U.S. tags terrorism scores on travelers
Rating those entering, exiting country raises privacy concerns
Washington D.C. - Without notifying the public, federal agents for the
past four years have assigned millions of international travelers,
including Americans, computer-generated scores rating the risk they
pose of being terrorists or criminals.
The travelers are not allowed to see or directly challenge these
risk assessments, which the government intends to keep on file for
The scores are assigned to people entering and leaving the United
States after computers assess their travel records, including where
they are from, how they paid for tickets, their motor vehicle
records, past one-way travel, seating preference and what kind of
meal they ordered.
The program's existence was quietly disclosed in November when the
government put an announcement detailing the Automated Targeting
System, or ATS, for the first time in the Federal Register, a
fine-print compendium of federal rules. Privacy and civil liberties
lawyers, congressional aides and law enforcement officers said they
thought the system had been applied only to cargo.
The Homeland Security Department notice called its program "one of
the most advanced targeting systems in the world." The department
said the nation's ability to spot criminals and other security
threats "would be critically impaired without access to this data."
Government officials could not say whether ATS has apprehended any
Privacy advocates view ATS with alarm. "It's probably the most
invasive system the government has yet deployed in terms of the
number of people affected," said David Sobel, a lawyer at the
Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties group devoted to
electronic data issues.
A similar Homeland Security data-mining project, for domestic air
travelers -- now known as Secure Flight -- caused a furor two years
ago in Congress. Lawmakers barred its implementation until it can
pass 10 tests for accuracy and privacy protection.
In comments to the Homeland Security Department about ATS, Sobel
said, "Some individuals will be denied the right to travel and many
the right to travel free of unwarranted interference as a result of
the maintenance of such material."
Sobel said in an interview that the government notice also raises
the possibility that faulty risk assessments could cost innocent
people jobs in shipping or travel, government contracts, licenses or
The government notice says ATS data may be shared with state, local
and foreign governments for use in hiring decisions and in granting
licenses, security clearances, contracts or other benefits. In some
cases, the data may be shared with courts, Congress and private
Jayson Ahern, an assistant commissioner of Homeland Security's
Customs and Border Protection agency, said the ATS ratings allow
agents at the border to pick out people not previously identified by
law enforcement as potential terrorists or criminals and send them
for additional searches and interviews. "It does not replace the
judgments of officers," Ahern said Thursday.
Ahern said ATS was first used to rate the risk posed by travelers in
the late 1990s, using personal information about them voluntarily
supplied by air and cruise lines. A post-9-11 law vastly expanded
the program, he said. It required airline and cruise companies to
begin in 2002 sending the government electronic data in advance on
all passengers and crew entering or leaving the country.
In the Federal Register, the Homeland Security Department exempted
ATS from many provisions of the Privacy Act designed to protect
people from secret, possibly inaccurate government dossiers. As a
result, it said travelers cannot learn whether the system has
assessed them. Nor can they see the records to contest the content.
Toby Levin, senior adviser in Homeland Security's Privacy Office,
noted that the department pledged to review the exemptions over the
next 90 days based on the public comment received. As of Thursday,
all 15 public comments received opposed the system outright or
criticized its redress procedures.
Among Records Checked
* Passenger manifests
* Immigration control records
* Information from personal searches
* Property seizure records
* Vehicle seizure records
* Visa data
* FBI National Criminal Information Center data
* Dates of travel
* Form of travel payment
* E-mail address
* Telephone numbers
* Frequent-flier miles
* Travel agency used
* Passenger travel status
* History of one-way travel
* History of missing flights
* Number of bags
* Special services (wheel-chair needs or special meals)
* Historical changes to the passenger's record
The above article appeared on-line, December 1st, 2006 in the
Until next issue stay cool and remain low profile!