Former State Dept worker pleads guilty in US passport access case

Details of Senators Barack Obama, John McCain and Hillary Clinton improperly accessed by employee.

A former employee at the US Department of State has pleaded guilty to illegally accessing the confidential passport records of hundreds of celebrities, politicians and other public figures.

Lawrence Yontz, 48, faces up to one year in prison and a fine of US$100,000 at his scheduled sentencing on December 19. Yontz Tuesday pleaded guilty to one count of unauthorized computer access before US Magistrate Judge John Facciola in Washington D.C.

According to papers filed in court in connection with the case, Yontz improperly accessed the State Department's Passport Information Electronic Records System's (PIERS) database and rifled through information contained in passport application forms belonging to various celebrities, politicians, prominent business figures, athletes and others.

The illegal access took place over a thee-year period starting from around February 2005 and ending in March 2008.

A spokeswoman for the US Department of Justice Tuesday refused to disclose the identities of any of the individuals whose personal records were accessed by Yontz citing privacy reasons. But she confirmed that Yontz' guilty plea is related to the disclosure earlier this year that three contract employees working for the State Department had accessed passport records belonging to certain high-profile individuals without any valid reason for doing so.

At that time the US State Department had disclosed that the individuals whose identities had been improperly accessed included Senators Barack Obama, John McCain and Hillary Clinton. The department had described the three individuals who had accessed their records as being motivated by "imprudent curiosity." Though their illegal access was repeatedly flagged by an in-house computer system designed to catch such violations the alerts were downplayed by supervisors. Two of the contract workers were later fired, while the third worker was disciplined but allowed to work for the State department.

According to the initial descriptions of what had happened, the illegal access occurred just three times this year. But Tuesday's guilty plea makes it clear that the access has been going on since 2005.

The actions of the three employees attracted widespread criticism and calls for an investigation by the department's inspector-general. Obama's campaign had, at that time, called it an "outrageous" privacy violation.

Passport records contain information that is submitted by an individual when filling out an application form, and can include details such as date and place of birth, physical attributes, naturalization details, family status and occupation.

The records are maintained in a classified passport records system located at the State Department's Passport Services annex in Washington. The system stores information about people who have applied for or have been issued a passport, or those who have asked for an amendment to or renewal of a passport.

It contains information on individuals whose passports have been denied, revoked or limited in some way, as well as data on individuals born outside of the country to US citizens passport records are protected by the Privacy Act of 1974.

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Jaikumar Vijayan

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