Monday, August 4, 2008

How the Pisces programme keeps Thai borders secure

Fishing for criminals at the checkpoint

Saritdet Marukatat and Wassayos Ngamkham
An immigration officer checks the passport of a passenger leaving the country through Suvarnabhumi airport. The information and image taken by the small camera on the counter is recorded in the Personal Identification, Secured Comparison and Evaluation System (Pisces).

When Pham Thi Rim Thu, 33, and her 46-year-old travel mate Bui Thi Cham handed their passports to an immigration official at Suvarnabhumi airport on July 13, little did the two Vietnamese women know that it would be their last moment of freedom.

Soon after the immigration police checked their information with the Personal Identification, Secured Comparison and Evaluation System (Pisces), they were placed under arrest.

A warrant for the arrest of the pair, who flew into Bangkok from Jakarta on Thai AirAsia flight FD3672, had been issued by the South Bangkok Criminal Court on April 15. They were charged with stealing 18 mobile phones worth a total of 374,400 baht from a store in Mah Boonkrong (MBK) shopping centre.

Both confessed to the crime after they were arrested at the airport.

Pongdej Chaiprawaj, chief of the International Airport Immigration Division, credited the arrest to Pisces, the system equipped at Suvarnabhumi and eight other Thai immigration checkpoints in late 2005 by the United States.

"About 100,000 travellers come through Suvarnabhumi airport in high season, compared to 1,074 immigration officials," he said.

"Pisces helps reduce their workload. Now, on average, each official spends only 45 seconds with each passenger."

The system has led to the apprehension of 101 travellers carrying counterfeit travel documents and 145 people on arrest warrants, including the two Vietnamese, since the beginning of the year.

A small camera standing at each immigration counter is a component of the system.

While a passenger waits in front of the immigration desk and is asked to look at the camera, the process begins. The traveller's picture is taken and the information on the passport is "grilled," the term used by immigration officers for scanning.

This information is linked with the two main servers at Suvarnabhumi and Don Mueang airports.

These servers then link their data with that from the Immigration Bureau head office at Suan Phlu, the Office of the Narcotics Control Board (ONCB), the Foreign Ministry and other government agencies.

The immigration official will then know how many times the traveller has entered and left Thailand,whether the person's appearance has changed and, most importantly, whether they are wanted for any reason.

"The key to the system is its ability to compare present and past data of individuals," Pol Maj-Gen Pongdej said.

The recent arrest of the two Vietnamese was an example. The court issued the arrest warrant, at the request of Pathumwan police station, and informed the Immigration Bureau of who to look out for.

Once the bureau was officially notified, the two names were put in the Pisces system.

"Once the wanted person attempts to pass through immigration, the computer at the desk will be automatically locked," Pol Maj-Gen Pongdej explained.

The lock prevents the immigration official from colluding with the wanted person and allowing them to slip in or out of the country, as only a supervisor can unlock the computer.

But holes do exist in the system, as it relies on cooperation from other countries in order to be fully effective.

For example, the United States and Russia are among the nations which do not supply information to Thailand for use in Pisces. This is why Russian criminal Victor Bout, the world's most wanted illegal arms dealer, was able to pass through Thai immigration unhindered, before being arrested in Bangkok on March 6, according to Pol Maj-Gen Pongdej.

Pisces took over from the old ONCB system, which was used from 1907 to 2005 and focused mainly on drug dealers and smugglers.

But now there are many more threats than just the drugs industry, and criminals have access to increasingly advanced technology, said Pol Lt-Col Pongnakorn Nakornsantipap, chief of staff at Pol Maj-Gen Pongdej's office.

The decision by the US to install Pisces in Thailand, as well as Cambodia and Indonesia, came after the Sept 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York in 2001.

An agreement on transport safety and security was signed by Thailand and the US in 2005.

But the system cannot completely deter criminals from entering Thailand, Pol Maj-Gen Pongdej admitted, because not all checkpoints are equipped with Pisces.

Plus the border cannot be policed in its entirety, due to its enormous length, which leaves a number of points where it is possible for criminals to illegally sneak in and out of the country.

Thailand encourages tourism by allowing many nationals to enter the country without a visa, or to obtain one on arrival.

Unlike the US or Japan, where strict national security is top of the immigration agenda, Thai officials have to abide by the tourism policy, added Pol Maj-Gen Pongdej.

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