What's in a passport file?

Answers to your questions about the news.
March 24 2008 6:26 PM

What's in a Passport File?

All the information your bank tells you to keep secret, and more.

Passport
A U.S. passport

The State Department revealed last week that the passport files of all three major presidential candidates have been accessed improperly. Obama's records were breached on three occasions, including Friday, March 14, while the other two candidates' files were each compromised at least once. What's in a passport file?

All the information requested in a passport application (PDF). Specifically, the applicant's name, sex, marital status, mailing address at the time of application, occupation, and Social Security number. There's biographical information, including the applicant's date and place of birth; a brief physical description detailing the applicant's eye color, hair color, and height; and basic data about the applicant's parents—i.e., names and place(s) of birth. The file also contains photocopies of identifying documents like marriage certificates, birth certificates, and passport-sized photographs.

Applicants who complete the optional section on their applications risk providing future hackers with access to a bit more information—namely, their e-mail address, employer, travel plans at the time of application, and the name, address, and telephone number of an emergency contact.

Additionally, passport records contain information on any attempts made by the applicant to change the status of his or her citizenship. Readers may remember this detail from the last passport flap. During the 1992 presidential race, a rumor went around that Bill Clinton had sought to give up his U.S. citizenship while a student. In an effort to prove the rumor true, a George H.W. Bush appointee at the State Department, Elizabeth Tamposi, asked three aides to search Clinton's file for a renunciation letter. They never found one.

Some passport records also include investigative reports compiled before granting or denying an application. For example, State Department officials may call up court orders, arrest warrants, or financial reports as part of a background check to verify that the applicant has a right to a passport, and then attach copies of these documents to the file.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Juliet Lapidos is a former Slate associate editor.

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