This page considers forgery of official identity documentation:
passports, birth certificates, driver licences and other
It covers -
is a more detailed examination of document- and biometric-based
identification regimes here
and here. A supplementary
profile considers identity
Questions of web site and document identification are
explored in the Security & Infocrime guide on this
Elsewhere on this site we have noted
the quip that in a modern economy you are who your papers
say you are - take away those papers (and a plastic card
or two) and you have no identity. Manipulation of the
documentation can conversely improve the bearer's attributes:
enable access to services or facilities, eliminate age-based
restrictions or enhance career opportunities by adding
Documentation regimes have historically been undermined
in three ways -
documents have been illicitly obtained by those without
an entitlement (eg genuine passports have been purchased
from corrupt officials)
documents have been massaged through the inclusion or
deletion of data (eg an expiry date has been modified
or a personal photograph replaced)
entirely new document has been created, with the appearance
of a legitimate document
misuse is based on factors such as -
that particular documents cannot be readily forged (eg
because they feature technological protections such
as threaded and watermarked security paper, photographs
about the integrity of the government or private sector
entity issuing the documentation
plausibility of particular documents or suites of documents
(an isolated document is suspect, ten documents are
prima facie genuine - although a single illicit document
may have been used to 'breed' nine apparently legitimate
practice in data matching
assessment of risk in verifying documentation and claims
of identity (eg security guards 'waving through' anyone
who appears to have the requisite corporate identity
pass and wears a suit or other appropriate uniform)
an introduction to changing practices and issues see the
outstanding set of essays in Documenting Individual
Identity: The Development of State Practices since the
French Revolution (Princeton: Princeton Uni Press
2001) edited by Jane Caplan & John Torpey.
False birth certificates, Social Security cards and
drivers' licenses continue to be foundation or 'breeder'
documents for the procurement of genuine documents. A
US government study suggested that the birth certificate
is the "single most vulnerable document" - and
a key 'breeder' of other documents - because it is accepted
by most governmental agencies as proof of identity and
citizenship. Testimony in 2000 claimed
that over 8,000 US state and local registrars' offices
issue birth certificates, with over 10,000 variations
of US birth certificates being issued at any given time.
A government spokesperson commented
The best certificate to use fraudulently is a genuine
birth certificate. Some states furnish a birth certificate
to anyone who requests it. Other states may have issuance
requirements, but these requirements can also be circumvented.
Some states are experiencing malfeasance in their issuing
offices. In these cases, it is very difficult for most
people who are responsible for examining birth certificates
to detect this type of fraud, because the document is
genuine and in many cases the document is received without
the person being present.
Schneier offered a perspective by warning that
checks don't make sense. Everyone has an ID. Even the
9/11 terrorists had IDs. What we want is to somehow
check intention; is the person going to do something
bad? But we can't do that, so we check IDs instead.
It's a complete waste of time and money, and does absolutely
nothing to make us safer.
Misuse of official travel documents predates the industrial
revolution. In 1403 for example John of Sultania used
a forged letter to pose as an envoy from Tamerlane, successively
gathering letters of recommendation and ambassadorial
missions from the rulers of Paris, England, Venice, Hungary
and Constantinople before recognition by the pope as rchbishop
of the Entire Orient.
A passport (discussed
in more detail elsewhere on this site) is an official
travel document that
allows an individual to leave and return to his/her
country of citizenship and to facilitate travel from
one country to another
issued by official sources and clearly "evidences
the officially accepted identity and nationality of
dependent for validity on the issuing government vouching
for the person named in the document
Australia under the Passports
Act 1938 and New Zealand under the Passports
Act 1992 citizens are entitled to a passport to facilitate
travel overseas. As official identification documents
- perceived as having a higher integrity than drivers'
licences, the de facto identifier for most adults - passports
have a secondary use in providing personal identification
for individuals accessing a range of government and non-government
benefits. Around one million passports and associated
travel documents are issued each year by the Department
of Foreign Affairs & Trade (DFAT). DFAT is moving
towards a new generation of passport (including potential
incorporation of microchips that feature facial biometrics).
In practice illicit passports in many third world countries
have not involved a craftsperson painstakingly mimicking
official stamps and seals. Instead, someone has simply
bribed or coerced an official to provide the requisite
document or has stolen blanks.
In 2003 the government of Papua New Guinea thus announced
the theft of that nation's passport database, computer
backups and blank passports. It is not clear whether the
theft was an 'inside job' or preempted investigations
into alleged sale of documentation.
A year later the French government revealed the disappearance
of 10,000 blank French passports, 5,000 blank French driver's
licenses, 10,000 blank car ownership certificates and
1,000 international driver's licenses without any identification
numbers. In 2004 two Kuwaiti men were convicted in New
Zealand of conspiring to forge passports from Australia,
Yemen, Brazil, El Salvador, Bolivia, Liberia and other
countries, apparently taking orders from across the globe.
John Torpey's The Invention of the Passport: Surveillance,
Citizenship & the State (Cambridge: Cambridge Uni
Press 2000), Mark Salter's Rights of Passage: The
Passport in International Relations (Boulder: Rienner
2003) and Daniel Turack's The Passport in International
Law (Lexington: Lexington Books 1972) are essential
birth, death, marriage, driver and vehicle registration
Secularisation of Western societies has been reflected
in a shift from formal registration of births, marriages
and deaths by religious entities (typically details entered
by clergy in a parish register) to registration by government
It is now mandatory to register those events within a
specified period, for example under the NSW Births,
Deaths & Marriages Act 1995 all children born
in the state must be registered with the NSW Registry
of Births, Deaths & Marriages within 60 days of the
Many agencies now provide online access to historical
and current registration data. NSW for example offers
internet access to indexes for births (1788-1905), deaths
(1788-1945) and marriages (1788-1945).
Some sense of the significance of documentation is provided
by the Slovene Republic's 'un-birthing' of members of
some ethnic groups in 1992, when it parted from Yugoslavia.
Some 130,000 Serbs, Croats, Bosnians and ethnic Albanians
were ostensibly given a deadline to apply for permanent
residence and citizenship of the new state; failure to
apply meant erasure from state records. Without identity
cards or driving licences the erased lost health care,
pensions and employment. The European Commission notes
that few victims of that upmarket ethnic cleansing had
indeed been alerted to the deadline. In parts of the Third
World substantial numbers of children - millions in China
and Indonesia for example - are not registered and thus
do not have a legal existence, a problem discussed here.
46,000 blank UK Driver & Vehicle Licensing Agency
(DVLA) vehicle registration certificates "went missing"
in 2007 on their way to a shredding facility; police later
seized 250 of the reject V5C certificates accompanying
at least 110 stolen cars.
In Australia a 2007 Victorian Ombudsman report (PDF)
on deficiencies in that state's driver registration regime
noted the ease of concocting fake driver identity cards
and use by figures such as Tony Mokbel.
In the US fraudulent applicants are able to obtain legitimate
birth certificates of deceased persons because some states
do not cross-reference birth/death records and because
- as in Australia - there is no central population register.
Some US states participate in a voluntary program to exchange
information when an individual under 46 dies, although
limited personnel mean that records may not be cross-referenced
immediately. Lags in cross-referencing records are important
because impostors are prepared to take advantage of any
delay between a death in one state and its recording in
In the testimony cited above it was noted that
have seen cases where an individual born in one state
is killed in an accident in another. Someone spots the
obituary, gets a copy of the birth certificate, obtains
identification under the identity, and applies for a
passport - all before the death record is filed in either
isn't restricted to people: a NSW Independent Commission
Against Corruption report on the involvement of officials
in re-birthing vehicles is here.
national identity card schemes
National identity cards - typically issued to all
adults in a nation, tied to a manual/electronic registration
database and featuring information such as name, age,
occupation and place of residence - have attracted interest
since the first decades of last century when perceived
community/bureaucratic needs coincided with new technologies
Use of a single identifier is comparatively recent, driven
initially by pension or other welfare schemes and subsequently
by taxation schemes. The US federal Social Security Number
(SSN) for example dates from the 1935 Social Security
Act, with adoption by the Civil Service Commission
as the official federal employee identifier in 1961, by
the Internal Revenue Service as official taxpayer identification
number in 1962 and by the Department of Defense in 1967
in lieu of the military service number.
In Britain a national ID card for adults was introduced
in 1915 as under wartime legislation, dropped in 1922,
reintroduced in 1939 under the National Registration
Act and dropped in 1952 after Lord Chief Justice
Goddard ruled in 1951 that police demands for individuals
show their ID cards were unlawful because not relevant
to the defence purposes for which the card was established.
In December 2003 the UK Home Office announced moves
towards introduction of a new compulsory national ID card,
with prototype cards featuring biometric data (including
fingerprint, iris and facial recognition information)
and other personal details.
Questions about such schemes are highlighted in the US
National Academies' 2002 report
IDs – Not That Easy: Questions About Nationwide
Identity Systems and 2003 report
Who Goes There?: Authentication Through the Lens of
Privacy and in the 2004 European Commission report
Biometrics at the Frontiers: Assessing the Impact
on Society (PDF)
which conclude that the goals of any national identity
system must be clearly stated and that a compelling case
must made before any proposal can move forward.
Joseph Eaton's Card-Carrying Americans - Privacy,
Security & the National ID Card Debate (Totowa:
Rowman & Littlefield 1996) calls for a national ID card
scheme in the US to restrict illegal immigration and fraud.
SSNs are questioned in Robert Ellis Smith's 2002 Social
Security Numbers: Uses & Abuses (PDF).
biometric forgery and fraud
The notion of "the body as data" - and identification
of individuals through inherent properties such as DNA
or iris configuration rather than attributes such as documentation
assigned by a government agency - has posed questions
about manipulation of testing procedures and technologies.
In the film Gattaca for example the hero defeats
a DNA-based regime by engaging in identity fraud: simply
substituting another individual's hair, blood and skin
samples when tested. Fingerprint readers have been defeated
by using latex gloves or more spectacularly by using a
There is a useful discussion in Caplan & Torpey's
Documenting Individual Identity, noted above, and
in Genetic Secrets: Protecting Privacy & Confidentiality
in the Genetic Era (New Haven: Yale Uni Press 1997)
edited by Mark Rothstein.
We have explored the major biometrics
technologies and associated issues in a more detailed
note elsewhere in this site.