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'Imprudent Curiosity' Or 'Outrageous Breach' Of Privacy?

Just how secure is the sensitive information in your passport file?

The State Department reports that its computer system did its job by identifying breaches of the passport files of all three presidential contenders but, incredibly, the news that someone had peeked into the records of three of the most highly visible Americans never made it to senior department officials.

It took a nosy newspaper reporter to bring it to their attention.

On Thursday, a reporter for The Washington Times e-mailed department spokesman Sean McCormack to ask about incidents involving Democratic candidate Sen. Barack Obama.  The Times reported that day that Obama’s passport file was breached on three separate occasions in January, February and March.

Today, the State Department reported that it was investigating those incidents as well as breaches of passport files for Democratic candidate Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Republican candidate Sen. John McCain by three employees of independent contractors who did not have the authority to access the files.  Two of them have been fired, and one reprimanded.

McCormack said today that the computer system, which is programmed to trigger an alarm when a prominent person’s passport records are accessed, flagged the breaches, but senior department officials were not aware of the incidents until the reporter started asking questions.

“That information didn’t rise up to senior management level,” McCormack said.  “That should have happened.”

On Thursday, McCormack said “imprudent curiosity” may have motivated the employees’ actions.  Obama’s spokesman, Bill Burton, had a different take, calling it “an outrageous breach of security and privacy.”

So what’s in these files?  Although McCormack wouldn’t reveal that, passport files typically contain the types of information identity thieves drool over:  name, address, phone number, e-mail address, Social Security number, date and place of birth and parents’ names, maiden names, dates and places of birth.

None of this is new for candidate Clinton, or the State Department.  In 1992, her husband, then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton, had his passport and citizenship files searched by State Department officials.  An investigation concluded that the officials used poor judgment, but no laws were broken.