Passport data on the go

A State Department program to convert passport applications into stored

electronic documents could become a new tool for quickly identifying suspected

terrorists and criminals attempting to enter the United States.

The system, which includes applicant photos, has been under construction

since January, and State plans to make the photos accessible to offices

around the world via a secure network.

Although it was primarily conceived as a fast and accurate way of identifying

Americans overseas who have lost their passports and need a temporary one,

Customs or law enforcement agents could just as easily use the system, according

to Richard Martin, director of the passport systems division for State's

Bureau of Consular Affairs.

"Recently we had a case where Customs held someone for a half-hour because

they suspected fraudulent passport activity. We sent an image of the electronic

application" that confirmed the agents' suspicion, Martin said.

The electronic database will replace the department's microfilm database,

which performed the same function but took longer to access and provided

lower quality images.

The electronic version is the second phase of State's planned digitization

of passport processing. In 1998, the department introduced a passport book

with a digitally produced information page and digitized photograph, replacing

typewritten information and pasted-in photos.

To date, seven of the country's 16 passport processing centers are turning

out digitized books, according to Martin. Eventually, all of the roughly

7 million passports issued to U.S. citizens each year will be digitized.

Passports already issued and applications already on file are not being

digitized. For that reason, it will be 10 years — the term of a passport — before all valid passports are digitized and backed up on the electronic

database, according to Martin.

In the meantime, State officials will have quick access to an increasing

number of electronically stored applications.

"We'll have an electronic image that can be transmitted throughout the

State Department network to all embassies, posts and passport facilities

throughout the world," Martin said.

This will make it easier for officials responding to Americans reporting

lost or stolen passports and who need a temporary book. Currently, it's

a time-consuming process of phone calls and requests for backup documents,

he said.

"Now you could use the department e-mail system and quickly e-mail a

digitized version of the application," he said.

Developing that electronic access is part of a five-year, $10 million

contract recently issued to General Data Systems Inc., Bethesda, Md., a company

involved in the design and building of automated passport systems for State

for more than 20 years.

The latest initiative should be a significant step toward thwarting

passport fraud — a tactic primarily used by terrorists and organized crime

and drug cartel members, according to company president Phil Horvitz.

"The long-term goal is 100 percent verification of passports at ports

of entry into this country," he said.

Elaine Komis, a spokeswoman for the Immigration and Naturalization Service — which reviews passports when people re-enter the United States — said

immediate access to applications and photos would be a benefit.

"We do have access to the applications now, but it's on microfilm. However,

this would certainly be faster," she said.

But the database will not fully eliminate fraud, she said, because a

person can still get a fraudulent birth certificate and apply for a passport

under an assumed identity.

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