Compliance Management, Incident Response, Network Security, Privacy, TDR, Threat Management

State Department snoop sentenced

A former employee of the U.S. Department of State has been sentenced to 12 months probation and ordered to perform 50 hours of community service for his role in illegally accessing hundreds of confidential passport application files.

Lawrence Yontz, 48, of Arlington, Va., was sentenced Friday by U.S. Magistrate Judge John M. Facciola in Washington. He had pleaded guilty Sept. 22 to misdemeanor unauthorized computer access.

In sentencing Yontz, Judge Facciola told him that "the damage you did to yourself is greater than the damage you did to others."

Yontz, who is now unemployed, worked for the State Department from 1987 to 1996. From 2004 through March, he worked for an unidentified State Department contractor.

As a foreign service officer for the State Department and as an intelligence analyst in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, Yontz had regular access to official State Department computer databases, including the Passport Information Electronic Records System (PIERS), prosecutors said.

These databases contained all imaged passport applications dating back to 1994 and included a photograph of passport applicants, as well as personal information. These confidential files are protected by federal privacy laws and access to State Department employees is strictly limited to official government duties, according to a statement from the Department of Justice.

In court, Yontz confessed that between February 2005 and March 2008, he accessed the passport applications of nearly 200 celebrities, colleagues, prominent business professionals and others, via the PIERS database. He admitted, during his plea hearing, that he had no official government reason to access and view these passport applications. Rather, a sentencing memorandum, filed by Yontz's attorney David Laufman, said the "purpose in accessing and viewing these passport applications was 'idle curiosity.'"

The case is being further investigated by the Office of Inspector General at the State Department.

Yontz's snooping was brought to light when news media reported in March that as many as five State Department employees accessed electronic records of the three then presidential candidates – Sens. Hillary Clinton, John McCain and Barack Obama.

Upon further investigation by the Office of Inspector General at the State Department, it was determined that there had been breaches of the PIERS system. Members of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee then called for prosecution of those involved.

Once the breaches of the presidential candidates' passport records had been revealed, several contract workers at the State Department were fired, but Yontz is the only person to have been charged in the series of breaches.

Ed Moyle, a founding partner at Security Curve, an information security services company, said the sentence appears fair.

"The unfortunate reality is that this happens all the time – it's just that we don't usually hear about it," he said. "As I understand it, the unauthorized files that Yontz looked at were predominantly famous people – actors, politicians, musicians, etc. He looked at these records primarily because he was curious.  Unfortunately, this is a natural consequence of human nature."

Moyle said the more important question is learning why Yontz decided to access these records in the first place.

"Even if the expense to lock the records down was beyond their reach, there are still other ways to curtail the natural urge for people to scope out the VIPs," Moyle said. "I find it hard to believe that if Yontz understood that his actions were going to be tracked this closely, that he would have let his curiosity run free in the way it did." 

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