International students and others traveling abroad this holiday season could be gravely inconvenienced if they are branded “high-risk travelers” by a new government security system unveiled at airports earlier this month.
The “Automated Targeting System,” put into operation Dec. 4 by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Service, screens airline cargo entering and leaving the United States, automatically linking the contents of baggage to the travelers who own it. With that information, it creates a record for each traveler that includes that person’s “risk assessment.”
Customs will be able to retain the risk assessments for 40 years and make them available to other federal agencies.
Customs and the Department of Homeland Security declined to reveal the criteria used to develop these risk assessments, and citizens will have no way to access their records. No representative from either agency could be reached for comment.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, an organization formed to be “the first line of defense” in matters of free speech, privacy and consumer rights, has publicly condemned the new system.
Lee Tien, a lawyer for EFF, said the new security measure violates the 1974 Privacy Act.
Tien said that government agencies could use the new system to accumulate data on the belongings of individual travelers over a 40-year period and then “mine” that data for new, incriminating patterns.
Because travelers cannot access the information gathered about them and the government will not disclose the criteria they use for determining the risk assessments, Tien said the new system violates the right to due process of law.
Tien said the system may also violate certain clauses in the First Amendment of the Constitution, which he said includes the “right of association and overlaps with the right to travel.”
Aside from concrete legal concerns, EFF has raised other questions about the Automated Targeting System. One statement by the organization said the government implemented much of the system in secret over the past four years, hiding details about it and screening travelers under what it described simply as a “cargo screening program.”
“People are not widgets,” Tien said. “Americans deserve to know when their own government is monitoring their activities and using the collected data to make decisions about them, especially decisions about whether they can return home.”
The Electronic Frontier Foundation has repeatedly said the Automated Targeting System violates the principles of democracy and limited government.
“Programs like this should never be instituted without genuine, honest public discourse,” Tien said. “Our personal lives are none of the government’s business unless the government can make a good public case for collecting data about us and follows the rules laid down by Congress.
The EFF believes that “data mining” – the process of searching large quantities of data for suspicious patterns – will one day be effective in detecting terrorists. Data mining is today most accurate in catching credit card theft. Terrorist plots do not have a well defined profile and are rare by comparison, according to the group.
Ben Shore, a New Jersey native and University of Maryland freshman, is planning to travel to Switzerland on a ski trip with his family in January. He had not heard of ATS until the security measure was mentioned to him for the purpose of this article.
“I’m very disturbed that the government would do something like this,” Shore said. “I don’t want to have to worry about being detained for no good reason and have no idea why it is happening.”