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Instructions in place to ensure document security

An estimated seven million Indians are likely to travel abroad this year, bringing a deluge of visa applications to embassies, reports Nilova Roy Chaudhury.

india Updated: Feb 09, 2007 21:26 IST

As more Indians prepare to travel abroad, foreign embassies in India are gearing up for the great summer visa rush.

An estimated seven million Indians are likely to travel abroad this year, bringing a deluge of visa applications to embassies. And the problem of how to deal with mountains of paper.

Giving out visas is just a part of the problem. Ensuring the privacy of applicants and handling the paper afterwards is a "major responsibility," diplomats said.

"No one wants an enactment of what happened in San Francisco," an official said.

Visa application forms found their way recently from the Indian Consulate to a recycling unit in San Francisco. In what constituted a major security breach, the documents had left the premises undestroyed.

Instead of acknowledging the security lapse, the Indian Consul General in San Francisco, BS Prakash, when confronted with the evidence, reportedly said, "as we see it, the documents are not confidential.

We would see something as controversial if it has a social security number or a credit card number, not a passport number."

Prakash, who has served 31 years as an Indian diplomat, has subsequently been told by the Ministry of External Affairs to ensure that such incidents do not recur.

Officially, the MEA spokesman Navtej Sarna tried to play down the incident, saying, "the Consulate has taken all necessary steps to ensure that all papers are shredded before they leave the consulate premises in the future."

According to a former Indian Ambassador who is familiar with the San Francisco Consulate, "it was clearly an error of judgement on the part of some attaché or clerk, but Prakash has to take the call.

This falls in the category of routine security," the former Ambassador said. "Every mission has incinerators and shredders and they are there for precisely the purpose of ensuring that sensitive documents do not leave the premises unsecured.

The instructions and guidelines are in place everywhere. Ultimately, however, the people implementing the policy are those who matter."

A senior MEA official, embarrassed by the incident, said the case was exceptional.
"Obviously a mistake was made," the official said. "But it was a mistake, nothing further.

Steps have been taken to ensure there will be no repetition of such an incident."
Foreign embassies in New Delhi were reticent to talk of the measures they have in place to ensure no such breaches occur, not only with visa applications, but with all "sensitive" documents.

Saying he did not recall such an incident happening in their missions abroad, US Embassy spokesman David Kennedy said, "We obviously treat confidentiality of all documents very seriously.

All documents are very finely shredded. Some application material is sent online, where stringent security checks also have been set up."

Asked to comment, a Japanese diplomat said, "there is a manual detailing procedures about how documents have to be treated. No document leaves the embassy premises unsecured."

Some foreign embassies, including the Singapore, French and Australian missions, have outsourced their visa services.

Diplomats, however, clarified that these were restricted to collection of application forms.

Once in the embassy's custody, they treat them "very securely." "We handle them and then destroy them completely," a diplomat said.

The British "have a very high level of awareness of document security overall, not just visa applications," said Jeff Wilson, spokesman for the High Commission.

"We have strict instructions to treat all documents securely and destroy them thoroughly."

Israel, which firmly believes in recycling its papers, has very strict security measures in place to ensure no document is unsecured.

Papers are not even allowed to be thrown in a bin, unless torn. Depending on the document, they are either stored securely, or they are burnt or shredded.

Many documents are even sent back to Israel for disposal.

First Published: Feb 09, 2007 21:26 IST