Dec. 11, 2006 – A US Department of Homeland Security program that compiles data on millions of travelers and determines how likely they are to be terrorists may be operating illegally, according to privacy advocates and some members of Congress.
The Automated Targeting System (ATS) gathers travelersâ€™ data from foreign governments, from numerous Customs and Border Protection sources, and from the Passenger Name Record, a controversial system used by the United States and Europe to gather travelersâ€™ information from airlines and travel agencies.
ATS has long been used to track imported and exported cargo. But recent revelations by the Department show ATS is also being used to scrutinize airline passengers and cars entering or leaving the United States. The system draws on the collected data to assign a risk factor to each person or vehicle in order to help border patrol agents decide whether travelers â€œshould receive additional screening because the traveler may pose a greater risk for violation of US law.â€�
It is unclear how long ATS has been used to screen humans. The DHS announced it had expanded ATS to include monitoring people in a November 2 notice in the Federal Register. However, the Department did not say when the expansion took place and some DHS officials have said the program has been in place for years.
Calling the program "equitable," the agency said it â€œuses the same risk assessment processâ€� for all individuals.
The DHS has announced it will keep the personal data gathered by ATS for up to 40 years to "cover the potentially active lifespan of individuals associated with terrorism or other criminal activities.
At least two lawmakers, Representative Martin Sabo (D-Minnesota) and Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), believe the program violates a provision of the 2007 DHS spending bill. That provision prohibits the testing or development of programs using computerized databases to assign risk to passengers who are not already on watch lists.
The Bush administration insists the program is legal.
Yet, in response to public opposition to the program, the DHS announced it would extend the public comment period from December 4 to December 29.
In a 30-page privacy-impact assessment about the program, the DHS said it will use the system to identify "suspicious or unusual behavior" using a set of "constantly evolving" rules.The program is being used on both international travelers and people involved in importing and exporting goods.
But the agency also admits there are privacy risks, including inaccurate information used against people who may not be aware that the government is compiling data about them.
In its Federal Register announcement, the DHS states that the system cannot be accessed by individuals wishing to contest the information included about them.
"This program may be right for cargo, but itâ€™s all wrong for people. Congress has already repeatedly declared that it does not want the government engaging in this kind of mass computerized dragnet," said the ACLUâ€™s Timothy Sparapani in a press statement. "Now [Congress] needs to weigh in on this program â€“ get to the bottom of what is being done, and reaffirm its views on what should not be done."
The ACLU said it "appears" that the program also violates the 1974 Privacy Act, which requires public notice of government databases that contain personal data before they can be implemented. The ACLU, along with other privacy advocates, is calling for the DHS to abandon the program.