get paid?
  • What is the name of your boss?
  • Name a few co-workers.
  • How do you go to work? Describe the trip.
  • What school does your son attend and what is his teacher's name?
  • Name some of your son's friends.
  • What does he eat for breakfast?
  • What did you buy your son for his last birthday?
  • What will I find in your bedroom closet?
  • Recite as many phone numbers as you can and who they belong to.
  • Describe your neighborhood.
  • Where's the closest place to your apartment to buy milk.
  • Who do you pay your electric bill and telephone bill to?
  • What's the closest bus stop to your apartment? The closest park? Hospital?
  • What colour is a Toronto tram painted?
  • What is a loony? What colour is it?
  • In which supermarket do you shop?
  • Do you have cable TV and if so what is the name of the cable company?
  • Which Canadian television shows do you watch?
  • What is Tim Hortons?
  • What caused last year's big Toronto explosion?
  • Name five people who aren't related to you, who could identify you from a current photo.
I bet you've thought up a few good question of your own by now! No impostor could possibly know all the right answers. It would take a couple of hours to run down the answers and determine if she is really the person she claims to be.

I hope that there's some sort of inquiry that will determine if there's more to this story or if our officials are really the bumbling fools that they seem to be.

1 comment:

  1. As an Immigrant myself, I think they have all those questions already or just few,...but they chose not to go that way.....and also they are people out there who get tipped by their family/friends before they board the plane....but give me a job as an immigration officer and I will tell you who's fake and who's not...I know when someone lies...I was born with the sense......but I just wanted to thank you for putting it here, maybe our government can learn from your suggestion or come up with a new one..!!
    Good post !
    A concerned citizen !