A leader of the incoming Democratic Congress, business travellers and privacy advocates have expressed outrage over computerised “terror score” assessments.
The system, which targets international travellers, is managed from an unmarked, two-storey brick building in Washington’s Virginia suburbs.
Incoming Senate Judiciary Chairman Senator Patrick Leahy pledged greater scrutiny of such government database-mining projects after reading that during the past four years millions of Americans had been evaluated without their knowledge to assess the risks that they could be terrorists or criminals.
“Data banks like this are overdue for oversight,” said Leahy, who will take over the Judiciary on January 4. “That is going to change in the new Congress.”
The Associated Press reported on Thursday that Americans and foreigners crossing US borders since 2002 have been assessed by the Homeland Security Department’s computerised Automated Targeting System, or ATS.
The travellers are not allowed to see or directly challenge the risk assessments, which the government intends to keep on file for 40 years.
Some or all data in the system can be shared with state, local and foreign governments for use in hiring, contracting and licensing decisions.
Courts and even some private contractors can obtain some of the data under certain circumstances.
“It is simply incredible that the Bush administration is willing to share this sensitive information with foreign governments and even private employers, while refusing to allow US citizens to see or challenge their own terror scores,” Leahy said.
The system “highlights the danger of government use of technology to conduct widespread surveillance of our daily lives without proper safeguards for privacy”.
“I have never seen anything as egregious as this,” said Kevin Mitchell, president of the Business Travel Coalition, which advocates for business travellers. It was “evidence of what can happen when there isn’t proper oversight and accountability”.
By early today, the US government had received 22 written public comments about its after-the-fact disclosure of the programme last month in the Federal Register, a fine-print compendium of federal rules.
All either opposed it outright or objected to the lack of a direct means for people to correct errors in the database about themselves.
“As a US citizen who spends much time outside the US, I can understand the need for good security,” wrote Colin Edmunds. “However, just as I would not participate in a banking/credit card system where I have no recourse to correct or even view my personal data, I cannot accept the same of my government.”
“Never before in American history has our government gotten into the business of creating mass ‘risk assessment’ ratings of its own citizens,” said Barry Steinhardt, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union.
He said the ACLU was stunned that the program has been undertaken “with virtually no opportunity for the public to evaluate or comment on it”.
The Homeland Security Department says the nation’s ability to spot criminals and other security threats “would be critically impaired without access to this data”.
Round the clock, the targeters from Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection agency analyse information from multiple sources, not just ATS.
They compare names to terrorist watch lists and mine the Treasury Enforcement Communications System and other automated systems that bring data about cargo, travellers and commercial workers entering or leaving the 317 US ports, searching for suspicious people and cargo.
Almost every person entering and leaving the US by air, sea or land is assessed based on ATS’ analysis of their travel records and other data, including items such as where they are from, how they paid for tickets, their vehicle records, past one-way travel, seating preferences and even the kind of meals they ordered.
Government officials could not say whether ATS has apprehended any terrorists.
Based on all the information available to them, federal agents turn back about 45 foreign apparent criminals a day at US borders, according to Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection spokesman Bill Anthony.
He could not say how many were spotted by ATS.