Privacy and civil liberties groups, as well as travel industry groups like the Business Travel Coalition, are harshly criticizing a U.S. government program that has taken what began as a cargo screening system and, for several years now, used it to mine, store, and assess personal data of all travelers entering, or leaving the United States.
According to the Department of Homeland Security, the program, called the Automated Targeting System, takes a passenger’s information and “associates” it with a “level of risk” posed by that passenger. The program was disclosed in November in the Federal Register.
Many observers are disturbed both by the nature of the ATS, and by the fact that DHS implemented the program with a minimal amount of public awareness. Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition has submitted comments to the DHS critical of ATS, and is urging members of the travel industry to do the same. ATS is “truly a massive and disturbing passenger profiling program,” Mitchell said in an e-mail blast to BTC members. “The program … was begun as a cargo screening program, but 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.”
Observers like Mitchell, the ACLU, and other privacy advocates are also worried that individuals are not allowed access to the ATS data, such as an individual’s risk assessment, yet the information can be shared with other government agencies, as well as some foreign entities.
In the comments BTC submitted to DHS, Mitchell argues ATS could have a significant impact on business travel. “Databases are notoriously prone to inaccuracies,” writes Mitchell. “No doubt, ATS will cause delays for travelers, unwarranted interferences and inconveniences. Missed flights will cause travelers to pay higher last-minute fares to proceed with their travel plans. Business travelers will miss commercial opportunities, and all travelers risk arrest in a foreign country due to an inaccurate dossier.”
The Federal Register notice describing the program has a December 4 effective date, and there is some ambiguity whether the program has been going through a test phase and becane effective Monday, or if anything really changes at all. According to a story in the Chicago Tribune, a DHS spokesman confirmed ATS is an existing program and referred to its posting in the Federal Register as a DHS effort to be open and transparent.