Passport data on the go
- By Bryant Jordan
- Sep 02, 2000
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,
"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.