GAO Report on International Passenger Prescreening

From the U.S. GAO: "Aviation Security: Efforts to Strengthen International Prescreening are Under Way, but Planning and Implementations Remain," May 2007.

What GAO Found

Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) agency responsible for international passenger prescreening, has planned or is taking several actions designed to strengthen the aviation passenger prescreening process. One such effort involves CBP stationing U.S. personnel overseas to evaluate the authenticity of the travel documents of certain high-risk passengers prior to boarding U.S.-bound flights. Under this pilot program, called the Immigration Advisory Program (IAP), CBP officers personally interview some passengers deemed to be high-risk and evaluate the authenticity and completeness of these passengers' travel documents. IAP officers also provide technical assistance and training to air carrier staff on the identification of improperly documented passengers destined for the United States. The IAP has been tested at several foreign airports and CBP is negotiating with other countries to expand it elsewhere and to make certain IAP sites permanent. Successful implementation of the IAP rests, in part, on CBP clearly defining the goals and objectives of the program through the development of a strategic plan.

A second aviation passenger prescreening effort designed to strengthen the passenger prescreening process is intended to align international passenger prescreening with a similar program (currently under development) for prescreening passengers on domestic flights. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) -- a separate agency within DHS -- is developing a domestic passenger prescreening program called Secure Flight. If CBP's international prescreening program and TSA's Secure Flight program are not effectively aligned once Secure Flight becomes operational, this could result in separate implementation requirements for air carriers and increased costs for both air carriers and the government. CBP and TSA officials stated that they are taking steps to coordinate their prescreening efforts, but they have not yet made all key policy decisions.

In addition to these efforts to strengthen certain international aviation passenger prescreening procedures, one other issue requires consideration in the context of these efforts. This issue involves DHS providing the traveling public with assurances of privacy protection as required by federal privacy law. Federal privacy law requires agencies to inform the public about how the government uses their personal information. Although CBP officials have stated that they have taken and are continuing to take steps to comply with these requirements, the current prescreening process allows passenger information to be used in multiple prescreening procedures and transferred among various CBP prescreening systems in ways that are not fully explained in CBP's privacy disclosures. If CBP does not issue all appropriate disclosures, the traveling public will not be fully aware of how their personal information is being used during the passenger prescreening process.

Posted on May 23, 2007 at 7:18 AM • 33 Comments

Comments

HugoMay 23, 2007 8:09 AM

How does this not surprise me. It more and more looks like privacy does not exists in the USA. No way I will ever fly to the USA.

MathFoxMay 23, 2007 8:13 AM

"Therefore, this report omits our findings associated with vulnerabilities we identified in the existing passenger prescreening process and measures that could be taken to address those vulnerabilities."

The whole prescreening is based on the flawed premise that identity==intention (discussed to death before, but not mentioned in the report).
I wonder whether the "Thou shalt not work" list legislation that is currently debated in US Congress will be effective against illegal immigrants. It would make an effective tool against dissidents.

EuropeMay 23, 2007 8:18 AM

The only thing missing at the borders of the USA are big signs yelling "GO AWAY, WE DON'T WANT YOU HERE. YOU ARE NOT WELCOME!"

BunBunMay 23, 2007 8:42 AM

Stationing personnel in foreign airports to interview passengers sounds like a great idea. I'm looking forward to seeing this implemented in the USA as well, with US-Americans being interviewed by French, German, Brazilian, Chinese etc. officials - I'm sure that everyone will see that this is a good idea and only fair, and that there will be no objections.

Jay74May 23, 2007 8:57 AM

@Europe: "The only thing missing at the borders of the USA are big signs yelling "GO AWAY, WE DON'T WANT YOU HERE. YOU ARE NOT WELCOME!""

That's an unfair indictment, Europe. I think the government's means are often misguided, but the notion that we don't want people from other countries here is just flat wrong. It is absolutely our right to attempt to keep those who want to harm us and who don't respect our laws out. I don't think the governments approach is the best one, but please don't accuse us of not wanting anyone here.

gregMay 23, 2007 9:07 AM

@Jay74

Well like it or not. Many of us avoid all air travel to or via the USA. It my be "your right". Its my right to avoid your country and I do.

Fingerprints? Photo? I don't think so.

bobMay 23, 2007 9:13 AM

@Europe, @Jay74: Exactly. The government is not against people from outside the US, they want to terrorize EVERYONE whether internal or external; citizen, visitor or illegal; no favoritism whatsoever.

comreichMay 23, 2007 9:19 AM

Well, being a Canuck, this is nothing new. All passengers to the US (as far as I'm aware) clear US customs/INS/DHS/{add department of your choice} before ever approaching the gate. So we're on US soil before we leave Canada. Kind of like little Berlins all over the country.

Jay74May 23, 2007 9:24 AM

@Greg "Its my right to avoid your country and I do."

Something I'm grateful for.

FPMay 23, 2007 9:25 AM

Quote from the document: "According to CBP documents, from the start of the IAP pilot in June 2004 through February 2006, IAP teams made more than 700 no-board recommendations for inadmissible passengers [...]. CBP estimated that these accomplishments equate to about $1.1 million in cost avoidance for the U.S. government associated with detaining and removing passengers who would have been turned away after their flights landed."

There is no information about why no-board recommendations were made.

Another quote: "Since the terrorist hijackings of aircraft on September 11, the United States and the rest of the world have uncovered new attempts to threaten the security of the commercial aviation system."

In combination, this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because 700 travelers were not allowed to board, there are continued threats against aviation. The reason for why people are not allowed to board is secondary.

Jay74May 23, 2007 9:26 AM

@Bob "The government is not against people from outside the US, they want to terrorize EVERYONE whether internal or external; citizen, visitor or illegal; no favoritism whatsoever."

Terrorize everyone? That's a ridiculous indictment.

buntklicker.deMay 23, 2007 9:39 AM

@BunBun: At those borders in Europe where identity documents are still checked, for example the German/Polish border, German and Polish officials work side by side in a shared border crossing compound. This works well and has done so for a number of years. So "we" (Germany) let Polish officers scrutinize German citizens that want to go to Poland while still on German territory.

So what?

supersnailMay 23, 2007 10:24 AM

The US government seems determined to p*ss off any friends it ever had.

Is it really worth annoying so many people ( from democratic countries where an anti US stand will win votes ).

Apart from anything else you are going to need all the friends you can get in the upcoming trade war with Aruba.

Duh -- yes Aruba! The US has violated its WTO treaty obligations by suppressing Aruba's online gambling businesses. So Aruba has applied to the WTO for suspension of its treaty obligations to the US, particulary, regarding intelectual property. Yep you will be able to down load a Pirate copy of Pirates of the Caribean from this little Caribean island and the RIAA can only watch and scream.

As Aruba is basically in the right, and, most other voting countries in the WTO are fed up of the one sided way the US applies the treaty this is going to run until the US backs down ( you will get no support from Canada! ).

So now would be a really good time to make nice with those pesky foriengers who you owe so much money to.

BetaMay 23, 2007 10:26 AM

@BunBun

For years Brazilians travelling to the US have been subjected to really absurd and demeaning "security" procedures, and I heard that the Brazilian authorities retaliated by making US citizens jump through extra hoops. When I went to Brazil I prepared a statement (in Portuguese) for the Brazilian officers saying, roughly, "I know that my country has treated your citizens badly, I understand your policy, I will submit without complaint to extra screening and delay."

(I never used it-- everything was quick and easy...)

paulMay 23, 2007 10:33 AM

From the way the text is phrased, it's not entirely clear that the people being interviewed and screened by US personnel would have been allowed to board planes to the US in the first place. Inadequate documents is inadequate documents, after all.

HermanMay 23, 2007 10:49 AM

Well, it was nice visiting the US in the past, but now it's time to spend our money at some other place. It's not like there aren't any other nice places on this planet.

I wonder how the US would react if other nations demanded controlling US passengers on US soil, a measure completely justified by the fact that US citizens have repeatedly engaged in the kidnapping of foreign nationals, the overthrowing of democratically elected governments and the starting of wars of aggression in the past.

I. O. PenMay 23, 2007 11:05 AM

@FP
>
Another quote: "Since the terrorist hijackings of aircraft on September 11, the United States and the rest of the world have uncovered new attempts to threaten the security of the commercial aviation system."

In combination, this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because 700 travelers were not allowed to board, there are continued threats against aviation. The reason for why people are not allowed to board is secondary.

Shoe bomber, uncovered hand-carried liquids plot, uncovered plan by al-Qaida to crash an explosives-laden aircraft into the American Consulate in Karachi, Pakistan, etc.

Your use of ignorance in support your arguments is truly laughable.

derfMay 23, 2007 11:12 AM

I'm confused.

On the one hand, Chertoff says that denying amnesty is the death penalty - i.e. illegally entering the country = automatic citizenship. OTOH, he wants to strip search, fingerprint, retina scan, rectal scan, identity steal, and facially recognize anyone that comes to America legally.

The US government is basically repeating the DRM debacle of the media companies by encouraging illegality with outrageous authoritarian controls on the legal means. DHS apparently *wants* people to enter the country illegaly through Mexico.

Dom De VittoMay 23, 2007 11:40 AM

BunBun:
I agree. I'm sure Iranian officials would love to screen out CIA operatives before they got on Iran-destined flights.

:-)

Fair is fair....

Hates HollywoodMay 23, 2007 11:44 AM

@supersnail
Canada can;t support the RIAA efforts regardless. Canada has already enacted additional taxes on recording media to cover lost revenues to artists because of "pirating". RIAA has always hidden behind the premise they are concerned about lost revenues to artists (we all know it is really about loss of gouging opportunities for the large distribution corporations), so Canada acted and now RIAA can't do a thing here.

georgeMay 23, 2007 11:57 AM

The biggest threat to the safety of the American people now comes from the US government.

Terrorists seem like a minor issue now that the federal government has reversed the country's progress by about 150 years.

NostromoMay 23, 2007 12:01 PM

This probably has little effect on how many people travel to the USA. I stopped travelling to (or via) the US a few years ago. It makes flights from Europe to Central America more expensive (the cheapest flights are via the US), but avoiding the risk of being detained/denied boarding/plane diverted is worth a few Euros.
People who accepted those risks probably won't be much concerned by these additional measures.

RustyMay 23, 2007 12:17 PM

I'm with @Jay74, I used to travel to the US on business and pleasure at least 5 or 6 times a year, pumping some $$$ into their economy every time. That stopped about 3 years ago, as the 'government agents' made it plainly clear that all visitors are guilty until proven innocent (oops, sorry, we don't accept your governments stand on you, 'we know better'.

While we all understand that, and accept that the US has every right and responsibility to keep the bad guys out, the result is that the combination of arrogance, hostility, hubris and general incompetence just don't make it worth the effort any more.

Pity.


Jay74May 23, 2007 12:39 PM

It never ceases to amaze me that the same people who bash the USA day in and day out with their self-righteous air of superiority then have the chutzpah to call us arrogant.

Anyways, I'm not here to argue with people who can't dialogue past their irrational disdain for the USA. I am here to discuss that I do not think that my countries' approach is the best approach (I said that earlier, but people just itching to take cheap shots at the USA did nothing but). There are more cost effective and less intrusive ways to deal with security than what is being proposed.

One thing I will say about those in charge is that that their CYA security and security theatre is often, and tragically, necessary for their political survival. Unless they do things that visibly make people feel more secure they will get booted from office in favor of those who do, hence the security theatre. And after terrorists attacks, the biggest charge against anyone is that they failed to "connect the dots," hence the CYA security. I'm not defending the misguided behavior, but I will say it is unreasonable to expect them to behave different given the incentives.

Having said that, it is, quite frankly, absurd to the accusations made and the insinuations that this is someone intended to terrorize everyone. It's the wrong approach, but the intent is not to terrorize or bully. Let's at least be logical.

TheWorldGoneMadMay 23, 2007 12:44 PM

@Rusty
The "funny" part is that other countries have been subjected to terroism and extremists long before and for a lot longer than the US, and yet these countries have been able to boost their security and still be civilized about it.

Geoff LaneMay 23, 2007 12:46 PM

But does anybody feel safer?

The actual threat is very low. You are still more likely to be killed in the car during the journey to or from the airport.

Jay74May 23, 2007 12:53 PM

@Geoff Lane: "But does anybody feel safer?

The actual threat is very low. You are still more likely to be killed in the car during the journey to or from the airport."

Fair question. Some do. Some don't. Some of it is a tradeoff--a little theatre to reassure them flying is okay. It's hard to measure the exact cost in those who feel safer minus those who are put off and no longer participate or the friends we have alienated.

There is no easy solution. It is really tough to change the incentives (try convincing a majority of 120 million votes that a congressman deserves reelection when he didn't so something visible to make people feel safer--hence the theatre, to say nothing of political opponents that will accuse someone of making us less safe for common sense choices).

PavelMay 23, 2007 1:03 PM

@supersnail:

Ahh, so THAT is where AllOfMP3.com will be moving. Excellent.

Jon SowdenMay 23, 2007 10:15 PM

@Jay74: "It's hard to measure the exact cost in those who feel safer minus those who are put off and no longer participate or the friends we have alienated."

Well, as a ballpark you can start your measuring at around US$94 billion in visitor spending, US$16 billion in tax receipts, and some 194,000 American jobs.

http://www.boingboing.net/2007/05/01/us_war_on_terror_is_.html

OlafMay 24, 2007 6:01 AM

But does anybody feel safer?

The actual threat is very low. You are still more likely to be killed in the car during the journey to or from the airport.

---------------------------------------------

I for one am always significantly more nervous of the security staff than the passengers.

The queues at security checkpoints surely present a far more juicy terrorist target than any jet now.

RustyMay 24, 2007 8:44 AM

@Jay74, assuming your comment is partially directed at me, I am not *bashing* the US. Used to be a wonderful place, and I wish I felt comfortable enough to visit.

It's all cause and effect - if your country externally projects certain traits such as arrogance, don't be surprised to see the mirror held back up to you.... it's, ahem, somewhat arrogant. ;-)

You do make an excellent point on the security theater and the politicians reactions. (And I'm not taking a shot here, this is a legit question): Isn't it the place of the senior civil servants to implement the desires of their political masters in a rational way?

We can all see that some of the methods implemented seem to be all theater and no reality - I understand the pavlovian response of a people who have been fed a steady diet of FUD for years, but really you all deserve much better from both your elected officials and civil service.

This is not "business as usual" and hopefully the government will learn to react more appropriately over time...

Jay74May 24, 2007 9:14 AM

@Rusty: "Isn't it the place of the senior civil servants to implement the desires of their political masters in a rational way?"

Fair question, and then answer is "absolutely." There are, though, two main problems with civil servants (in this regard, anyway).

The first is that politicians are just that: politicians, and they are usually adept at politics, but not the wide range of issues facing them. For example, they aren't medical experts, but are turned to to solve heath care problems. Likewise, they aren't security experts, but the population looks to them to pass laws that make them safer. In their inexperience they may be doing what they think helps, or as politicians they may be doing what they think will benefit their career--in either case, they aren't experts. part of this leads us to the second problem...

The general public aren't experts in security matters, or heath care matters as another example, etc. And unless they see something visible, they don't believe the anything is being done. So, they in turn tend to elect those who offer security theatre over realistic but less visible measures. This is similar to the IT manager who has a choice between doing what is reasonable and getting fired, or providing a little theatre and keeping their job (and perhaps get credit and promotion).

The thing is that, ultimately, there is always a point upward in the chain of command--be it a well intentioned but uninformed public servant, and grandstanding political servant, or an uninformed public who thinks seeing is believing (when in fact seeing is theatre)--that will eliminate those who don't put on a good show, so to speak.

I wish all our public figures will do the right thing, but it is a reality that they won't if it is political suicide.

No easy answers.

winmeNovember 6, 2007 9:17 AM

The report, if one reads it, actually says several other countries do this now, specifically they mention United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Those countries do it mainly to prevent illegal immigration, while the CBP program is mainly aimed at terrorism. When the CBP merged into DHS one of the primary missions of the CPB became preventing terrorism, so it makes sense that that would be listed as the purpose in this regard.

The U.S. is usually behind the trend in cases like this. As much as we complain about having a digital ID here, quite a few other countries already have them and have for some time. That may explain why they don't have to go as far as we do in prevention programs. It is relatively easy in the U.S. to get a false ID.

"Stationing personnel in foreign airports to interview passengers sounds like a great idea. I'm looking forward to seeing this implemented in the USA as well, with US-Americans being interviewed by French, German, Brazilian, Chinese etc. officials - I'm sure that everyone will see that this is a good idea and only fair, and that there will be no objections."

Leave a comment

Allowed HTML: <a href="URL"> • <em> <cite> <i> • <strong> <b> • <sub> <sup> • <ul> <ol> <li> • <blockquote> <pre>

Photo of Bruce Schneier by Per Ervland.

Schneier on Security is a personal website. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Co3 Systems, Inc..