Private contract employees working for the U.S. Department of State have repeatedly accessed U.S. Sen. Barack Obama's passport records over the past three months — a breach flagged by the State Department's in-house computer system but subsequently downplayed by the supervisors of the offices in which the breaches occurred. Two of those workers have been fired by their employers. The Obama campaign is seeking answers as to how it happened, and a broader investigation is now in the works. (See FAQ: The Obama breach: What exactly is a passport record?)
The actions of the three separate workers, employees of two different contractors, were described Thursday night by State Department spokesman Sean McCormack as "imprudent curiosity." But he said that is only an "initial finding" and said the department's inspector general has been asked to investigate. Details about the breach emerged in a late-night, hastily called press conference by State Department officials.
More information emerged on Friday, as State Department officials acknowledged that passport files belonging to Sens. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), and John McCain (R-Ariz.), had also been improperly accessed in recent months.
McCormack said the department "is not being dismissive of any other possibility," meaning that it hasn't closed the door to motives other than simple curiosity.
None of the people or employers involved was identified. A third contractor was disciplined, but hasn't been fired, for viewing the records and is apparently still doing State Department work.
The breaches occured on Jan. 9, Feb. 12 and March 14, but senior State Department officials weren't aware of them until a reporter sent an e-mail query to the department's press office on Thursday.
Notification, but little prevention
In explaining what happened, the department also provided details about how its security monitoring system works to protect records privacy. The system identifies breaches after the fact.
The State Department has "strict policies and controls" regarding passport records, said McCormack. Employees and contractors are trained on the use of the system, and each time an employee logs onto it, "he [or] she acknowledges that the records are protected by the Privacy Act and they are only available on a need-to-know basis."
The Privacy Act of 1974 (PDF format) requires that "all managers of record systems are responsible for making employees and contractors, working with that system of records, fully aware of these provisions and the corresponding penalties."
"In each of these three cases, the system that was set up to detect any authorized access of these kinds of records worked. These unauthorized accesses were detected by the State Department and immediately acted on," said McCormack.
Undersecretary Pat Kennedy said some records have "what computer people call flags — we put flags on certain records that trigger a report to a supervisor that the record has been accessed," he said.
Not all 18 million passport records have flags, said Kennedy. The department's Bureau of Counsel Affairs determines what records to flag, he said.
For those records that aren't flagged, Kennedy described a system — part of an IT upgrade several years ago — that appears to have business intelligence capability. As Kennedy explained it, there are "other patterns of activities" that are used to determined whether a record has been accessed inappropriately.
Kennedy was less specific concerning what controls, if any, might restrict employees' or contractors' access to data once they've logged into the system.
The State Department's decision to provide broad access to passport records may seem, on the face of it, to be a problem. But the department is also trying to balance access to data with IT security, according to its IT Strategic Plan for 2006-2010 (PDF format). That plan points out that "one lesson of September 11, 2001, is that restricting access to information poses serious risks, often outweighing the impact of potential unauthorized disclosure."
The report goes on to say that "security decisions must be based on rigorous debate of pros and cons by all stakeholders: end-users, security specialists and IT experts."
The Obama campaign, which learned of the breach Thursday afternoon, is scheduled to be briefed by Kennedy on Friday. Responding to initial news of the breach, Bill Burton, an Obama campaign spokesman, said, "This is an outrageous breach of security and privacy, even from an administration that has shown little regard for either over the last eight years."
It is also unclear what investigative options are open to the department at this point. The inspector general — actually, the acting inspector general; the position has been unfilled for several months — can do little more than request interview time with the contractors' former employees.