New U.S. Customs Database on Trucks and Travellers
It’s yet another massive government surveillance program:
US Customs and Border Protection issued a notice in the Federal Register yesterday which detailed the agency’s massive database that keeps risk assessments on every traveler entering or leaving the country. Citizens who are concerned that their information is inaccurate are all but out of luck: the system “may not be accessed under the Privacy Act for the purpose of contesting the content of the record.”
The system in question is the Automated Targeting System, which is associated with the previously-existing Treasury Enforcement Communications System. TECS was built to screen people and assets that moved in and out of the US, and its database contains more than one billion records that are accessible by more than 30,000 users at 1,800 sites around the country. Customs has adapted parts of the TECS system to its own use and now plans to screen all passengers, inbound and outbound cargo, and ships.
The system creates a risk assessment for each person or item in the database. The assessment is generated from information gleaned from federal and commercial databases, provided by people themselves as they cross the border, and the Passenger Name Record information recorded by airlines. This risk assessment will be maintained for up to 40 years and can be pulled up by agents at a moment’s notice in order to evaluate potential threats against the US.
If you leave the country, the government will suddenly know a lot about you. The Passenger Name Record alone contains names, addresses, telephone numbers, itineraries, frequent-flier information, e-mail addresses—even the name of your travel agent. And this information can be shared with plenty of people:
- Federal, state, local, tribal, or foreign governments
- A court, magistrate, or administrative tribunal
- Third parties during the course of a law enforcement investigation
- Congressional office in response to an inquiry
- Contractors, grantees, experts, consultants, students, and others performing or working on a contract, service, or grant
- Any organization or person who might be a target of terrorist activity or conspiracy
- The United States Department of Justice
- The National Archives and Records Administration
- Federal or foreign government intelligence or counterterrorism agencies
- Agencies or people when it appears that the security or confidentiality of their information has been compromised.
That’s a lot of people who could be looking at your information and your government-designed risk assessment. The one person who won’t be looking at that information is you. The entire system is exempt from inspection and correction under provision 552a (j)(2) and (k)(2) of US Code Title 5, which allows such exemptions when the data in question involves law enforcement or intelligence information.
This means you can’t review your data for accuracy, and you can’t correct any errors.
But the system can be used to give you a risk assessment score, which presumably will affect how you’re treated when you return to the U.S.
I’ve already explained why data mining does not find terrorists or terrorist plots. So have actual math professors. And we’ve seen this kind of “risk assessment score” idea and the problems it causes with Secure Flight.
This needs some mainstream press attention.
EDITED TO ADD (11/4): More commentary here, here, and here.
EDITED TO ADD (11/5): It’s buried in the back pages, but at least The Washington Post wrote about it.
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