APEC economies share an estimated 3 million lost and stolen passports, presenting--from the point of view of criminals and terrorists -- "opportunities" to exploit the vulnerabilities of border control systems. Until now it has been possible to travel with stolen or lost passports simply by avoiding travel to the economy that issued the passport.
The need for a coordinated international response to the threats posed by trans-national criminals and terrorists travelling on invalid documents are at the heart of the innovative thinking behind APEC's Regional Movement Alert System (RMAS). RMAS, a collaborative system enabling economies to detect and prevent the use of lost and stolen passports across the APEC region, is a world-first in the area of real-time data exchange for border security. Following successful completion of the multilateral pilot program and adoption of the "Multilateral Framework for Regional Movement Alert System," RMAS is ready to expand to additional APEC member economies.
The benefits to member economies of adopting RMAS are multiple. RMAS permits real-time, 24/7 access to transit document information, enhancing regional border security standards for air travel. The information is immediate, up-to-date, and most significantly, RMAS enhances security without affecting the rights of participating economies to protect individual privacy and to govern their borders as they choose. RMAS achieves these objectives because no one economy controls a database-because there is no central database. Instead, as Mr Vincent McMahon, Convenor of the APEC Business Mobility Group, explains: "the strength of the system rests with a broker-an invisible validation process offering immediate, direct source access, without compromising individual or national privacy."
The "broker" is a switchboard, a series of communication links routing queries and answers to and from participating economies and their passport databases. No data is stored in the broker. Instead, queries "ping" a database and receive an answer, via the broker. Each RMAS participant maintains 24/7 support so that in the case of a "hit," the querying economy may contact the passport-issuing economy for assistance in determining subsequent action. In this way, participating economies maintain control over their information and how it is shared.
The security benefits of RMAS are unrivalled. As Mr McMahon further explains, "We were looking for a system that supports valid passports while at the same time helps close some of the loops on invalid travel. From 9/11 we learned that, for a terrorist, travel documents were as valuable as weapons. Thus it became imperative to undercut the ability to travel on bad documents. Before 9/11, the philosophy in security circles had been one of sharing information only on a 'need to know basis'. But after 9/11 the question became: 'was there an opportunity-within the strict parameters of the need to protect privacy-to allow for validation of travel documents?" RMAS is a tool designed to address this question.
RMAS is not intended to stand alone, nor does it replace other systems. As Mr McMahon puts it, "RMAS sits within the tiered approach that most economies take to transit validation." Interpol's response to RMAS has been quite positive. Law enforcement systems such as Interpol's are not capable of handling the high-volume real-time matching that RMAS is designed for, and thus RMAS is viewed as an asset.
Security is not the only benefit of the system. Increased cooperation between member economies is another advantage. Originally piloted in September 2005 by the United States and Australia, New Zealand joined in March 2006. The collaboration proved successful on a number of levels, pinpointing ways to refine the system to meet each economy's needs. One item identified during the pilot was the importance of 24/7 interactions between economies in resolving RMAS notifications. Participating economies were also able to develop standard operating procedures, ensuring efficient passenger processing and effective communication between economies.
In the first year of the pilot study, nearly 3 million RMAS transactions occurred, detecting 418 lost, stolen and otherwise invalid passports. The system proved capable of operating seamlessly with various versions of Advance Passenger Information (API) systems, illustrating its adaptability.
That adaptability is a virtue of the system. Mr McMahon emphasises: "The RMAS platform is suitable for expansion; as we grow RMAS participation we also plan to grow its functionality to include other types of information and other forms of data validation. And as we grow its participation with APEC member Economies, the system will evolve to respond to the new needs that emerge from each member economies' experiences."
The expansion of the system to other APEC member economies can proceed, following the adoption of the "Multilateral Framework for the Regional Movement Alert System (MLF)," an agreement of the legal and technical principles guiding RMAS. The MLF contains the memorandum of understanding that member economies will sign before they participate, allowing each economy to conduct its own arrangements with every other partners.
With improved border management comes speedier transit processing, a boon to business travelers as well as tourists. Thus RMAS offers the ability to enhance human security while promoting trade and investment, thereby simultaneously addressing two APEC priorities. RMAS achieves these priorities without compromising the integrity or functionality of existing border control systems. As Ms Ruth Kovacic, member of the BMG, puts it: "in addition to improving security across borders, RMAS offers a smoother clearance process, saving time-both for officials and for travelers."
Describing this APEC initiative as "groundbreaking," BMG member Mr Douglas Palmeri underscores: "RMAS is a unique accomplishment in international cooperation, with great benefits for both trade and security." RMAS has received recognition from APEC Leaders, and a number of economies have indicated interest in joining. This is good news, for the benefits of the RMAS system will continue to grow through its development and expansion to further APEC members.