Each year, over 10 million individuals are victims of identity theft. The question remains, just how effective are terrorist watch lists and travel alert databases? The source of information on identity theft that gets little attention is the 9/11 commission report. That report focused on what went wrong that allowed the terrorists attacks to occur. Within that report, one can find about 10 pages dealing with suggestions for preventing identity fraud leading to terrorism.
Although the information is buried deep within the report, its importance is acknowledged. It states that terrorists use impersonation as their key tool. The report states that travel documents share the same importance as weapons for terrorists. This means that identity theft fraud is not just confined to theft crimes. Because of this, sensitive entry points can be the last opportunity to determine a person’s identity. These entry points can include boarding gates for aircraft.
Experts concur that identity theft and terrorism are closely related. An al-Qaida training manual, used for law enforcement training, points this out. The manual provides for trainees to leave their training camp with five fake IDs. The terrorist trainees are also taught how to live off credit fraud while hiding in the U.S.
Mokhtar Haouari and Ahmed Ressam allegedly used credit fraud in the planning of the Millenium Plot in 2000. There were even plans of purchasing a gas station for the purpose of customer account number theft. These details were reported in the Chicago Tribune. In another arrest, Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri, a terrorist suspect, was placed into custody while using a laptop containing 1,000 stolen credit card numbers. He has since been linked with Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawsawi, the alleged paymaster for 9/11. The laptop also contained multiple Internet links to fake ID and fraud-related sites.
The 9/11 hijackers were able to keep the commission report focus away from identity theft. This was done by using their real names when boarding. However, prior to 9/11, the same hijackers had used extensive identity fraud. Some of the fraud was used to gain entry into the United States. Other document ID fraud was used to obtain their driver’s licenses in order to be able to board the planes.
Former head of the Justice Dept.’s Computer Crime Unit, Mark Rasch, states that identity theft is easy enough to make terrorist watch lists ineffectual. He points out that the problem is with false identity. A watch list depends on knowing who the person is, in the first place.
Other flaws point to the entire identification system. Congressional testimony indicates that there are over 240 valid driver’s license forms in the U.S. In addition, birth certificates may be legally issued by over 10,000 different agencies. The sheer number of different formats makes it virtually impossible to determine fakes. This is why security experts know that a driver’s license is not a reliable way to determine a person’s identity. This was demonstrated by an undercover congressional team. Members of the team were able to use a doctored birth certificate in order to obtain a driver’s license. The same team used fake IDs to enter airport and government building restricted areas in 2002. Terrorists are obviously also aware of these flaws.
Legislation that supports biometrics has been suggested by Rep. Rob Andrews, D-N.J. Biometric components such as an iris scan of fingerprint scan incorporated into state IDs has been discussed for many years. However, the concept of ID standards that are federally mandated are not compatible with U.S. culture. This has been pointed out by attorney David Sobel who is associated with the Electronic Privacy Information Center. The discussion also points to severe limitations on potential government requirements.
A comparison has been made to the Social Security number system. Originally, this number system had a very narrow expectation. Now, Social Security numbers are widely used as a primary identifier in the U.S. The fear is that every aspect of life in the U.S. might become tied to a biometric identifier. Also, the system is not perfectly secure. There is still the issue of originally identifying the correct person.
Other proposed solutions include fingerprinting of all foreign travelers to the United States. In essence, this represents an expansion of a program known as US-VISIT. This program currently applies to only 12% of foreign travelers. Expansion of this program would most certainly be opposed by civil liberties advocates.
Finally, the report noted that identity theft is prevalent throughout corporate America. Studies have indicated that two-thirds of identity theft begins employee data theft. If corporations are forced to guard employee data more carefully, terrorist availability would decrease. This may eventually become a federal requirement.