Sunday, December 03, 2006

Proposed Government Database Targets Millions Within the United States

Proposed Government Database Targets US Citizens

In comments to be filed with the Department of Homeland Security on Monday, a coalition of organizations and experts in technology and privacy will urge the federal agency to curtail the "Automated Targeting System," a federal database that creates secret terrorist ratings on tens of millions of American citizens. The problems of the Automated Targeting System are described in the current EPIC Spotlight on Surveillance "Customs and Border Protection’s Automated System Targets U.S. Citizens." Public comments on the proposal will be accepted until December 4.

The system was originally established to assess cargo that may pose a threat to the United States. Now the Department of Homeland Security proposes to use the system to establish a secret terrorism risk profile for millions of people, most of whom will be U.S. citizens. Simultaneously, it is seeking to remove Privacy Act safeguards for the database.

The new description of the database differs significantly from an earlier one. As recently as March, ATS was described as "a computerized model that [Customs and Border Protection] officers use as a decision support tool to help them target oceangoing cargo containers for inspection." It is unknown when ATS expanded from merely screening shipping cargo to scrutinizing land and sea travelers. On the same day as the Homeland Security notice about the proposal to use ATS to target individuals, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee asked the department for a briefing about ATS.

According to the Department of Homeland Security, ATS assigns a "risk assessment," which is essentially a terrorist risk rating, to all people "seeking to enter or exit the United States," "engag[ing] in any form of trade or other commercial transaction related to the importation or exportation of merchandise," "employed in any capacity related to the transit of merchandise intended to cross the United States border," and "serv[ing] as operators, crew, or passengers on any vessel, vehicle, aircraft, or train who enters or exits the United States. " In Fiscal Year 2005, Customs and Border Protection says it "processed 431 million pedestrians and passengers, 121 million privately owned vehicles, and processed and cleared 25.3 million sea, rail, and truck containers."

The Automated Targeting System's terrorist risk profiles will be secret, unreviewable, and maintained by the government for 40 years. The profiles will determine whether individuals will be subject to invasive searches of their persons or belongings, and whether U.S. citizens will be permitted to enter or exit the country. Individuals will not have judicially enforceable rights to access information about them contained in the system, nor to request correction of information that is inaccurate, irrelevant, untimely or incomplete.

The Automated Targeting System was created to screen shipping cargo, but it has many problems even completing that mission. An August 2006 report from the House Committee on Homeland Security gave both port and border security low marks. For port security, the department's grade is a C-/D+. "There are many gaps remaining in our port security. As some experts have noted, the current port security regime is a 'house of cards,' in which containers are often not inspected and the government does not truly know which containers are 'high risk.'"

EPIC has highlighted the problems inherent in passenger profiling systems in previous testimony and comments. In testimony before the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (more commonly known as "the 9/11 Commission"), EPIC President Marc Rotenberg explained, "there are specific problems with information technologies for monitoring, tracking, and profiling. The techniques are imprecise, they are subject to abuse, and they are invariably applied to purposes other than those originally intended."

The public has until the close of business on Monday to submit comments about the Automated Targeting System.

Department of Homeland Security, Notice of Privacy Act system of records, 71 Fed. Reg. 64543 (Nov. 2, 2006):

EPIC's June 2006 Spotlight on SWIFT "Customs & Border Protection's Automated System Targets U.S. Citizens":

Government Accountability Office Testimony about problems with ATS (Mar.30, 2006) (PDF):

EPIC's page on Total Information Awareness:

No comments: