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Decoding Information Hidden in Russian Passport Numbers

04/09/19 6 minute read

What can a Russian passport number tell you about the passport holder?

When you delve into an open source investigation involving Russian individuals, you often need a birth date or an identification number to confirm the identity of an Aleksei Ivanov or Vladimir Petrov. Passport numbers can help distinguish between individuals of the same name, but they also contain hidden information that can tell you something more about the passport holder.

The first step to decoding a Russian passport number is determining the type of passport to which it corresponds. Unlike the United States, Russia uses a two-passport system left over from the Soviet era. Many Russian citizens hold both internal and international Russian passports.

Internal Russian Passport Number

The internal Russian passport (Внутренний паспорт or Общегражданский паспорт, often simply called the passport of a Russian citizen or Паспорт гражданина РФ) serves a purpose most similar to an American driver’s license. It is the primary document used for personal identification and domestic travel. All Russian citizens residing in Russia age 14 or over must have an internal passport, and they are legally obligated to carry it (or a photocopy) on their person at all times. It is common in Russia to be stopped by a police officer and asked to show your “civil passport.”

But internal Russian passport numbers are more than just unique identifiers.

An internal Russian passport number consists of 10 digits. The first group of numbers, consisting of two digits, is a code for the region in which the document was issued. The second group of numbers, consisting of another two digits, indicates the year the passport was issued. The third group of numbers, consisting of the remaining 6 digits, is an arbitrary sequence of digits from 0 to 9 that distinguishes the passport from other documents issued on the same date.

Given the passport number 45 12 970362, we can determine the following:

  • Based on the total number of digits, this is an internal passport number, so it belongs to a Russian citizen residing in Russia.
  • Based on the first group of digits (45), this passport was issued in the city of Moscow.
  • Based on the second group of digits (12), this passport was issued in the year 2012. The passport holder must have been at least 14 years old at that time and, therefore, must be at least 21 years old now.

International Russian Passport Number

The international Russian passport (Заграничный паспорт) is used by Russian citizens to travel across national borders, more like an American passport.

During the time of the USSR, the Soviet state closely controlled people’s travel abroad. Diplomats and athletes typically were accompanied by KGB (Soviet State Security) officers to prevent treason and defection. Those who ventured outside the vast expanse of the Socialist Republics for business or pleasure were granted special “foreign passports.” Although the USSR no longer exists, this system that utilizes both internal and international passports does. Some post-Soviet states, such as Belarus, have moved to a one-passport system; others, such as Kyrgyzstan, have stayed with Russia in the two-passport system.

Interestingly, most Russians do not have an international passport, despite the increased freedom of travel since the collapse of the USSR. According to a 2016 survey conducted by the Levada Center, only 28% of Russians hold a valid foreign passport, and 72% of Russians have never been outside the borders of the former USSR.

An international passport number has 9 digits, unlike the 10-digit internal passport number. The first two digits can indicate that the passport holder (or a family member) is a government official (10) or a diplomat (20). However, overall, international passport numbers do not offer as much insight as internal passport numbers. Region and year of issue do not form part of the number, since that information is found elsewhere on that type of document.

International Russian passport numbers may contain less data, but they still can come in handy for open source investigations.

In a recently publicized example, the investigative reporting outlet Bellingcat used the international passport numbers of suspected GRU agents to substantiate links to the GRU. Bellingcat found that the two men involved in the Skripal poisoning held international passport numbers that differed by only 3 consecutive digits, suggesting their passports were acquired under the same top secret (but perhaps not highly sophisticated) circumstances. As the Bellingcat investigation team wrote, “it [is] implausible that they were civilians who obtained their passports through the regular, entropic passport application process available to Russian citizens.”

While entropic may be a perfect word to describe Russian systems and processes, strengthening your understanding of them can only help your investigations.

Put these tips to work on the public records data available through Sayari Search! If you’re curious how this data could drive insights for your team, please reach out here.

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