Organised crime is increasingly crossing international borders and perpetrating crimes such as the smuggling and trafficking of humans, drugs and pharmaceuticals. All these related crimes are carried out by individuals who carry travel and identity documents issued by a state, and it is therefore imperative to be able to identify them unequivocally. Forensic documentology, the scientific discipline that studies documents using specific document fraud investigation methods and techniques, can play a huge part in the identification and production of reliable, tamper-proof documents, as Monica Peralta explains.
The word ‘forensic’ comes from the Latin adjective ‘forensis’, meaning ‘of or before a forum or place of assembly’. In ancient Rome the forum was the place where elections were held. It was also where the praetor settled disputes between citizens and imparted justice, which is the reason why the term ‘forensic’ refers to legal issues. With this in mind, the foundation of forensic science is the use of scientific methods to assist justice in the investigation and prosecution of crimes; i.e. unlawful conduct that merits a penalty we call ‘punishment’.
Forensic sciences use technical knowledge to solve legal issues, which exceeds the knowledge provided by the law. Forensic documentology is the scientific discipline that studies documents using specific document fraud investigation methods and techniques. Through document analysis, an examiner may determine the authenticity of a document, compose a technical scientific report and pass judgement. Travel document examiners act as justice assistants by providing scientific evidence beyond reasonable doubt, using as a reference the requirements outlined by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the agency which sets the standards for passports, visas and other travel documents. While ICAO Doc 93031 contains the standard specifications of travel documents in order to show printing alterations and deter counterfeiting, the ICAO resolution UN A32-182 establishes a strategic action plan for signatory states to combat fraudulent practices, while ensuring integrity and preventing the creation, issuance and circulation of counterfeit documents.
Creating a puzzle
Following these specifications, and in order to produce tamper-resistant documents, the security printing industry uses chemical reagents on paper, security inks and backgrounds, diffracted images and other optically variable elements. In trying to deter counterfeiting it applies, among other things, inks with optically variable properties, engravings, perfect records, security papers, watermarks, security threads and fibres. With this framework and ICAO as an unquestionable reference, when evidence arises, forensic examiners create a puzzle in order to understand how various frauds are developed. Some of the questions a forensic expert should find an answer to are:
• Is the document authentic?
• Are the visas embedded in the passport genuine?
• Does the machine readable zone contain any alterations?
• Are there any pages replaced or removed?
• Are there any fraudulent alterations and, if so, are they chemical, physical or both?
• Has the photo been substituted?
• Is the passport holder an imposter?
The experts face these questions on a daily basis, and their expert analysis will combine strategic scientific, technological and legal pillars as well as an effective investigation method to collaborate with the justice system. To achieve this goal the forensic examiner employs:
• Expert evidence.
• Knowledge of security printing procedures.
• Continuous skill development.
According to the Guide for the development of forensic document examination capacity published by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime3, phase I of the examination includes the verification of basic security features embedded in the documents in a very short period of time. The first step of document control in any border crossing will be to identify the individual, the photograph is definitely the most important element of the inspection. In some cases, identifying an individual with the document image may proof difficult because of two negative factors which make it difficult to recognise the holder: the ageing of the holder and an incorrect photo capture. In this regard, advances in digital photography have revolutionised the process, achieving integrated photographs protected by laminates, thus avoiding attempts of photo substitution (see figure 1)
When there is doubt regarding the authenticity of a document, the forensic expert intervenes to clarify the dispute. As the suspicious elements are studied and analysed, the expert conducts a rigorous and thorough investigation, equipped with the proper tools (optical equipment, spectrum comparators) and diverse alternative lighting sources. Therefore, the expert evidence is essential to unveil the facts.
It is necessary for the forensic expert to be well-versed in hard sciences such as physics and chemistry to essentially support the applied procedures to the documents in question.
Knowledge of security printing procedures
Suspicious document circulation has increased due to the use of a variety of copying and printing equipment and processes that facilitate handling. Currently, there are a number of different conventional and digital security printing systems in use. The selection of the system will depend on many factors, including the type of product, the printing medium and the number of documents to be issued. The expert must be able to recognise the printing process and determine how a graphic document was made by using the knowledge of the various systems, their methods and the printing principles, such as flat offset, printing screen, embossed letters, gravure depth and engraving. Additionally, they must recognise digital procedures, such as electrophotography, laser etching, dot matrix, inkjet and thermal transfer.
A forensic examiner should also be able to recognise the special document finishing methods using pressure and heat. The various finishings may contain polyethylene and polyester films, hot stamping to achieve a bright mirror finish with the use of a metallic coil and plate, three dimensional holographic images, polyester adhesive films, crafted embossing on the front and back cover, as well as labels with metallic effects and excellent quality designs (see figure 2). All these designs are achieved by the innovations of industrial engineering.
Although an identity document constitutes the legal instrument for a person to identify themselves, it is the state that legitimises those documents by incorporating technological innovations in order to protect its citizens. Therefore, forensic experts use what optics offer to the scientific research through the implementation of security elements. E-passports are increasingly incorporating lenticular technology, including kinetic images that create perspective, depth illusion and 3D motion. Innovative tools applied to photos, clear windows with encoded information and motion security threads are all mechanical movements which are impossible to duplicate. A counterfeiter may try to reproduce these images (see figure 3), but will fail in the attempt; copying the increasingly sophisticated software will be an unattainable goal. If we take a moment to analyse how travel documents have evolved over time, we will find that some states have incorporated basic security tools such as the height of the document owner. In the past, this feature was implemented in the passport variable data, but was discarded over the years. The distinguished Swedish e-Passport, however, does incorporate this physical characteristic, which can be of vital importance when identifying a person (see figure 4).
When evaluating the production of a passport, from the point of view of the original design, printing of pages, security seams and the implementation of RFID chips, it should be noted that the best alternative is not the implementation of a single safety device but the combination of a number of them, which must achieve two specific functions: to prevent counterfeiting and to facilitate first-line examination.
Although the graphic arts methods are diverse, since the invention of the printing press the tendency of the industry has been to unify and control production from an integrative perspective. Today, digital printing coupled with sophisticated computer systems have created a winning combination of effective products. The graphic arts industry is presented as the only industry capable of supporting new communication challenges, however, it is uncertain how it will be affected by the increasing use of digital processes. For this reason, ICAO Doc 9303, Part 1 advises the use of barcodes, PDF 417 2D, Dot Matrix and Quick Response codes (QR), given that they can store large amounts of information and enable its immediate decoding. The design of the codes should be optimised from an aesthetic perspective given that they are static and invade the elegant designs of other security printings. They can sometimes generate doubt of the legitimate authenticity due to frictions that appear on them, as shown in figure 5.
Continuous skill development
Forensic documentology experts must undertake ongoing training to relay advances in industrial engineering and graphic design security, as well as be up to date with new products emerging in the market. A systematic approach between the organisations that implement identification policies and the specialists dedicated to fighting document fraud will ensure an optimum control in the fight against and prevention of organised crime. It is pointless for the companies involved in producing security technology to invest millions of dollars in innovation, if further down the line a first-line border control officer with limited time does not have the ability to prevent fraud – unaware of the differences between for example the effects produced by inks with optically or magnetic variable properties and optically variable devices with dynamic effects.
Technological advances, constant updating, and the desire for early detection of criminal operations force us to analyse the different fraudulent procedures in order to detect the counterfeiters’ weaknesses, which through appropriate continuous training policies may be transformed into strengths for immigration officials and help prevent the circulation of forged documents.
The globalised world is advancing through a dynamic process of change which the security printing industry is also part of. Over time, several industrial engineering aspects applied to printing systems have been transformed. The advent of digitisation has brought about the union of security printing and communications, revealing previously unknown links. There are new technologies, immediate data availability and other means of perception, as well as emerging trends and challenges that arise from them. Nevertheless, being able to distinguish printing systems remains a key factor of document analysis. Consequently, the technical evolution in both industrial graphic design and engineering will have to create a synergy between state policies, graphic arts instructors and document specialists to optimise innovative proposals applied to communications.
1 International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), Doc 9303: Machine Readable Travel Documents, sixth edition, 2006.
Monica R. Peralta is a Forensic Document Expert, specialised in travel and identity documents. She graduated at the University Institute Federal Police Argentina Criminology Department (IUPFA). Next to being Head of Document Analysis Area at the Dirección Nacional de Migraciones (Ministerio del Interio y Transporte), Monica is also holder of the Document Security Specialist Network of MERCOSUR and an IUPFA professor of Graphic Arts in the Criminology course. She is the author of ‘Fraude Documentario®’, a course on detecting forged documents which focuses on migration control, and collaborator on the book ‘Multimedial Graphic Production’.