Travel, Trade, and privacy groups are heavily criticizing a Department of Homeland Security program that, for the past several years, has been used to mine, store, and assess the personal data of all travelers, including U.S. citizens, entering or leaving the United States.
The Automated Targeting System began as a cargo-screening program. It has since become a way in which DHS can gather personal data it uses to assign risk assessment profiles on incoming and outgoing travelers.
The original deadline for comments on the program was December 4, but when the scale and nature of the program started receiving widespread attention, DHS extended it to December 29.
Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition, has been a driving force behind an effort to get DHS to reconsider the program. BTC submitted a letter, signed by a number of travel-related companies and organizations, asking DHS to stop the program immediately; to provide more information on it; and to proceed “only through an official rulemaking with a significant public comment period, per requirements of the U.S. Privacy Act of 1974.”
David Sobel, senior counsel of the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation, says that the existence of the ATS program without a Privacy Act notice suggests the program has been conducted illegally. “But the bottom line is that DHS needs to disclose more information about the system before we can have a meaningful public debate,” says Sobel, whose organization deals with electronic privacy and free speech issues.
Mitchell's concerns go beyond privacy issues. In the BTC letter to DHS, Mitchell argues that ATS could have a significant impact on business travel. “Databases are notoriously prone to inaccuracies,” he writes. “No doubt ATS will cause delays for travelers, unwarranted interferences, and inconveniences.”
Some observers are disturbed that DHS implemented the program with minimal public awareness. ATS is “truly a massive and disturbing passenger profiling program,” Mitchell said in an e-mail blast sent to BTC members. “Without any public debate or even U.S. congressional awareness, the system was trained on tens of millions of U.S. and non-U.S. travelers entering and exiting the U.S. during the past several years.”
“Never before in American history has our government got into the business of creating mass ‘risk assessment’ ratings of its own citizens,” said Barry Steinhardt, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Technology and Liberty Project, in a statement. “That is a radical new step with far-reaching implications — but one that has been taken almost thoughtlessly by expanding a cargo-tracking system to incorporate beings, and with little public notice, discussion, or debate.”
Travel groups and privacy advocates are also worried that individuals are not allowed access to the ATS data, yet the information can be shared with other government agencies, as well as some foreign entities.