U.S. government quietly rates millions of travellers for terrorism potential
Michael J. Sniffen
Friday, December 01, 2006
WASHINGTON (AP) – Without notifying the public, federal agents for the past four years have assigned millions of international travellers, including Americans, computer-generated scores rating the risk they pose of being terrorists or criminals.
The travellers are not allowed to see or directly challenge these risk assessments, which the government intends to keep them on file for 40 years.
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 earlier 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 even law enforcement officers said they thought this 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."
Still, 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," David Sobel, a lawyer at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties group devoted to electronic data issues, said in an interview.
A similar Homeland Security data-mining project, for domestic air travellers – now known as Secure Flight – caused a furor two years ago in Congress. Legislators 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 the interview the government notice also raises the possibility that faulty risk assessments could cost innocent people jobs in shipping or travel, government contracts, licenses or other benefits.
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 even private contractors.
"Everybody else can see it, but you can't," Stephen Yale-Loeher, an immigration lawyer who teaches at Cornell Law school, said in an interview.
But Jayson P. Ahern, an assistant commissioner of Homeland Security's Customs and Border Protection agency, said the ATS ratings simply 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 judgements of officers," Ahern said in an interview Thursday.
This targeting system goes beyond traditional border watch lists, Ahern said. Border agents compare arrival names with watch lists separately from the ATS analysis.
In a privacy impact assessment posted on its website this week, Homeland Security said ATS is aimed at discovering high-risk individuals who "may not have been previously associated with a law enforcement action or otherwise be noted as a person of concern to law enforcement."
Ahern said ATS does this by applying rules derived from the government's knowledge of terrorists and criminals to the passenger's travel patterns and records.
He said any traveller who objected to additional searches or interviews could ask to speak to a supervisor to complain. Homeland Security's privacy impact statement said that if asked, border agents would hand complaining passengers a one-page document that describes some, but not all, of the records that agents check and refers complaints to Custom and Border Protection's Customer Satisfaction Unit.
Homeland Security's statement said travellers can use this office to obtain corrections to the underlying data sources that the risk assessment is based on. "There is no procedure to correct the risk assessment and associated rules stored in ATS as the assessment … will change when the data from the source system(s) is amended."
"I don't buy that at all," said Jim Malmberg, executive director of American Consumer Credit Education Support Services, a private credit education group. Malmberg noted how hard it has been for citizens, including members of Congress and even infants, to stop being misidentified as terrorists because their names match those on anti-terrorism watch lists.
The department says that 87 million people a year enter the country by air and 309 million enter by land or sea. The government gets advance passenger and crew lists for all flights and ships entering and leaving and all those names are entered into the system for an ATS analysis, Ahern said. He also said the names of vehicle drivers and passengers are entered when they cross the border and Amtrak is voluntarily supplying passenger data for trains to and from Canada.
Ahern said that border agents concentrate on arrivals more than on departures because their resources are limited.
"If this catches one potential terrorist, this is a success," Ahern said.