December 9, 2006

The Seduction of Data [6:03 pm]

Once it can be collected, it will be — and it will be used, apparently: Traveler Data Program Defied Ban, Critics Saypdf

Developed to help customs inspectors target narcotics and other contraband, ATS began scrutinizing air travelers entering and leaving the United States in the mid-1990s, said Jayson P. Ahern, assistant commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. After the 2001 terrorist attacks, it was used to assign risk assessments to cargo and passengers, officials’ testimony and a February 2005 DHS report to Congress show.

Two years ago, it was expanded again to a limited but growing number of land border crossers, according to the report and Ahern. About 309 million land crossings and 87 million air crossings of U.S. borders are made each year.

Travelers are not allowed to see their risk assessments and must file Freedom of Information Act requests to view the original records on which the assessment is based.

The Center for Democracy and Technology said the program violated the 1974 Privacy Act because customs officials targeted U.S. travelers and shared their data with other agencies without notifying the public. Homeland Security officials say that notice was implicit in an announcement in 2001 about an older program.

“The lack of a notice at all was clearly illegal for however many years they claim this was in operation,” said David Sobel, Electronic Frontier Foundation senior counsel.

“This is everybody’s worst nightmare,” said Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition, who was angered by the revelation that profiles were being kept without travelers’ knowledge.

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