S/SW blog philosophy -

I credit favorite writers and public opinion makers.

A lifelong Democrat, my comments on Congress, the judiciary and the presidency are regular features.

My observations and commentary are on people and events in politics that affect the USA or the rest of the world, and stand for the interests of peace, security and justice.

Friday, December 01, 2006

What's your score?

Study this headline, Homeland Security tracks travelers' meals, then read the full story buried in's Travel section. This is the more accurate headline, however, that really caught my eye:

U.S. Rates Travelers for Terror Risk

Writing for the AP, carried by My Way News, Michael J. Sniffen sniffed this out - you may have a score of which you are unaware. As a matter of fact, you got scored if you crossed the U. S. border during the past 4 years. You were in the cross hairs of the ATS - Automatic Targeting System, a program first begun in the late 1990's. And you can never know what you scored.
But we know why you were targeted because the government sneaked that information into the Federal Register. Now it will be up to the American people - to all of us - to register our objections to the following:
  • to having a score we can never know

  • to ever being set up as targets in the first place

  • to being judged as posing risks to national secret without hearing why

  • to having to prove to TSA agents that we are not threats to the United States

  • to having our private information kept in a secret federal database, that is availabe to a wide range of people and organizations for the next 40 years.
Everyone can see it but us! To quote,
The government notice says some or all of the ATS data about an individual may be shared with state, local and foreign governments for use in hiring decisions and in granting licenses, security clearances, contracts or other benefits. In some cases, the data may be shared with courts, Congress and even private contractors.
These chilling paragraphs begin Sniffen's Associated Press article:
Without their knowledge, millions of Americans and foreigners crossing U.S. borders in the past four years have been assigned scores generated by U.S. government computers rating the risk that the travelers are terrorists or criminals.
The travelers are not allowed to see or directly challenge these risk assessments, which the government intends to keep on file for 40 years.
The government calls the system critical to national security following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Some privacy advocates call it one of the most intrusive and risky schemes yet mounted in the name of anti-terrorism efforts.
Virtually every person entering and leaving the United States by air, sea or land is scored by the Homeland Security Department's Automated Targeting System, or ATS. The scores are based on ATS' analysis of their travel records and other data, including items such as where they are from, how they paid for tickets, their motor vehicle records, past one-way travel, seating preference and what kind of meal they ordered.

Look at the numbers - According to the article, "The department says that 87 million people a year enter the country by air and 309 million enter by land or sea." Multiply those numbers by four years and it comes out to 1,548,000,000 border crossings. I would assume that number carries with it the possibility -no, probability - of error.

Other stories - Washington Post, November 3, 2006, by Ellen Nakashima and Spencer Hsu. This story adds a further question about the scope of the program. To quote,

While long known to scrutinize air travelers, the Department of Homeland Security is seeking to apply new technology to perform similar checks on people who enter or leave the country "by automobile or on foot," the notice said.
. . . "We have been doing risk assessments of cargo and passengers coming into and out of the U.S.," DHS spokesman Jarrod Agen said. "We have the authority and the ability to do it for passengers coming by land and sea."
In practice, he said, the government has not conducted risk assessments on travelers at land crossings for logistical reasons.
. . . But others said Congress has been unaware of the potential of the Automated Targeting System to assess non-aviation travelers.
"ATS started as a tool to prevent the entry of drugs with cargo into the U.S.," said one aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. "We are not aware of Congress specifically legislating to make this expansion possible."

  1. Dave Farber who publishes Interesting people Mailing List, forwards the press release from David Sobol's Electronic Frontier Foundation (quoted in the AP story above).
  2. Christian Beckner of Homeland Security Watch, writes rather dismissively about the news in his post today, and a previous post on November 3.
  3. Daniel J. Solove on Concurring Opinions adds a bit to the discussion with "Your Terror Risk Score."
  4. Michael's post at Innocent Bystanders produced the most interesting comment thread about the subject.
  5. Privacy is the focus of the story summary at Privacy News: Pogo was
  6. Chadwick at InfoSciPhi raises a number of other points of which I had not thought.
  7. Jak's View from Vancouver covers the story well from the police state dystopia* point of view.
  8. Dan Shafer on OneMind discussed how the program might actually impact you.
  9. U.S. Department of Homeland Security posted the 30 page (11/22/o6 pdf) file, Privacy Impact Assessment for the Automated Targeting System. This is the document that went into the Federal Register.
*My previous S/SW post on dystopia, "Spooks, Spies - eyes and ears in the skies" (11/28/06). I must be obsessed about the subject. I have written 69 posts about civil liberties and 75 posts about security. Just chalk it up to paranoia. Do you remember the Sixties saying, "Just because you are/are not paranoid does not mean they are not out to get you/after you."

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billie said...

my mom is all over this story. she has seen it on a few news outlets and has called me 3 times about it. i am going to link to your post. very thorough. thanks.

Carol Gee said...

betmo, thanks for your good words; I would be honored if you linked to the story.
It is very jarring to me because of several things, but mostly the depth/breadth/length of the government's undertaking that has been unknown to us all this time.
Mercy me! I had just started to breathe again.