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More Passport Files of "Flagged" Individuals Viewed

03/27/2008 -The State Department has acknowledged that the electronic passport files of numerous high-profile Americans, including the late Playboy model Anna Nicole Smith, have been viewed by employees and contractors, reports the Associated Press. There is no word yet whether the passport files were improperly viewed or how many were viewed.

This comes a week after the State Department disclosed that all three of the current presidential candidates were the victims of "improper snooping" into their passport files. The department said the information breach was the product of "imprudent curiosity" and fired two private contractors and one State Department employee for their transgressions.

The AP explains how the recent passport views were discovered:

Supervisors recorded each instance a file was viewed because the applications in question belonged to members of a select group of several hundred citizens whose passport files were "flagged" for extra protection due to their visibility, the officials said. Among these people are government leaders, movie stars and athletes, the officials said.

The list maintained by Bureau of Consular Affairs has included as many as 500 people at any one time, they said. The list is kept secret partly to deter workers from making unauthorized inquiries into high-profile records. Although there are no formal criteria for inclusion, people on the list are deemed to warrant special consideration because of their public status, the officials said.

Currently, the State Department is conducting an internal review regarding passport record security while its inspector general (IG) has opened an investigation into the same matter, although the IG's investigation will also look into whether the breaches involving the presidential candidates were politically motivated.

The AP reports that the internal review conducted by Patrick Kennedy, undersecretary of state for management, will likely result in stricter security procedures for high-profile passports. The most probable outcome will be that passport employees will only access flagged passports after receiving permission from their supervisor. Kennedy is also seeking to expand the high-profile passport list past 500 individuals.

As BBC.comreports, information on a passport could be used to steal the document owner's identity.

US passport files contain details of age and place and birth. They also include an applicant's social security number, which can be used to gain personal information such as credit records.

In related news, The Washington Post reports that the proportion of passport employees that are private contractors rather than federal employess rose sharply when new passport applications flooded the State Department over the past year.

From 2001 to 2007, 40 to 45 percent of the workers handling passports were contractors, but now 60 percent of the 4,400 passport employees work for private firms, State Department officials said yesterday.

Referring to the number of incidents where supervisors were notified that a flagged passport was viewed, a senior State Department official told the Post,  "It is not a handful, but it's not thousands."