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EDITORIAL: State Department flunks passport test

Big Brother technology defeated by garden-variety fraud

- The Washington Times - Friday, July 30, 2010

Big-government solutions rarely fix serious problems. Instead, they create bigger ones. Since 2006, U.S. passports have been issued with an embedded radio-frequency identification (RFID) tracking chip ostensibly intended to reduce unauthorized entry into the country. In testimony Thursday before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported that despite the high-tech efforts, passport fraud is still "easy."

"The actual passport itself would be very difficult to counterfeit, we believe," said Gregory D. Kutz, GAO's managing director for special investigations, in an interview with The Washington Times. "So the best way to get a U.S. passport if you're a fraudster is to create counterfeit breeder documents, steal someone's identity and get your passport that way."

That's exactly what GAO did. Investigators at the federal watchdog agency employed the basic techniques of an identity thief to conduct an undercover sting operation. The goal was to find out whether theState Department's passport examiners would catch on to the tricks not of highly skilled expert forgers, but of clumsy amateurs. Using standard, off-the-shelf equipment, the GAO team fabricated a number of bogus documents, including birth certificates. With these in hand, the agents filed several passport applications, each of which contained deliberate errors that should have been spotted readily had anyone been paying attention. From seven bogus applications, five genuine passports were issued.

The two GAO employees who applied for passports under fictitious names already had valid passports. Their applications used mailing addresses and driver's licenses from different states. They provided Social Security numbers belonging to children or the long-deceased. The discrepancies raised a red flag on just two of the applications. Once State Department bureaucrats realized they were being tested, they applied data-verification and counterfeit-detection techniques to identify three of the fake applications that had been approved improperly.

What this shows is that Foggy Bottom does have the capabilities to detect fraud - when it wants to. "We hope continued oversight and exposure will turn up the heat and make things happen," Mr. Kutz said.

GAO recommended that the State Department improve the training given to passport examiners and that it implement better data-validation techniques. These are excellent suggestions, but there is also a deeper problem. Technology tends to create a false sense of security. When an inherently lazy bureaucracy starts to rely on an electronic crutch, the spectacular failure that results should come as no surprise.

Proper security requires hard work, not just the hiring of a well-connected contractor to install some new software and microchips. Congress needs to hold State's feet to the fire so terrorists and criminals won't continue to have ease of entry through America's front door.

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