Glenn Kessler / Washington Post | July 4, 2008
Government workers repeatedly snooped without authorization inside the electronic passport records of entertainers, athletes and other high-profile Americans, a State Department audit has found. One celebrity’s records were breached 356 times by more than six dozen people.
The audit, by State’s inspector general, was prompted by the discovery in March that three of the department’s contract workers had peeked at the private passport files of Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain and that a State Department trainee had examined the file of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.
The report documented a widespread lack of controls on the personal data of the 127 million Americans who hold passports, finding numerous “weaknesses, including a general lack of policies, procedures, guidance and training.” The State Department had maintained that its system worked when the candidates’ passport breaches were discovered.
“This is unacceptable. The report makes it clear that the private information of over 100 million Americans is vulnerable to unauthorized access,” said Sen Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.).
The audit also suggests that some workers were motivated by fascination with the private lives of celebrities, none of whom were identified. One employee told investigators he simply liked looking up the records of professional basketball players.
The inspector general made 22 recommendations for improving security, but many of them — and much of the report — were redacted because officials feared they would provide a road map to further abuse of the system.
Investigators found that 20,500 government workers and contractors had access to the electronic system that maintained the records. Most of them worked for the State Department or the Department of Homeland Security.
Five contractors already have been fired, and dozens of people are under investigation for alleged snooping that took place in offices across the United States and even overseas.
The 192 million passport files maintained by the State Department contain individuals’ passport applications, which include data such as Social Security numbers, physical descriptions, and names and places of birth of the applicants’ parents. Otherwise, the files provide limited information; they do not contain records of overseas travel or visa stamps from previous passports.
To test the extent of the snooping, investigators assembled a list of 150 famous Americans and checked how many times their files were accessed over a 5 1/2 -year period. Investigators found that the records of 127, or 85 percent, had been searched a total of more than 4,100 times.
The report said that “although an 85 percent hit rate appears to be excessive, the Department currently lacks criteria to determine whether this is actually an inordinately high rate.”
But one official said there would be little reason to look at the files unless a passport was being renewed or information was being updated. “It should be zero or one time over five years for the normal average American,” he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
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