FactWire’s investigation found that SF Express couriers walked along the street unguarded with a suitcase full of passports and US visas. Photo: FactWire
An investigation by the local FactWire news agency has discovered that S.F. Express Service Center (S.F. Express), the courier service used by the U.S. Consulate General Hong Kong since 2013, lacks appropriate security measures in delivering passports to visa applicants, raising concerns from a security expert about potential threats to U.S. national security.
FactWire’s three-day investigation in late April tracked S.F. Express’s entire process of collecting and delivering passports.
It found that procedures in the transporting of passports were no different than that of regular cargo and documents.
The process began with two S.F. Express couriers entering the U.S. Consulate to collect the passports, bringing in a locked suitcase and unaccompanied by security guards.
The two couriers left the consulate about an hour later.
They walked for two to three minutes while holding large amounts of passports before being picked up by a S.F. Express delivery van at a layby in front of St. John’s Building which is opposite to the consulate’s compound.
When FactWire journalists asked the couriers what was being transported, they responded, “U.S. dollars! Just kidding, it’s all passports.”
The van then arrived at the S.F. Express Service Center in Wan Chai, one of three locations in Hong Kong where visa applicants can pick up their passports.
Approximately 200 square feet in size, the center was unguarded.
The couriers carried large amounts of documents from the van into an alley, where they handed the documents over to the center staff.
Inside the center, an employee processed all the packages at a service counter.
Passports with U.S. visas were packaged in transparent plastic bags and placed in a cabinet safe behind the service counter.
However, the cabinet safe was open and unlocked for long periods of time throughout the center’s hours of operation.
A large number of passports in the cabinet safe could be clearly seen.
The area was left unattended when the employee left the service counter to retrieve other packages from the alley.
After viewing footage acquired by FactWire, security consultant and former police superintendent Clement Lai Ka-chi, who helped found the Counter Terrorism Response Unit, said, “There exists a very serious security loophole in the transportation arrangements.”
Lai commented that criminals can uncover the loopholes through long-term surveillance of the company’s operations, exploiting them to steal passports and visas.
“Quite obviously, the way the couriers only used plastic bags or a suitcase to carry the passports out of the consulate, waiting for the light before crossing the road and then having to walk to the delivery van – that’s already less than ideal,” said Lai.
“As for the trip to the service center…I think security should be strengthened to ensure that these documents can’t be easily taken by someone climbing over the service counter when staff are busy or away from the area,” Lai said.
Lai further criticized the way the cabinet safe was left open and unlocked: “A safe should of course be locked.”
FactWire contacted the U.S. Consulate General on Saturday afternoon for a response.
Spokeswoman Kristin Haworth stated, “We take the security and integrity of our applicants’ visas and passports seriously and apply strict standards for contractors who handle passports.”
The Consulate General also said it needed more time to look into the issue and will take steps to correct any issues with the delivery service.
S.F. Express has not responded to requests for comment. (Factwire)