Senator Wyden Asks State Dept. To Explain Why It’s Handing Out ‘Unfettered’ Access To Americans’ Passport Data

from the having-fucked-around,-State-Dept.-now-in-process-of-finding-out dept

There are supposed to be limits on what the federal government can do with all the data it forces people to hand over in exchange for government services. But much of the limiting appears to be left up to the discretion of federal agencies. Discretion is the better part of valor, as they say. If these agencies are ever going to become valorous, they’re probably going to have to steal it.

Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has never exhibited much discretion when it comes to respecting rights. Whatever rights haven’t been waived into irrelevance by the “Constitution-free zone” have been routed around by asking third parties for data the CBP can’t legally obtain directly.

In 2018, a blockbuster report detailed the actions of CBP agent Jeffrey Rambo. Rambo apparently took it upon himself to track down whistleblowers and leakers. To do this, he cozied up to a journalist and leveraged the wealth of data on travelers collected by federal agencies in hopes of sniffing out sources.

A few years later, another report delved deeper into the CPB and Rambo’s actions. This reporting — referencing a still-redacted DHS Inspector General’s report — showed the CBP routinely tracked journalists (as well as activists and immigration lawyers) via a national counter-terrorism database. This database was apparently routinely queried for reasons unrelated to national security objectives and the information obtained was used to open investigations targeting journalists.

That report remains redacted nearly a year later. But Senator Ron Wyden is demanding answers from the State Department about its far too cozy relationship with other federal agencies, including the CBP.

The State Department is giving law enforcement and intelligence agencies unrestricted access to the personal data of more than 145 million Americans, through information from passport applications that is shared without legal process or any apparent oversight, according to a letter sent from Sen. Ron Wyden to Secretary of State Antony Blinken and obtained by Yahoo News.

The information was uncovered by Wyden during his ongoing probe into reporting by Yahoo News about Operation Whistle Pig, a wide-ranging leak investigation launched by a Border Patrol agent and his supervisors at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s National Targeting Center.

On Wednesday, Wyden sent a letter to Blinken requesting detailed information on which federal agencies are provided access to State Department passport information on U.S. citizens.

The letter [PDF] from Wyden points out that the State Department is giving “unfettered” access to at least 25 federal agencies, including DHS components like the CBP. The OIG report into “Operation Whistle Pig” (the one that remains redacted) details Agent Rambo’s actions. Subsequent briefings by State Department officials provided more details that are cited in Wyden’s letter.

More than 25 agencies, but the State Department has, so far refused to identify them.

Department officials declined to identify the specific agencies, but said that both law enforcement and intelligence agencies can access the [passport application] database. They further stated that, while the Department is not legally required to provide other agencies with such access, the Department has done so without requiring these other agencies to obtain compulsory legal process, such as a subpoena or court order.

Sharing is caring, the State Department believes. However, it cannot explain why it feels this passport application database should be an open book to whatever government agencies seek access to it. This is unacceptable, says Senator Wyden. Citing the “clear abuses” by CBP personnel detailed in the Inspector General’s report, Wyden is demanding details the State Department has so far refused to provide, like which agencies have access and the number of times these agencies have accessed the Department’s database.

Why? Because rights matter, no matter what the State Department and its beneficiaries might think.

The Department’s mission does include providing dozens of other government agencies with self-service access to 145 million American’s personal data. The Department has voluntarily taken on this role, and in doing so, prioritized the interests of other agencies over those of law-abiding Americans

That’s the anger on behalf of millions expressed by Senator Wyden. There are also demands. Wyden not only wants answers, he wants changes. He has instructed the State Department to put policies in place to ensure the abuses seen in “Operation Whistle Pig” do not reoccur. He also says the Department should notify Americans when their passport application info is accessed or handed over to government agencies. Finally, he instructs the Department to provide annual statistics on outside agency access to the database, so Americans can better understand who’s going after their data.

So, answers and changes, things federal agencies rarely enjoy engaging with. The answers are likely to be long in coming. The requested changes, even more so. But at least this drags the State Department’s dirty laundry out into the daylight, which makes it a bit more difficult for the Department to continue to ignore a problem it hasn’t addressed for more than three years.

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Comments on “Senator Wyden Asks State Dept. To Explain Why It’s Handing Out ‘Unfettered’ Access To Americans’ Passport Data”

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Koby (profile) says:

Hot Potato

That report remains redacted nearly a year later. But Senator Ron Wyden is demanding answers from the State Department about its far too cozy relationship with other federal agencies, including the CBP

I remember this being resolved after 9/11. They blamed the lack of data sharing amongst federal agencies for the ability of the perpetrators to enter the country and carry out their plot. The agencies vowed to share information, lest they catch blame if another incident occurs on their watch, and they lose their cushy pension for failing to share the data. Good luck getting bureaucrats to jeopardize their carreers to spite the boarder patrol.

Devon says:

Limits not

“There are supposed to be limits on what the federal government can do”

… what a quaint 18th Century notion, but that ship sailed away long long ago.

even a powerful Senator can’t figure out why federal bureaucrats routinely scoff at the laws and Constitution.

and elections never solve this problem.

must be some fundamental flaw in the concept of a massive federal central government ?

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