Passports, Privacy & Politics

Passports, Privacy & Politics

Passports, Privacy & Politics

Slate's blog on legal issues.
March 21 2008 2:01 AM

Passports, Privacy & Politics

CNN says the blogosphere is abuzz with news of the Obama passport story , so I feel somehow obliged to make it true.  Trouble is, I'd always figured most lawyers should have way more questions than answers at such an early point in such a story.  So what could we possibly have to contribute? 

 For what it's worth, here's what I got.  According to the U.S. State Department website, the Passport Services division maintains U.S. passport records for passports issued from 1925 to the present. "These records normally consist of applications for United States passports and supporting evidence of United States citizenship, and are protected by the Privacy Act of 1974 . Passport records do not include evidence of travel such as entrance/exit stamps, visas, residence permits, etc., since this information is entered into the passport book after it is issue[d]."  On the law, violation of the relevant Privacy Act provisions (like willful disclosure of protected agency records) can subject the violator (provided he/she's an "officer or employee of an agency") to criminal fines up to $5,000, or a civil action by the individual.  So assuming contractors count as agency employees within the meaning of the statute (and I wonder whether there's case law here), I could imagine finding statutory violations under these circumstances.  And boy does it look bad. 

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The thing is, while I'm certainly pleased such personal records are protected from disclosure, and am appalled at the thought of politically motivated snooping, I don't get what could be of such great interest in a passport file to warrant the trouble?  It seems hard to picture someone successfully using Obama's Social Security number in any kind of identity theft scheme.  Does someone seriously think he might be lying about his citizenship?  Or does "imprudent [read cat-killing] curiosity" by poorly trained contractors ring true? 

Anyone care to buzz back?