In following the ongoing story about a Chinese spy who defected to Australia, I see this paragraph about the breaking point for why the defection happened:

He said that in Taiwan he was part of an infiltration operation that involved him – working under an assumed identity and with a South Korean passport – running local operatives tasked with meddling in last year's municipal elections and the presidential polls due to take place in January.

The claim is that China issued this spy with a South Korean passport.

I'm wondering how this is possible. Surely allowing another country to issue passports in one's country's name is very dangerous - they can now do great harm to one's country. The whole idea of declaring someone persona non grata would never work, because they can just be issued another passport and identity. Besides, sneaking one's spy into another country becomes a simple matter of giving them a passport of that country. So there must be barriers against this.

  • What are those barriers?
  • Why were they apparently ineffective in this situation?
  • 16
    The linked article does not actually claim that the subject had a South Korean passport obtained from China. While it is entirely possible and perhaps even likely that the passport was a forgery, it's also possible that the "assumed identity" was based on other documents that are easier to forge or harder to associate definitively with a specific individual, such as a birth certificate. With such documents, it would have been possible to get a genuine South Korean passport from South Korea, albeit by means of a fraudulent application.
    – phoog
    Nov 25 '19 at 5:58
  • 2
    “For fresh-faced Chinese intelligence operative Wang “William” Liqiang, the arrival of a fake South Korean passport earlier this year triggered such a moment.” smh.com.au/national/…
    – Moo
    Nov 25 '19 at 16:14
  • They don't have the right stamp. They looked around, didn't find it, said "well, that was that" and went back to doing whatever Chinese do on an average day. Nov 27 '19 at 18:46
  • Pickpocket a South Korean tourist? Many "fake" passports are actually real ones stolen from their owners in some way or another, maybe sold on black market, and possibly modified to match the illegal recipient's appearance, etc. Nov 27 '19 at 21:56

China didn't issue anyone a genuine South Korean passport; only South Korea can do that - China allegedly issued a forged or counterfeit passport.

But China is not alone in doing this, and this is nothing like a new thing.

Criminals and intelligence agencies across the globe have done it since passports were invented - which is why passports have become ever more complicated to produce over the years (anti-forgery techniques, electronic tags, machine readable parts, etc).

What are those barriers?

As mentioned above, governments build many anti-forgery techniques into their identity documents these days - they may even issue general guidance on how to spot fake documents or validate real ones, which is important top third party countries when they are examining documents they did not issue themselves.

Why were they apparently ineffective in this situation?

Because intelligence agencies are very good at their jobs.

  • 19
    @phoog in the question.
    – Moo
    Nov 25 '19 at 6:29
  • 5
    The question mischaracterizes the claim in the article. Furthermore, the question misunderstands even the misrepresented claim, assuming as it does that China was authorized to issue South Korean passports. Neither the question nor the article mentions forgery.
    – phoog
    Nov 25 '19 at 6:53
  • 4
    Reading this answer makes me feel dumb. Of course it was a fake passport issued illegally, how could I not have realized it ...
    – Allure
    Nov 26 '19 at 1:17
  • 4
    It could be a stolen genuine passport, a passport created with a fraudulent application, a passport created by bribing someone in the right position in South Korea.
    – gnasher729
    Nov 26 '19 at 11:46
  • 5
    Somewhat related, the video game Papers, Please is primarily about looking at passports and identifying forgeries (and then deciding what to do with them). As it goes on, your government keeps adding more and more requirements to what needs to be checked, and the fakes have to keep up. Effectively, it's playing out this answer at video game speeds.
    – Bobson
    Nov 26 '19 at 15:37

Even Al-Qaeda sometimes managed to use fake passports in the West...

Ahmed Ressam, the focus of this FRONTLINE report, was somewhat of an expert in fake passports. He used a counterfeit French passport to enter Canada and apply for political asylum. While living there, he supplied fake Canadian passports to other Algerians. And he used a fake Canadian passport under the alias of Benni Noris in his failed attempt to enter the United States and bomb Los Angeles International Airport.

... so no big surprise that a government agency of a country with 2nd largest economy in the world managed this.

(Forged Canadian passports were also used by Mossad to carry out some missions, but in the more distant past.)

Also Iran managed this

The peculiarity of this missing flight was compounded by the identity of two of its passengers: Italian Luigi Maraldi and Austrian Christian Kozel— two men whose passports were on board even though they were not.

Instead, two Iranian nationals fraudulently used their stolen passports, both of which were lost in Thailand, to board the flight.

As for how this possible: lax enforcement, basically.

In theory, authorities should be able to cut down on passport fraud fairly easily during their standard security screening process.

Interpol’s Stolen and Lost Travel Documents (SLTD) database, which was created after the 9/11 attacks, lists more than 40 million lost or stolen passports, identity documents, and visas. In 2013 the database, which has entries from more than 160 countries, was searched more than 800 million times and yielded 67,000 positive hits.

However, according to U.S. News & World Report, Interpol Secretary General Ronald Noble said that “only a handful of countries worldwide are taking care to make sure that persons possessing stolen passports are not boarding international flights.”

According to Interpol, member states say a lack of police resources, privacy concerns, and politics accounts for their failure to check passports regularly. Presently, only a few countries, with the United States, Britain, and the United Arab Emirates rounding out top users, actively use it.

Noble says that four out of every 10 international passengers are not checked out using Interpol’s database.

This means that last year [2013], travelers boarded planes without being screened more than one billion times. This doesn’t take into account all of the missing or stolen travel docs that are not even listed on the SLTD database.

Stolen passports are the preferred base for forging, as a lot of the security elements don't have to be reproduced this way. According to some research mentioned on an Australian documentary, one in seven face matches at passport control (done by humans) makes an incorrect identification.

Also the BBC documented how a Syrian refugee managed to fly to London with a forged passport, on his second attempt.

  • 22
    People also get genuine passports by applying for them using forged or fraudulent documents.
    – phoog
    Nov 25 '19 at 6:02
  • 6
    The Mossad are probably the best known for this, but commonly via getting new passports issued under false identities rather than physical theft or forgery. See eg en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… (of course I'm sure essentially every spy agency does it, the mossad are just a bit more gung-ho)
    – llama
    Nov 25 '19 at 18:54
  • And as shown in the refugee video, authorities won't even arrest you if you try to use a false identity, they'll just let you go with a warning. Seems like a no-brainer for intelligence services to try and do so. Nov 26 '19 at 0:40
  • @Fizz The Iranians on the Malaysian flight were not sent by Iran. They bought real (lost/stolen) Italian passports and replaced photos.
    – user26201
    Nov 26 '19 at 20:31

Perhaps the most famous use of fake passports was done in the events known as "The Canadian Caper" in which Canada (at the time, secretly working with the CIA, though for political reasons, the U.S. did not discuss the matter at all.) issued multiple Canadian passports for Americans with false identities to exfiltrate six U.S. Embassy workers who were being sheltered in Canadian diplomatic residences after escaping the U.S. Embassy during the Iranian Hostage Crisis.

While Canada issued multiple copies for each of the six hostages, the CIA was responsible for forging much of the information including stamps from other ports of entry and Iranian visas (naturally) assigned to the passports. Although several moments in the film were dramatized, the dangers of using these passports and the backstory given to get them out of the country was depicted in the 2012 film Argo. If you are unfamiliar with the premise, lets just say the cover story is so unusual that ironically, not even Hollywood could think it up.


Disclaimer: Don't do this! This is illegal!

Despite all the anti-counterfeiting measures included in passports, it's actually in many cases very easy to get a real passport which uses:

  • the identity (name, date and place of birth...) of one person
  • the biometric details (picture, fingerprints...) of another.

Think about how a person who has never had any official ID gets a new passport... In most countries, you just need a birth certificate, et voilà! You can usually ask for anybody's birth certificate (though of course you're not supposed to), and there's no way to prove that the birth certificate is or isn't yours, it's not like they took your DNA at birth.

It becomes more difficult over time as most people will already have had some official ID, and most ID requests nowadays lead to biometric details (at least a picture) being stored in some national database, so if you ask for a passport with the wrong biometrics, they should notice the discrepancy by comparing the biometrics provided with the passport request with those they already have. I'm not sure state DMV databases and federal passport databases are cross-checked, though.

But then, forging a birth certificate is probably quite easy, so unless there is a complete and accurate database of births (or they actually verify the birth certificate with the local registrar for every passport request), you can just invent any identity you want, and get a "real" passport issued for that identity.

As always in security, don't bother locking the door (adding anti-counterfeiting measures to passports) if people can enter through the window (get a passport in the name of someone else).

  • 1
    The easy way to avoid inconvenient official ID, is to use the birth certificate of someone who died in childhood. Nov 26 '19 at 16:54
  • 2
    @MartinBonnersupportsMonica as popularised in the book and film "Day of the Jackal" certainly, but this has become significantly harder to achieve over the past 30 years with the digitalisation of births and deaths registers in westernised countries. Where it used to be significantly harder to check for the death of someone you are presented a birth certificate for, its now a website away.
    – Moo
    Nov 26 '19 at 21:42
  • @Moo Not in the UK. Nov 27 '19 at 6:23
  • @MartinBonnersupportsMonica and what makes you say that?
    – Moo
    Nov 27 '19 at 7:03
  • 2
    @MartinBonnersupportsMonica they aren’t available publicly, but every birth and death in the UK has been recorded centrally (although you yourself register the event at a local registry office) for at least the past 30 years. They form part of the national statistics.
    – Moo
    Nov 27 '19 at 7:31

Nothing, aside from world-wide disdain when caught.
Simply consider what technology or processes any country in the world could use to create 'real' passports, that the CIA or similar 'companies' would not be able to reproduce to create quasi-real 'fake' passports, given their financial resources?
Nothing comes to mind.

  • 2
    " Simply consider what technology or processes any country in the world could use to create 'real' passports, that the CIA or similar 'companies' would not be able to reproduce to create quasi-real 'fake' passports, given their financial resources?" RSA public/private keys come to mind.
    – nick012000
    Nov 26 '19 at 6:22
  • @nick012000 A centralized repository containing, for example, the pictures from each passport would work.
    – JollyJoker
    Nov 26 '19 at 8:19
  • 2
    @JollyJoker You don't even need that much. You'd just need a secret key that the passport-issuing authority uses to perform cryptographic calculations upon the unencrypted information on your passport to generate a cryptographic certificate. You can then verify that it's real by decrypting the information in the certificate using the public key that the passport issuer has publicly released, and verifying them against the unencrypted information - if it was issued by the real person, they'll match.
    – nick012000
    Nov 26 '19 at 9:00
  • 1
    @nick012000 That's actually exactly how British e-passports are secured (although it might be ECDSA rather than RSA). The private keys are held in hardware security modules manufactured by a former employer of mine. Of course this does nothing to stop the British passport office issuing a genuine passport to a fake identity. Nov 26 '19 at 16:53
  • And the MI6 would not let the CIA have a peek at it? Under friends? The problem with such crypto security is that it is only as secure as the people handling it. We are not talking about a hacker getting access, but about a nation-state with a intelligence agency.
    – Aganju
    Nov 26 '19 at 17:40

Many here support the prevailing point of view here that it is easy. In reality, when you show up at the border checkpoint the border guard pulls up on his screen all your previous ID and passports and if something does not check out it is immediately obvious.

  • 2
    How does a US border guard pull up details of my (British citizen) previous passports? Nov 27 '19 at 7:14
  • just like that, dear
    – user26201
    Jan 12 '20 at 13:58

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .