A person shows their current U.S. passport at their home in Alexandria, Virginia, on April 11, 2022. (Photo: Stefani Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images)

Wyden Slams 'Unfettered Access' for Law Enforcement to Passport Data of 145 Million Americans

"Sen. Wyden is right to raise the alarm," said one privacy rights advocate, noting that current policy "allows untold federal agents to engage in problematic fishing expeditions."

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden on Friday released a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken demanding reforms to the practice of allowing 25 federal intelligence and law enforcement agencies "unfettered access" to the passport application data of over 145 million Americans.

"The department has voluntarily taken on this role, and in doing so, prioritized the interests of other agencies over those of law-abiding Americans."

Yahoo News, which first revealed the letter Thursday, noted that the Oregon Democrat uncovered the State Department's practice during his ongoing probe into the outlet's reporting about Operation Whistle Pig, a leak investigation launched by officials at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) National Targeting Center.

The letter explains that according to the public version of a report on the Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General (OIG) review of the incident, "a CBP officer in a unit that was supposed to be looking into forced labor abuses inappropriately accessed the passport application of a U.S. journalist for purposes of 'vetting'" the reporter.

Wyden stressed to Blinken that "in the normal course of criminal investigations and intelligence collection, federal officers must rely on legal processes," such as subpoenas or court orders, to obtain such personal information, and "the fact that many of the same records are readily available to federal agents through direct access to State Department passport applications removes any checks and invites exactly the kind of abuses detailed in the OIG report."

"The department's mission does not include providing dozens of other government agencies with self-service access to 145 million Americans' personal data," the letter highlights. "The department has voluntarily taken on this role, and in doing so, prioritized the interests of other agencies over those of law-abiding Americans. While there is a legitimate role for the use of this information by law enforcement, the current unregulated system of interagency access to millions of Americans' records goes far beyond what a reasonable person would expect or tolerate."

With a deadline of December 9, the senator asked the secretary to provide him with a list of all agencies with access to the data and any agreements governing it; details on how often agencies have accessed the data; and what lessons the State Department has learned from "clear abuses" by CBP personnel, along with action it is taking to prevent similar problems in the future.

Wyden also called on the State Department to:

  • Develop a policy to determine whether an agency is accessing the data for a legitimate purpose;
  • Notify Americans when their data is accessed, with clearly defined exceptions;
  • Annually publish statistics on data requests; and
  • Work with other agencies that have expertise on privacy to ensure its policies align with best practices.

"The State Department did not respond to Yahoo News' questions about Wyden's letter and if it would come up with the plan his office requested," the outlet reported Thursday.

Meanwhile, Rachel Levinson-Waldman, managing director of the Liberty & National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, told Yahoo News that "the use of passport data to vet Americans for no justifiable purpose sets off alarm bells."

"This data includes such sensitive information as an applicant's Social Security number, date of birth, gender identity, and every name they have ever used," Levinson-Waldman noted.

"If the State Department has no mechanism to vet the purposes for which government agents seek to access this data, it is extremely vulnerable to misuse and abuse, whether to conduct unsanctioned fishing expeditions on political antagonists or to stalk a former domestic partner," she continued. "Sen. Wyden's inquiries are critical, and the State Department should take immediate steps to significantly tighten access to this data and track the uses to which it is put."

Sean Vikta, senior policy counsel at Demand Progress Education Fund, similarly welcomed the senator's letter in a statement Friday.

"Sen. Wyden is right to raise the alarm regarding the State Department's mishandling of sensitive personal information of 145 million Americans," he said. "We have already seen passport information misused by federal agencies, including to gather detailed personal information on a congressional staffer, a journalist, and her family, and it is highly likely that an investigation will identify additional abuses."

"Sharing information of this kind, especially in such an indiscriminate manner and without privacy protections or legally required procedures," he warned, "allows untold federal agents to engage in problematic fishing expeditions and creates vulnerabilities like the one that allowed foreign adversaries to steal 22.1 million records concerning applications for security clearances."

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