Thursday, 18 June 2009

Passport Control

Much has been make of the new Identity Card and Biometric Passports but they seem some way off. So recently, I had to apply for a new passport under the existing system and it turned out to be all but easy.

I merely wanted to renew mine and I made the simple mistake of not opting for the fast turnaround service which offers a same day renewal. Instead, I thought to myself, how hard can this be? I mean I have an existing passport which I use weekly to travel with and I haven't changed appreciably in appearance. I mistakenly thought that they kept a record of my old passport and so it should be easy to verify who I was.

Silly me - as I was renewing, I had to send in my old passport and they issue a new one, cancelling the old simultaneously in around 3 weeks. No good for me on my current assignments, so I just sent off the forms, money and photo. I got a letter back two weeks later saying they needed my old passport. No less than 4 phone calls later, each with entirely conflicting information which was more to do with twisting bureaucracy than security and I was not really the wiser. I had paid £72 and now it seemed my best option was to get a same day service. So you would think I would just pay the difference and turn up with my old one.

Nope. I had started a postal renewal so I lose my money but have to send an official letter of cancellation stating the reason. Meanwhile, I just rang up and got a new appointment for the face to face one after being told that was not an option previously. In between, an unknown service called 'second passport' was offered to business types who travelled a lot, but this would involve the form and photo being countersigned, my birth certificate being sent in, plus a letter from my employer stating I travelled a lot and so needed a second passport for getting visas etc.

After no less than 3 hours on the phone and then travelling to 3 post offices before finding one with a passport form, I was told by a post office guy there was no such thing as a second passport option on the form - so the information I had was wrong.

It was a complete nightmare and for those morbidly interested, I am doing the 4 hour service at Newport next week and starting again - more money but it was either that or resign and take up the cloth.

But here's the rub.

The Easy Way To Forge Identity

Remember the seventies book and film by Le Carre - 'Day of the Jackal'? Edward Fox plays the Jackal who is seen scouring headstones for children who died young, then goes to Somerset House, getting their birth certificates and then applying for a passport in their name.

Could never happen in today's secure world, surely?

Well all you need is a brief look at someone else's current passport. Note the back page details like number, place and date of issue and expiry date, address of the person and birthplace. No need to steal the passport. Then ring up the registry and get a copy of the person's birth certificate. On there will be the person's mother and father's details. Then get a passport form - and fill it in as a first adult passport, giving your details plus the parents. Then add a cover letter on a fictional employer's letterhead stating that you travel a lot, add a letter from yourself saying it is for a second passport for business not a renewal, then get the form countersigned by a mate purporting to be a doctor, lawyer or similar, they have to countersign one photo also, then send the whole lot off.

Hey presto, a week or so later you get the second passport - you might want to ask to have it couriered to your 'employer's office' so that you can catch the next plane or stake out the real person's home to intercept the mail but such deviousness is not beyond the whit of a terrorist.

The fact is, your birth certificate is not covered by the Data Protection Act and is a matter of public record - so anyone can ask for a copy of yours or mine, any time. Death certificates, the same.

So while it was an interminable, complicated process for me renewing, it's actually easy as pie for a criminal to clone your identity. We may be 10 years into a new millennium but we are still pretty primitive when it comes to security, yet sophisticated when it comes to increasing bureaucracy. Comforting to know this as all the security cameras in towns are trained on illegal parkers and people putting the wrong things in bins.

I wouldn't worry about privacy with ID cards - we simply will never get there.

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