Could getting a US passport get much more difficult in the near future?

22 April 2011

Note: All links anonymized due to the possibility that Someone might subpoena web server logs.

Earlier today during my morning news crawl (Twitter has pretty much supplanted everything I used before due to how fast word travels on that service, even Google News) I ran across something that made me shiver while considering the implications: the US Department of State is considering implementing new paperwork that United States citizens would have to fill out to apply for a passport which includes a biographical questionnaire that asks some pretty outlandish things which are analyzed in depth here. The proposed form, called DS-5513 (I have mirrored Proposed formDS-5513 just in case) is, frankly put more invasive than the paperwork one must fill out when going for a Position of Public Trust, a DoD SECRET (SF-85) clearance, or even a DoD TOP SECRET (SF-86) clearance. Among the things that you have to document in detail on the proposed passport application are:

  • Information about your immediate family. (Not much of a surprise.)
  • Where the applicant's mother lived one year before, during, and one year after the applicant's birth. (What?)
  • Where the applicant's mother was employed at the time of the applicant's birth. (Okaaaay...)
  • Whether or not the applicant's mother received pre-natal or post-natal medical care, and if so where and who the physician was. (Excuse me?)
  • Whether or not a religious institution performed any rites near the time of applicant's birth, such as circumcision or confirmation. (Why do you need to know this?)
  • Every residence you have ever lived at (from birth until the time of application). (All of them?)
  • Every place you have ever worked. (How is this relevant to go to Japan for two weeks?)
  • Every school you have ever attended. (Is this testing whether I'm a replicant or a lesbian, Mr. Deckard?)
  • Next to nothing about the applicant's father.
No, I'm not making any of this up. Read the .pdf and see for yourself, right now.

To compare this proposal with the other two forms I referenced, the SF-85 is only eight pages long, (two of which are directions the applicant has to follow), and everything on it only goes back five years. The SF-86 (21 pages in length including 2 pages of instructions, otherwise known as The Wringer, The Beltway Sweatbox, and The Forest Killer (due to how many of these have to be printed sometimes)) goes back seven years for particulars (including where you've gone to school, where you've lived, and where you've worked, though the investigation actually goes back ten years). Both also require giving contact information for personal references, including people who can vouch that you lived, worked, or attended all of those places. The proposed replacement passport application asks lots of questions that are sufficiently difficult to answer accurately (such as the dates of the applicant's mother's appointments for pre-natal care) that anyone could be refused a passport. I don't know of anyone who keeps ephemeral records that go back that far; frankly, I doubt even hospitals and physicians maintain appointment ledgers for longer than three or four years due to the sheer volume of data that would have to be managed (which takes time away from practicing medicine).

This whole thing sounds fishy to me. As the document stands now it reads like it's full of excuses to deny anyone and everyone a passport. It's chock-full of downright flimsy excuses to refuse a passport to someone because they got a number wrong on their dorm room's address in undergrad twenty years ago, but the way things are set up that could easily be the case. This proposed application process also might be a fishing expedition to see who will stand up and complain about it. It's been public knowledge for a while now that the TSA has been keeping a close eye on what people say about them in the airport as well as online, though how they are acting on that information isn't clear. Interestingly, one of the things all of those forms (the background investigation and passport application paperwork) have in common is that the applicant must supply all of the names they've used; sources whose opinions I trust implicitly have informed me that this includes online handles these days and has for years. If the applicant is known to post online and they list the handle they use to do so, there is an unknown but non-zero probability that a couple of Google searches will be done and the results might make the difference between being granted a passport and being turned down. This also might be a fishing expedition to determine how extreme their policies might be made before people begin complaining. At least, if I wanted to gauge how much pain I was applying to people that's what I would do.

The article that I/O Error linked to states that the Department of State began its sixty day comment submission period on 24 February 2011 and will expire at midnight EST5EDT on Monday, 25 April 2011 (funny how we find out about it now). You can go to this page - in fact, I urge you to immediately - and tell them exactly what you think of this. First of all, unless you are 10 years old (meaning, you would have lived a relatively short and simple period of time) there is no way that filling out this form will only take 45 minutes - the SF-85 requires at least six hours to compile and check all of the information it asks for the first time and it's a good deal less complex. Secondly, I don't see how any of this information is relevant to getting a passport - if you're already a US citizen (and you have paperwork to prove it), of what use is a list of all of the schools you've attended? Or all of the jobs you've had? This is all information more appropriate to a background investigation (which appears to be a possibility - read page five of the DS-5513 draft, section "Privacy Act Statement", paragraph "Routine Uses") to get a job than it is being allowed to go to another country.