U.S. Airport Screeners Are Watching What You Read
By Ryan Singel
International travelers concerned about being labeled a terrorist or drug runner by secret Homeland Security algorithms may want to be careful what books they read on the plane. Newly revealed records show the government is storing such information for years.
Privacy advocates obtained database records showing that the government routinely records the race of people pulled aside for extra screening as they enter the country, along with cursory answers given to U.S. border inspectors about their purpose in traveling. In one case, the records note Electronic Frontier Foundation co-founder John Gilmore’s choice of reading material, and worry over the number of small flashlights he’d packed for the trip.
The breadth of the information obtained by the Gilmore-funded Identity Project (using a Privacy Act request) shows the government’s screening program at the border is actually a “surveillance dragnet,” according to the group’s spokesman Bill Scannell.
“There is so much sensitive information in the documents that it is clear that Homeland Security is not playing straight with the American people,” Scannell said.
The documents show a tiny slice of the massive airline-record collection stored by the government, as well as the screening records mined for the controversial Department of Homeland Security passenger-rating system that assigns terrorist scores to travelers entering and leaving the country, including U.S. citizens.
The so-called Automated Targeting System scrutinizes every airline passenger entering or leaving the country using classified rules that tell agents which passengers to give extra screening to and which to deny entry or exit from the country.
The system relies on data ranging from the government’s 700,000-name terrorism watchlist to data included in airline-travel database entries, known as Passenger Name Records, which airlines are required to submit to the government.
According to government descriptions, ATS mines data from intelligence, law enforcement and regulatory databases, looking for linkages in order to identify “high-risk” targets who may not already be on terrorist watchlists.
ATS was started in the late 1990s, but was little known until the government issued a notice about the system last fall. The government has subsequently modified the proposed rules for the system, shortening the length of time data is collected and allowing individuals to request some information used by the scoring system.
The government stores the PNRs for years and typically includes destinations, phone and e-mail contact information, meal requests, special health requests, payment information and frequent-flier numbers.
The Identity Project filed Privacy Act requests for five individuals to see the data stored on them by the government.
The requests revealed that the PNRs also included information on one requester’s race, the phone numbers of overseas family members given to the airlines as emergency contact information, and a record of a purely European flight that had been booked overseas separately from an international itinerary, according to snippets of the documents shown to Wired News.
The request also revealed the screening system includes inspection notes from earlier border inspections.
One report about Gilmore notes: “PAX (passenger) has many small flashlights with pot leaves on them. He had a book entitled ‘Drugs and Your Rights.'” Gilmore is an advocate for marijuana legalization.
Another inspection entry noted that Gilmore had “attended computer conference in Berlin and then traveled around Europe and Asia to visit friends. 100% baggage exam negative…. PAX is self employed ‘Entrepreneur’ in computer software business.”
“They are noting people’s race and they are writing down what people read,” Scannell said.
It doesn’t matter that Gilmore was reading a book about drugs, rather than Catcher in the Rye, according to Scannell. “A book is a book,” Scannell said. “This is just plain wrong.”
The documents have also turned Scannell against the Department of Homeland Security’s proposal for screening airline passengers inside the United States.
That project, known as Secure Flight, will take watchlist screening out of the hands of airlines, by having the airlines send PNR data to the government ahead of each flight. While earlier versions included plans to rate passenger’s threat level using data purchased from private companies, DHS now proposes only to compare data in the PNR against names on the watchlist, which largely disarmed civil libertarians’ opposition to the program.
That’s changed for Scannell now, who sees Secure Flight as just another version of ATS.
“They want people to get permission to travel,” Scannell said. “They already instituted it for leaving and entering the country and now they want to do it to visit your Aunt Patty in Cleveland.”
The Department of Homeland Security did not respond to a request for comment.