Department of Homeland Security Tracks Airline Passengers’ Personal Info, Reading Material

Oct 11, 2007
Nicole A. Ozer

Page Media

ACLU of Northern CA

Last November we learned that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has been secretly compiling data on millions of innocent Americans. According to the Washington Post, the DHS has been using its Automated Targeting System (ATS) originally developed for cargo security to generate "terrorist" risk ratings on American travelers.

This past August the DHS proposed a rule that would continue the controversial ATS program. In response, the ACLU has filed comments with the DHS urging that the program be scrapped because it violates not only federal law but the privacy of all innocent Americans traveling internationally.

The ATS draws information on travelers from government databases, airline passenger information, and other sources. It then uses it to analyze each person's background or behavior, and assigns them a numeric "terrorist" risk rating.

Until recently, the scope of information collected by the ATS was all but unknown. Things have become clearer since the Identity Project succeeded in getting the Department of Homeland Security to hand over ATS records on several travelers.

The results should be shocking, but are instead emblematic of the many runaway surveillance programs the government has created since 9/11. Not only do the records obtained include detailed flight information and other expected identifiers, but also each traveler's race, their reason for travel, the various itineraries their travel agent explored as possibilities, and information on people they often travel with. The system even reportedly tracks the type of bed that a traveler requests at hotels.

In one case, the record notes that a passenger was carrying "many small flashlights with pot leaves on them"and "a book entitled drugs and your rights." Another record obtained by the Identity Project contains the name and phone number of a traveler's emergency contact. This contact person, despite potentially never having crossed a border, now has their personal information in the government's computers.

Even with the records recently obtained, the full scope of information collected and stored by the government remains unclear. In an interview with the Washington Post, a Michigan Firefighter said he was detained at the border numerous times and questioned about politically charged opinion pieces he had written. He claims that during one interrogation, border officials had his articles printed out and in front of them.

Despite, or perhaps because of the overwhelming amount of information collected, the ATS may not work. Much of the data the ATS uses to make its individual risk ratings is drawn from deeply flawed government databases. On the occasions when the system is fed good data, it's still of little use in singling out those with violent intent.

Even an advisory group convened by the Transportation Security Administration concluded that "…there is not sufficient available intelligence to determine what characteristics indicate someone will be a threat." In other words, even when systems like the ATS work perfectly, they are still unlikely to reliably figure out if a given individual is a terrorist.

Equally troubling is that the system may violate federal law. When funding the Department of Homeland Security, Congress specifically stated that "None of the funds provided in this or previous appropriations Acts may be utilized to develop or test algorithms assigning risk to passengers whose names are not on Government watch lists." Public Law 109-295, Title V, Sec. 514 (e).

To read more on the ACLU's efforts to end the ATS, see the ACLU's recent comments to the DHS, or take action yourself and urge the DHS to abandon the program.