SnooperGate: Two Fired Over Illegal Obama Passport Snooping

It's the second time in a week where workers improperly accessed electronic records of the rich, powerful, or famous.
It's the second time in a week where workers improperly accessed electronic records of the rich, powerful, or famous.Late Thursday evening, news broke that contractors working for the U.S. State Department had fired two workers and scolded another for a series of incidents of improper snooping at Sen. Barack Obama's passport files.

During a conference call Thursday night with reporters, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack labeled the incident a case of "imprudent curiosity."

Actually, it was a case of three separate acts of "imprudent curiosity," which occurred on Jan. 9, Feb. 21, and March 14.

The department's inspector general will look into whether the snoops were politically motivated.

Like many corporations, the State Department has policies and controls in place to help keep these things from happening. And each time such Passport records are accessed, workers are warned that access without "need-to-know" is a violation of the Privacy Act of 1974.

I guess this set of curiosity seekers felt they "needed to know."

This incident is a mirror image of the events earlier this year that affected the medical privacy of Britney Spears. Just as is the case with the Obama snoopers, the workers at UCLA Medical Center had access privileges to the systems that held the private information.

When answering a reporter's question last night, Patrick F. Kennedy, under secretary for management at the State Department, summed up the department's conundrum, as well as that of many organization's facing similar challenges:

In order to deal with 18 million passports a year, we require lots of people to have access because it's compartmentalized in the sense that different people perform different functions, including recording if someone advises that their passport has been lost or stolen, so that requires you go to in and make notifications.

In other words, broad access rights, based on job functions, need to be granted to workers so they can do their job. There's no way to predict which workers will go bad.

In both of these cases, with Spears and Obama, the monitoring mechanisms were in place to identify the breach or privacy. And people are getting fired for their misdeeds. Let's hope prosecutions are forthcoming.

These types of incidents, no matter how tightly managed an organization's identity management system is, or the database security measures they have in place, are going to occur.

Both of these incidents make a great argument for database auditing and monitoring applications, backed up by strict law enforcement. The paradox going forward will be, as both database monitoring solutions get better, and more companies deploy them, the more cases of SnooperGate we're going to hear about.

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Evan Schuman, Contributing Writer, Dark Reading
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