Dispute over 'terror scores' for airline travelers
Supporters of the federal system say it's necessary in the terror war.
Privacy advocates aren't persuaded.
By Alexandra Marks | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor
NEW YORK -- Do you know your terror score? Think you don't have one?
You may, if you've traveled internationally during the past four
years. And that is generating a growing controversy both in the United
States and abroad.
The Department of Homeland Security's Customs and Border Protection
(CBP) has been quietly assigning travelers, both American and foreign,
on international flights a score that's designed to identify high-risk
travelers. It's derived from a set of criteria, such as where you're
from and whether you have a habit of buying one-way tickets and paying
CBP officials call the program, which was implemented with little
public notice and no congressional approval, a crucial tool to protect
the nation. They describe it as a kind of extra electronic border that
has the potential to catch terrorists and criminals before they get to
an actual border crossing.
"Without a system like this, we would in many ways be blind to
potential threats before they arrive," says Jarrod Agen, a DHS
But some congressional leaders, privacy advocates, and travel
executives believe it's an unparalleled use of data-mining to invade
individuals' privacy. Some European leaders also object, claiming the
program - called the Automated Targeting System (ATS) - violates a
privacy agreement worked out between the US and the European Union.
Opponents are calling on the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to
suspend the program until privacy concerns can be addressed. They say
the key problem with ATS is that there's no way for individual to
determine that he or she has been flagged. CBP can also share the
information it's collected with other government agencies, other
governments, and even private contractors. And CBP can keep the data
up to 40 years.
"For the first time, a dossier is being built on me and every other
innocent citizen that tracks information on them," says Kevin
Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition in Radnor, Pa. "To
add insult to injury ... they say they're keeping the data for 40
years -- just in case Kevin Mitchell -- whose profile is not
threatening at the moment -- has some kind of ties to a terrorist
organization in the future."
The controversy over ATS erupted after privacy advocates at the
Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) found an obscure notice about it
in the Federal Register last month. In the notice, which is required
under the 1974 Privacy Act, DHS says that its data collection system
"does not identify or create any new collection of information, rather
DHS is providing additional notice and transparency of the
functionality of these systems."
In fact, the data collection system has been in place since the
mid-1990s, says CBP spokesman Pat Jones. It was started as a way to
help interdict drug shipments and smugglers and was carried out by the
Treasury Department. After 9/11, it was enhanced to include potential
terrorists, and it was eventually moved to CBP, according to
Mr. Jones. "The information that we've got is not invasive. How
someone pays for their plane ticket I don't think is an invasion of
anyone's privacy," he says. "These issues always involve some kind of
But privacy advocates contend the issue is far more complex. EFF's
lead counsel, David Sobel, notes that prior to the publication of the
November notice, the only public mention of ATS said that it was used
to target and assess cargo shipments, not people.
"Congress didn't know they were doing this. Even DHS's own inspector
general in a report issued this summer didn't realize they were using
this to target passengers," he says.
The Transportation Security Administration has been trying to put
together a similar data collection system to check air passengers for
years, Mr. Sobel and other privacy advocates note. That system, called
Secure Flight, has been tabled by DHS until privacy concerns raised by
Congress can be addressed.
Mr. Mitchell of the Business Travel Coalition says that while he and
others were testifying before Congress about problems with Secure
Flight, DHS was quietly collecting almost the same kind of
information. And unlike Secure Flight, which is designed to "ping
data" and then expunge it, the ATS data is saved in a data bank.
"None of us knew this was going on behind our backs," says Mitchell.
"This looks like it was done because [other data-mining systems
failed] and Secure Flight's in trouble."
Some congressional leaders, including Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of
Vermont, have pledged to hold hearings on ATS. "Databanks like this
are overdue for oversight, and that is going to change in the new
Congress," Senator Leahy said in a statement.
For now, DHS is standing by its program and says it has no plans to
suspend it for further public scrutiny. "You tell [privacy advocates]
when they're able to persuade the bad guys to announce when they're
coming into the country, we won't need a system like this," says Jones
Copyright 2006 Christian Science Publishing Society.
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