Wyden blasts wide, unfettered government access to passport files

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) speaks to members of the press in the Senate Press Gallery on August 6, 2022.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) speaks to members of the press in the Senate Press Gallery on August 6, 2022. Anna Rose Layden/Getty Images

The revelation comes from ongoing probes into a leak investigation at Customs and Border Protection from Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).

The State Department shares personal data about over 145 million Americans collected from passport applications with law enforcement and intelligence agencies without requiring any kind of court order, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) disclosed in a Nov. 3 letter to the State Department. 

Wyden learned that 25 federal agencies have access to the passport application database in a July briefing. The news, first reported by Yahoo, is an outgrowth of an oversight of what Wyden called "a rogue Customs and Border Protection investigation" in which CBP employees "inappropriately" examined information on a journalist. 

Wyden himself has been tussling with the DHS Office of Inspector General to try to get an unredacted copy of the report on the two-year investigation of the CBP unit's work.

He also wants the State Department to hand over more information on precisely which agencies have access to the passport application database, and put some checks on that access.

"The department's mission does not include providing dozens of other government agencies with self-service access to 145 million Americans' personal data," Wyden said in a Nov. 4 letter. "The department has voluntarily taken on this role, and in doing so, prioritized the interests of other agencies over those of law-abiding Americans."

According to the letter, the State Department is not requiring subpoenas or court orders to give other agencies access to passport applications.

"In the normal course of criminal investigations and intelligence collection, federal officers must rely on legal processes, including subpoenas and National Security Letters, in order to obtain subscriber information and similar records," Wyden writes. "The fact that many of the same records are readily available to federal agents through direct access to State Department passport applications removes any checks and invites exactly the kind of abuses detailed in the OIG report."

The senator wants to know exactly what agencies can access this database, how many times they've accessed it (something Wyden says in the letter that the State Department has already told him will be difficult to obtain) and what policies govern that access. He's also asking for a written plan on next steps from the State Department by Dec. 9.

Wyden also urged the department to adopt reforms like policies around validating if another agency wants data for legitimate purposes, giving Americans notice when their information is shared and publishing annual statistics about who is accessing the passport application database.