Smugglers beware: Maritime Passenger Targeting has arrived

A drug unit started investigating organized crime groups smuggling drugs from the Netherlands to Finland. The team had only just started their work when they identified a potential female smuggler taking a flight from Helsinki to Amsterdam. The unit notifies a national Passenger Information Unit (PIU), so they can provide information when the woman flies back to Finland. In Bussum, some 30km from Amsterdam, she receives two kilograms of cocaine, worth between €200,000 and €300,000, on the streets of Finland.

Instead of traveling directly back to Helsinki, she takes a flight to Tallinn (Estonia) and continues her journey by ferry, aiming to avoid detection at the airport. Unluckily for her, Finland has a passenger screening system covering maritime routes, with investigators notified of her arrival immediately. After 200km of surveillance during the time required to travel from Helsinki harbor to Tampere’s streets, they can collect the evidence they need. As a result, they arrest the female smuggler and the man receiving the drugs. The investigation continues…

Maritime agencies lack the same standards as the airline industry

UN Security Council Resolutions mandate that member states detect passengers connected with terrorism and serious crimes using Advance Passenger Information (API) and Passenger Name Records (PNR). API data is often shared with the authorities at the time of departure. If PNR data is made available in the days before departure, it can prove hugely effective for law enforcement.

However, the maritime industry lacks the data standards adopted by the airline industry for passengers and crew members. Maritime data often relates solely to maintaining the safety of people traveling via sea, failing to reinforce security against criminal acts. Fortunately, the Facilitation Committee (FAL) of the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the European Union, and other stakeholders are working to change this. However, the maritime data is primarily API information, including additional data elements like contact details. Unlike the airline industry, there is no collection of PNR data yet in place.

Experiences from law enforcement

Maritime data has proven useful to joint operations supported by Europol. For example, between 2014 and 2015, Sweden led Operation Turnstone, partnering with Europol, Finland, and Estonia. During ten operational action weeks, Operation Turnstone resulted in the arrest of 200 suspects and the seizure of €2.5 million in illicit goods. The success of this operation highlighted the crucial importance of cooperation between maritime companies and law enforcement agencies. Globally, INTERPOL has noticed the added value of collecting maritime passenger data during international operations.

Vessels can carry large numbers of passengers, which creates additional challenges for cross-checking data. In addition, while using maritime passenger data for targeting, we should always look at other sources to support law enforcement actions. However, we must keep in mind that it might only be possible to confirm the identity of passengers once they have been intercepted.

Towards a national targeting center

By combining marine and air travel, criminals are actively trying to avoid detection by law enforcement agencies, as is illustrated by the fictional story at the beginning of this article. Therefore, it’s recommended that the same national targeting center manage passenger and crew data collection and processing for air and sea routes. If this is successful, there is a possibility of detecting these so-called “broken travel” routes.

Few countries process all passenger data using the same systems. However, within Europe, several countries are considering creating a targeting center collecting data from all forms of travel. The combination of pre-departure information with API and PNR data from all travel modalities can effectively support the detection of potential terrorists or serious criminals, alongside other methods such as eGates, CCTV, and facial recognition at the port of entry. Achieving interoperability between different systems represents a challenge, but it is also the future of passenger targeting and border security.

Article by: Manu Niinioja, Law Enforcement Expert, WCC Group

Published on: May 24, 2022

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