Information sharing is key to beefing up homeland security. As part of that initiative, the State Department will soon share its database of 50 million visa applications with the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). The confidential Consular Consolidated Database contains personal information such as name, date of birth and nationality. It also holds about 20 million photographs. Visa records are currently shared with the INS at ports of entry for verification purposes.
Access to the database will help the FBI check visa records as it investigates potential terrorism suspects. The bureau has been chastised, especially since Sept. 11, for its out-of-date computer systems that make it difficult for agents to do even the most basic file searches. This agreement with the State Department is one initiative the FBI is pursuing as it modernizes its systems and makes them compatible with other government networks.
Like other information-sharing initiatives that are part of the federal government’s push for e-gov and homeland security, this agreement raises the eyebrows of privacy advocates who fear potential abuse from law enforcement’s increased access to personal information. Stuart Patt, a spokesman for the State Department’s Consular Affairs Bureau, emphasizes that local law enforcement agencies will not have direct access to the database, as has been erroneously reported in the media.
“There is some improved access being put in place to make it easier for the FBI to access those records for law enforcement purposes. If the FBI is working with local law enforcement and clears it for them to make requests, the requests–as far as we’re concerned–will be coming from the FBI,” Patt says, adding that the visa records will remain confidential. “That is something we control carefully to be sure they are being used properly.”