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US: Indian consulate caught dumping visa applications
George Joseph
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February 03, 2007 02:58 IST

The Indian Consulate in San Francisco was caught in a controversy when the San Francisco Chronicle reported that it dumped documents and paperwork submitted along with the visa application, in the open.  

Visa applications by Byron Pollitt, chief financial officer of San Francisco's Gap Inc, and Anne Gust, wife of California Attorney General Jerry Brown, were among the documents lying for more than a month in the open yard of a recycling company, the report said.

Brown, a former governor of California and a good friend of the Indian community, termed it as shocking and unacceptable.

After the Chronicle reporter examined the site and questioned the people, the documents were taken away on January 31. The documents contained information on applicants' names, addresses, phone numbers, birth dates, professions, employers, passport numbers and photos. Accompanying letters detailed people's travel plans and reasons for visiting India.

But Consul General BS Prakash told the newspaper that the documents were not confidential and did not contain social security numbers or credit card numbers.

The consulate officials did not return a call from The report said that it was not difficult to find the social security number of a person using the information contained in the dumped papers.

'Data from the documents could be used to get false passports. Some of the 9/11 hijackers used false passports. This is absolutely sensitive information. It needs to be safeguarded,' Charles Cresson Wood, a Sausalito information-security consultant, was quoted in the report.

After keeping the documents for a year, the consulate would destroy them due to space problem, Pratik Sircar, deputy consul general, told the paper.

The consulate hired a company in December to cart the boxes to the Haight Ashbury Neighborhood Council recycling center near Golden Gate Park on Frederick Street.

'We thought it was their job to shred the material as soon as they got it,' Sircar said.

But Andy Pugni, general manager of the recycling center, said, 'We take in paper, put it in large containers and ship it off for recycling. That is all we do. We don't shred.'

The documents were in the open ground where public could get easy access. Many of the boxes were marked 'visa applications.' After the reporter's intervention, a truck was brought in to send the papers to an East Bay company that will boil them down and recycle them as blank pages.

Paperwork of almost all those who applied for visas between 2002 and 2005 were in the boxes. The documents submitted by Indian citizens were in other boxes.

Pollitt said he found it 'both astonishing and alarming to learn that basic safeguards were apparently not in place to ensure the privacy of my personal information. As a past victim of identity theft, I am painfully aware of how important it is to ensure personal information is well protected,' he told the Chronicle.

Consul General Prakash said there might be a cultural dimension to the level of outrage related to the incident among Western visa applicants.

'In India, I would not be alarmed. We have grown up giving such information in many, many places. We would not be so worried if someone had our passport number,' he was quoted in the report.

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