Tags: passport | record | snoops

U.S. Can't Stop Passport Record Snooping: Probe

Friday, 04 Jul 2008 08:01 PM

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WASHINGTON -- The U.S. State Department's system to prevent snooping into passport records has many weaknesses, according to a government investigation that was released on Thursday and was launched after workers improperly peeked into the files of three presidential candidates.

The State Department's Office of Inspector General (OIG), an internal watchdog, began its probe after the disclosure in March that workers obtained unauthorized access to records of Republican Sen. John McCain and Democrats Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. Hillary Clinton, who has since dropped out of the race.

Five contract workers have since been dismissed, four of them for looking at the candidates' records, a State Department official told reporters.

"OIG found many control weaknesses -- including a general lack of policies, procedures, guidance and training -- relating to the prevention and detection of unauthorized access to passport and applicant information," the report said.

The 107-page report, released to reporters with many portions excised, also found weaknesses in the State Department's "subsequent response and disciplinary processes when a potential unauthorized access is substantiated."

Among other things, it said there is no official guidance detailing how to discipline workers -- who can include U.S. diplomats, civil servants and those employed by outside contractors, for snooping.

As of April, the State Department's database had records on about 192 million current and expired passports held by 127 million Americans. These include the passport holder's name, gender, Social Security number and date and place of birth.

State Department officials said they had taken steps to reduce snooping since the incidents with the presidential candidates' records, cutting nearly in half the number of people who can access the records from the previous 20,500.

They said the department had also increased the number of people who monitor access to eight from two and had begun doing random audits of people who can view the records.

The report said it had found the list of 38 high-profile people which the department previously used to monitor improper access to be "very limited" and a State Department official said the number has since been increased to more than 1,000.

To test the system, the OIG conducted an audit of 150 high-profile people, including politicians, celebrities and professional athletes, and found that 127, or 85 percent, had their passport records accessed a total of 4,148 times.

The report did not determine whether these hits on these celebrities' files were authorized or unauthorized, but it said that the 85 percent rate "appears to be excessive."

The report made 22 recommendations to tighten up the system, 19 of which have been generally accepted by the State Department, one partially accepted and two disputed.

© Thomson Reuters 2008. All rights reserved.

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