Ed Pilkington / The London Guardian – 2006-12-03 01:15:54
Millions Assigned Terror Risk Score on Trips to the US
Ed Pilkington / Guardian
NEW YORK (December 2, 2006) — Millions of American and international travellers coming into and out of the US over the past four years have each been assigned a risk assessment score designed to pinpoint potential terrorists or criminals, the US government has revealed.
The travellers, including all British passengers to the US, have been given a security profile that draws on information from a number of key American departments as well as intelligence held on them by the airlines and co-operating governments. The profiles are held in a central computer in Washington for 40 years.
The details of the system, known as the Automated Targeting System or ATS, were put on the federal noticeboard last month but attracted little attention. The system builds on measures to target suspected terrorists first developed in the wake of the September 11 attacks.
The process of garnering intelligence from many different sources and then processing it to produce a profile or score indicating risk levels was initially applied to cargo. But over recent years it has been widened to include individual air passengers as well as flight crews, without any public notification and without the knowledge of data protection groups.
The Department of Homeland Security said it was putting out information about the profiling system as part of its commitment to open government. ATS is “one of the most advanced targeting systems in the world” it said, with the primary purpose of “targeting, identifying, and preventing potential terrorists and terrorist weapons from entering the US”.
But civil liberties groups fear it amounts to an unwarranted intrusion on privacy. “This is a tremendously significant deal. It means the federal government has secretly assigned a terrorist rating to tens of millions of US citizens,” said Marc Tenberg, director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington.
David Sobel of the Electronic Frontier Foundation told the Associated Press: “It’s probably the most invasive system the government has yet deployed in terms of the number of people affected.”
The ATS database works by drawing together information held on individuals and companies from the US Treasury, customs and immigration departments and enforcement agencies. Commercial airlines supply data through passenger name records, and foreign governments share intelligence on a bilateral basis.
The computer sets a risk rating for each person by analysing information such as the passenger’s history of one-way ticket purchase, seat preferences, frequent flyer records, number of bags, how they pay for tickets and even what meals they order. The computer uses a number of rules built into its programme which the Department of Homeland Security says “help identify suspicious or unusual behaviour”.
The department emphasises that the risk rating is only used as a guide to immigration officers at the borders to assist them in selecting passengers to interview upon entry as part of their inspection procedures. So, it says, the individual is at no greater risk from ATS than being put through a border interview of the kind that many passengers experience in any case as part of random inspections.
But civil rights groups point to a potential Catch 22 in the system in which individuals are never allowed to know what their risk rating is, yet they are allowed to challenge the information upon which that rating is posited.
Mr Tenberg said the provision effectively decimated the Privacy Act. “This is a secretive government system that lacks transparency and any meaningful application of the act.”
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