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The database, which includes information for 1.7 million stolen passports and other travel documents, is available to all member states, though participation has been sluggish. Two months after the database was ready to receive information in June 2002, only two countries had sent Interpol lists of their stolen passports. Even today, only 49 countries have done so.

Noble has since won support from the European Union to encourage its member states to take part. By Dec. 31, Interpol expects to have several million stolen documents registered from dozens of countries.  Interpol would like to be the repository for such information, Noble said, but privacy laws bar many countries from disclosing data from travel documents, even if they have been stolen. For such data, Interpol is developing a system that will send searches to databases in its member countries: If there were hits, the requesting party would receive a notice reporting which country had the corresponding record and the two countries could then exchange information.

Interpol is developing similar systems to allow countries to check fingerprints and DNA samples against those on file in other member countries. Noble said the systems were intended to protect the privacy while allowing the police to check whether people implicated in one country had been involved in crimes in another. "In the future, we hope that if a country sends a fingerprint, for example, we can relay the request to all our member countries and get a reply, yes or no," Noble said. Many travel documents listed in the Interpol database are blank passports stolen from consulates around the world. Blanks present a particular problem because once a photo and personal information have been added, there is no way to see that the document is false

unless the border police check the passport number, which normally exists in no database outside the home country.
The passport used by Ulemek was one of 100 blank Croatian passports stolen from a consulate in Mostar, Bosnia, in 1999. He used it to travel through Switzerland, Austria, Macedonia, Greece, Singapore and Croatia, before being arrested in Belgrade in May. The Afghan Northern Alliance leader, Ahmed Shah Massoud, was assassinated in September 2001 by two men carrying false Belgian passports created from stolen blanks. Belgium has had a special problem because many towns formerly issued passports, and thieves have broken into mayors' offices and stolen the blanks.

Interpol officials say it is not enough to check people on lists of terrorists. Even with the new security features on passports, like watermarks, holograms and laser-etched photographs, criminal syndicates can change stolen passports enough to pass the cursory inspection typical at border crossings. Meanwhile, it will take years before a standardized biometric system, like thumbprint or iris scans, is agreed upon internationally to make it effective for screening border crossers. "It's good to talk about biometrics, but we've wanted machine-readable passports for years, and most countries don't have them yet and don't even check the database that's available," Noble said. "It's the most significant vulnerability in any country and it's the easiest to address."

Interpol's database, available via a secure Internet connection, is only useful if it is used at border control points around the world, but few countries have made it available to their immigration services. Instead, the Interpol database is accessible only to the Interpol National Central Bureau in most countries - including the United States, where the Interpol National Central Bureau is in Washington. If given access, immigration officers at airports or border crossings could enter a passport number and get a near instantaneous response as to whether the passport had been stolen. From January to the end of July, nearly 200 stolen travel documents were discovered by police agencies checking the system. The stolen documents on file are a small fraction of those circulating around the world, but still, Interpol says member countries should check all issued visas against the database to see which ones were obtained with a false document. The list of 1.7 million stolen documents fits on one floppy disk.

"Definitely, if we did a search of our database, you'd find people who were issued a valid visa by the U.S. using a stolen passport," an Interpol official said. He said countries had a moral obligation to take part in the system, adding that the next time a stolen passport was used to commit a major terrorist attack, "if you haven't done your job to warn the world, you're in trouble."