Computer screening of U.S. international travelers riles lawmakers, businessmen
Sunday, December 3, 2006
WASHINGTON -- A leader of the new Democratic Congress, business travelers and privacy advocates expressed outrage last week over the unannounced assignment of terrorism risk assessments to American international travelers by a computerized system managed from an unmarked, two-story brick building in Northern Virginia.
Incoming Senate Judiciary chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont pledged greater scrutiny of such government database-mining projects after reading that during the past four years millions of Americans have been evaluated without their knowledge to assess the risks that they are terrorists or criminals.
"Data banks like this are overdue for oversight," said Leahy, who will take over Judiciary in January. "That is going to change in the new Congress."
The Associated Press reported last week that Americans and foreigners crossing U.S. borders since 2002 have been assessed by the Homeland Security Department's computerized Automated Targeting System, or ATS.
The travelers are not allowed to see or directly challenge these risk assessments, which the government plans to keep on file for 40 years. Some or all data in the system can be shared with state, local and foreign governments for use in hiring, contracting and licensing decisions. Courts and even some private contractors can obtain some of the data under certain circumstances.
"It is simply incredible that the Bush administration is willing to share this sensitive information with foreign governments and even private employers, while refusing to allow U.S. citizens to see or challenge their own terror scores," Leahy said. This system "highlights the danger of government use of technology to conduct widespread surveillance of our daily lives without proper safeguards for privacy."
The concerns spread beyond Congress.
"I have never seen anything as egregious as this," said Kevin Mitchell, president of the Business Travel Coalition, which advocates for business travelers. It's "evidence of what can happen when there isn't proper oversight and accountability."
By late Friday, the government had received 22 written public comments about its after-the-fact disclosure of the program last month in the Federal Register, a fine-print compendium of federal rules. All either opposed it outright or objected to the lack of a direct means for people to correct any errors in the database about themselves.
"As a U.S. citizen who spends much time outside the U.S., I can understand the need for good security," wrote one who identified himself as Colin Edmunds. "However, just as I would not participate in a banking/credit card system where I have no recourse to correct or even view my personal data, I cannot accept the same of my government."
Privacy advocates also were alarmed.
"Never before in American history has our government gotten into the business of creating mass `risk assessment' ratings of its own citizens," said Barry Steinhardt, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union. "We are stunned" the program has been undertaken "with virtually no opportunity for the public to evaluate or comment on it."
The Homeland Security Department says the nation's ability to spot criminals and other security threats "would be critically impaired without access to this data."
And on Friday as the normal daily flow of a million or more people entered the United States by air, sea and land, the ATS program's computers continued their silent scrutiny. At that Virginia building with no sign, the managers of the National Targeting Center allowed an Associated Press photographer to briefly roam their work space.
But he couldn't reveal the building's exact location. None of the dozens of workers under the bright fluorescent lights could be named. Some could not be photographed.
The only clue he might have entered a government building was a montage of photos in the reception area of President Bush's visit to the center. But there was only one guard and a sign-in book.
Inside, red digital clocks on the walls showed the time in Istanbul, Baghdad, Islamabad, Bangkok, Singapore, Tokyo, and Sydney. Although billboard-size video screens on the walls showed multiple cable news shows, there was little noise in the basketball-court-sized main workroom. Each desk had dual computer screens and earphones to hear the video soundtrack. Conferences were held in smaller workrooms divided by glass walls from the windowless main room.
Round the clock, the targeters from Homeland Security's Customs and Border Protection agency analyze information from multiple sources, not just ATS. They compare names to terrorist watch lists and mine the Treasury Enforcement Communications System and other automated systems that bring data about cargo, travelers and commercial workers entering or leaving the 317 U.S. ports, searching for suspicious people and cargo.
Almost every person entering and leaving the United States by air, sea or land is assessed based on ATS' analysis of their travel records and other data, including items such as 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.
Government officials could not say whether ATS has apprehended any terrorists. Based on all the information available to them, federal agents turn back about 45 foreign criminals a day at U.S. borders, according to Homeland Security's Customs and Border Protection spokesman Bill Anthony. He could not say how many were spotted by ATS.
Officials described how the system works: applying rules learned from experience with the activities and characteristics of terrorists and criminals to the traveler data. But they would not describe in detail the format in which border agents see the results or in which the databases store the results of the ATS risk assessments.
Acting Assistant Homeland Security Secretary Paul Rosenzweig told reporters Friday they could call it scoring. "It can be reduced to a number," he said, but he clearly preferred the longer description about how the rules are used.
On the Net:
DHS privacy impact statement: http://www.dhs.gov/xlibrary/assets/privacy/privacy--pia--cbp--ats.pdf