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Feds implement mass passenger data trawl

Introducing the 'Automated Targeting System'

By Thomas C Greene, 1 Dec 2006

Whenever the US government runs afoul of public opinion with some data-mining scheme threatening to invade the privacy of millions, it changes the name and then goes ahead as planned. We had the "Total Information Awareness" (TIA) federal scheme to mine official and commercial databases, which morphed into the MATRIX, an interconnected state scheme to mine official and commercial databases, to which the federal government has access.

We had the Computer Assisted Passenger Pre-screening System (CAPPS-2), a scheme to mine official and commercial databases and produce a threat assessment of each passenger. After the public indicated its displeasure, its name was changed to the warmer and fuzzier "Secure Flight", but Congress still shut it down due to privacy and accuracy concerns.

Now it's back, with a new name and acronym, the Automated Targeting System (ATS). Nothing warm or fuzzy about that; it sounds like part of some hi-tech weapons system. But naturally, it's just CAPPS/Secure Flight by another name.

The new system will trawl for data, look for patterns, and calculate a score for each passenger, determining whether they will pass through security with relative ease, or whether the latex gloves will have to come out. DHS calls it a "decision support tool". It will, we're told, "improve the collection, use, analysis, and dissemination of information that is gathered for the primary purpose of targeting, identifying, and preventing potential terrorists and terrorist weapons from entering the United States."

"ATS standardises names, addresses, conveyance names, and similar data so these data elements can be more easily associated with other business data and personal information to form a more complete picture of a traveller, import, or export in context with previous behaviour of the parties involved".

So it's quite clear that commercial profiles will be in the mix: whether one rents or owns a house, credit activity, travel history, and the like. It was this sort of personal data that gave CAPPS-2 such a bad name among the public, and prompted Congress to suspend it. People are less concerned about a quick check against lists of known terrorists and wanted criminals. They're a lot more concerned about being "evaluated" on the basis of where they live, what they buy, where they travel, and how up-to-date their credit payments are by some remote government clerk with a computer.

The private data, we're told, will come from the airlines. At a minimum, this would include name, address, credit card number, origin and destination, passport number for international travellers, travel history, travel companions, and seat assignment (where do terrorists prefer to sit, anyway?). It could involve dates of birth, account details of frequent fliers, hotel accommodations of those booking a package through a travel agent, and even meal requests (note, pass on pre-ordering the halal option).

DHS says that different airlines collect different bits of data, so it can't always predict exactly what it will be working with, but the Department makes it clear that it intends to parse every scrap of information it can get its hands on.

And it seems to say that airline data is only an example of the sort of commercial information it will be using. ATS does not collect information directly from individuals. The information maintained in ATS is either collected from private entities providing data in accordance with U.S. legal requirements (e.g., PNR [passenger name records] from air carriers regarding individual passengers) or is created by ATS as part of the risk assessment and associated rules.

Note, created by ATS. So yes, they are indeed creating profiles - dossiers, if you will - of everyone who travels anywhere for any reason. And note the present tense here: "Every traveller and all shipments are processed through ATS, and are subject to a real-time rule based evaluation." This system is live, and has been for a while. And you thought Congress had shut it down.

Still, the system is nothing if not fair. "ATS applies the same methodology to all individuals to preclude any possibility of disparate treatment of individuals or groups. ATS is consistent in its evaluation of risk associated with individuals," we're told. Which is a wonderfully PC justification concealing the fact that the government can't rest until it knows everything about everybody.

But don't waste time asking the government about what it's doing. You might be an open book, but it must remain shrouded in secrecy in order to serve your interests to the fullest. Thus, "ATS is a system that supports CBP [DHS Bureau of Customs and Border Protection] law enforcement activities; as such, an individual might not be aware of the reason additional scrutiny is taking place, nor should he or she, as this may compromise the means and methods of how CBP came to require further scrutiny."

Still, the Department is aware of the privacy issues that travellers might be concerned about. "The privacy risks ... include: information may not be accurate or timely because it was not collected directly from the individual; the information could be used in a manner inconsistent with the privacy policy stated at the time of collection; and/or the individual may not be aware that the information is being used by ATS for the stated purposes; and/or a negative CBP action could be taken in reliance upon computer generated information in ATS that has been skewed by inaccurate data".

It's aware of privacy problems, all right, but not terribly concerned. DHS will be doing all of its safeguarding of your privacy in house. "As part of CBP’s inspection policies and procedures no adverse action is taken by CBP with respect to an individual, cargo, or conveyance, until the relevant information is reviewed by a well-trained CBP officer," we are assured.

It will be up to CBP alone to determine whether or not the information it gathers is accurate. Still, DHS admits that ATS "relies upon the source systems to ensure that data used by ATS is accurate and complete. Discrepancies may be identified in the context of a CBP officer’s review of the data and the CBP officer will take action to correct that information, when appropriate.

"Although ATS is not the system of record for most of the source data, ATS monitors source systems for changes to the source system databases. Continuous source system updates occur in real-time or near realtime from TECS, ACE, AMS, APIS, ACS, AES, and NCIC.

"When corrections are made to data in source systems, ATS updates this information immediately and only the latest data is used. In this way, ATS integrates all updated data (including accuracy updates) in as close to real-time as possible".

So, they're using the venerable Google model of data integrity. If ATS contains spurious data about you, you must contact the agency or data broker from whom they obtained it, and persuade them to correct it. And then wait for ATS to trawl the information again, Google-wise, and automatically update it.

Of course, the system has to operate behind a veil of secrecy to remain effective, so it might be quite a challenge to learn which "source system" is supplying the inaccurate data about you to the ATS.

But don't worry; you'll have plenty of time to get things sorted out. "Generally, data maintained specifically by ATS will be retained for up to forty years," DHS explains. ®

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