(This post has been updated.)
Federal employees responsible for reviewing and processing U.S. passports are reeling over a new rule that prohibits them from bringing their cellphones to work.
The Passport Agency, with 22 locations across the country, employs about 1,200 government workers and an additional 1,000 private contractors. The contractors, we’re told, are already under the new ban that restricts employees from having devices with cameras on them at the office. The federal workers, protected by a union, are still bargaining regarding the prohibition.
The rumor among passport workers is that a contractor in Houston was taking pictures of private information on passports, but the agency would not confirm this. But a State Department official did confirm the new policy.
“The Department has a serious and important obligation to protect the personally identifiable information (PII) of U.S. citizens applying for passports,” the official said. “Prohibiting cellphones throughout our Passport Agencies, where employees review and process passport applications, is an effort to further protect passport applicant’s PII.”
Rob Arnold, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees (NFFE) Local 1998 that represents Passport Agency workers nationwide, said some offices have lockers for the contractors to keep their cellphones. For the offices without them, those workers are told to leave their mobile devices at home, he said.
As part of the bargaining process, Arnold said they may demand that the offices purchase lockers for all the locations big enough to fit laptops, which would be a huge additional expense to the agency.
“It’s a ridiculous overreach,” he told the Loop. “The Agency is spending millions raising employee clearance levels to secret, yet won’t trust them to carry a cell phone.”
It’s also not going to stop a determined person from stealing personal information, he said, unless the agency plans to take away pens too.
Most of all, the new rule, which is mostly an inconvenience, is hurting morale.
“People have been saying they don’t feel trusted at all,” he said.