State hopes technology will better secure passport process

Thursday - 7/29/2010, 8:45pm EDT

WFED's Jason Miller

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By Jason Miller
Executive Editor
Federal News Radio

Stung by a Government Accountability Office investigation for a second time in two years, the State Department has accelerated its schedule to implement new technology to strengthen its passport issuance process.

Brenda Sprague, State's Deputy Assistant Secretary for Passport Services, told the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Terrorism and Homeland Security Thursday that by September 15, the agency will implement facial recognition software across the department.

"We will have facial recognition for all incoming passport applications," Sprague says. "We have a second tool, which is facial recognition on demand, where we can take a single photograph when we suspect fraud and run that against the entire database."

The facial recognition on demand is a secondary tool for passport adjudicators, she adds.

The rollout of the on-demand capabilities was one of several changes State made over the past few months after GAO obtained passports using fraudulent documents in a second sting operation in two years.

State also improved fraud training for adjudicators and acceptance facilities nailed in the sting operation. It also strengthened requirements for use of out-of-state identity documents, and added more training modules for all employees based on the issues GAO found.

GAO told lawmakers that it obtained three passports, and would have received two more if State had not used the on-demand facial recognition software to recall the printed documents from the Postal Service.

"For these tests, we used counterfeit and fraudulently-obtained documents such as driver's licenses and birth certificates," says Greg Kutz, GAO's Managing Director for Forensic Audits and Special Investigations. "These documents were prepared using publicly available hardware, software and materials. We also used seven different social security numbers from factious and deceased individuals."

Kutz says the three got through because State missed specific red flags: A 62 year-old using a social security number issued in 2009; counterfeit driver's licenses and birth certificates; one application with a vast age difference between the passport and the driver's license photo; one application with a California mailing address, a West Virginia permanent address and driver's licenses and Washington telephone number.

Kutz says State rejected two applications because of social security number discrepancies and because the breeder documents--birth certificates and a driver's license--were fraudulent.

"It is not clear why State, in some instances, was able to detect fraud and in some instances was not," he says. "Significant concerns remain about State's ability to prevent passport fraud. With hundreds of different driver's licenses and birth certificates out there, recognizing counterfeits is a significant challenge."

In March 2009, GAO went four-for-four in obtaining passports fraudulently its first investigation.

Subcommittee Chairman Ben Cardin (D-Md.) says State must do a better job in securing the passport issuance process.

To that end, Cardin, and Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) introduced legislation Thursday, the Passport Identity Verification Act, to give State more capabilities to check and detect fraudulent documents.

"This legislation is a common-sense solution that will give the State Department the legal authority it needs to access information contained in federal, state and other data banks that can be used to verify the identity of every passport applicant, and to detect passport fraud without extending the time the State Department takes to approve passports," Cardin says.

Subcommittee ranking member John Kyl (R-Ariz.) says there are some basic things State could do that doesn't require legislation.

"State could work more collaboratively with the Social Security Administration to make sure accurate, appropriate and near real-time information about social security numbers is pursued by those approving passport applications," Kyl says.

"Additionally, the State Department could work more proactively with the Department of Homeland Security to make sure that the electronic vital records system project, which digitizes birth records, is completed."

Kyl says it is "troubling" that DHS just this week submitted its spending plan to Congress on how it would use the $10 million for the project it received this year.

Sprague says State works closely with SSA to receive validation of social security numbers in 24 hours. But she says the two agencies are working to provide real-time feeds.

State also uses SSA's social security number validator tool.

Sprague says SSA will stop supporting the system in the near future, which will add to State's challenges.

Sprague says not all applicants provide social security numbers when applying for a passport, and that is one of the areas she would like some help from Congress.

She says if lawmakers mandate that applicants provide their SSNs, it would go a long way in preventing fraud.