Anyone in search of a new identity in the coming years might find it easiest to opt for becoming British. Robbers hijacked a security van on its way from Manchester to London Monday morning and made off with about 3,000 blank British passports and visas that were destined for embassies overseas. The Foreign Office said the heist amounted to a "serious breach of security" but insisted the blank documents are unusable because of their high-tech-chip security features. "A blank isn't able to be used for crossing a border," said a Foreign Office representative.
That depends on the border, counters Tom Craig, a former Scotland Yard officer who now specializes in identity theft. "If an expert knows what the new passports should look like and they have the technology, then they will find the mistakes," said Craig. "But how do you know if it's good or bad if you don't know those details?"
Craig said that while the chip technology would make it difficult to travel into the U.K. on a fake passport, people use passports for a variety of reasons. "People will open up bank accounts, get work and pose as British citizens in outside countries," said Craig. "This is a serious, critical situation." He says the stolen passports are worth about $3,400 each on the black market, and will appeal to "desperate people all over the world."
The Foreign Office estimated the cost of the stolen blanks at a much lower total of $5 million, and maintained it was taking all necessary precautions to prevent the documents from becoming lucrative merchandise on the black market. "There are steps being taken to stop the use of these particular passports," said the representative, who refused to go into details to protect security arrangements.
The unarmored van was stolen when the driver stopped to buy a newspaper only a short distance from 3M Security Printing and Systems Ltd, which produces the new electronic passports. The robber jumped into the van and forced the second deliveryman in the passenger seat to lower his head onto the dashboard before assaulting him. He drove a short distance in the van and ran off with the boxes of documents, presumably with the help of an accomplice. The victim suffered minor injuries to his head and shoulders. This was a traumatic experience for the passenger, said police.
Craig said the consequences of this event might not be evident for months or even years. He said the government should set up a passport hotline so employees and banks can check the authenticity of a passport. Though not a surefire way to erase the problem, he said it would help lessen the damages. "It will be an ongoing problem for some time, and I don't want to see this country suffer like other countries three or four years after they've seen [passports] stolen," said Craig.
Stolen passports can have immense consequences. In 2001, two days before 9/11, Afghan Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Shah Masood was killed by two suicide bombers linked to Osama bin Laden posing as journalists. Fake Belgian passports, part of consignments stolen from Belgium's embassy in the Hague or its consulate in Strasbourg, were found on the bodies of Masood's killers.
Police investigating Monday's heist suspect that two robbers were involved; one is thought to have dark hair, tan skin and a local accent, but no witnesses have yet come forward regarding the other.
Dominic Grieve, the opposition Conservative Party's Shadow Home Secretary, took aim at the government. "This is the latest in a long line of security disasters to hit the government, and it shows how organized criminals will target identity documents," he said.
Less than a year ago two computer discs containing the personal details of all families in the U.K. with a child under 16 went missing. Earlier this month, the U.K. Ministry of Defense told Parliament that 659 of its official laptops had been stolen over the course of the past four years, three of which contained information classified as "secret" and another 19 deemed "restricted."