Travel writer Edward Hasbrouck sues Homeland Security over travel data

In an age when Google, Apple, Facebook, Foursquare, and their ilk have made manifest the statement "privacy is dead: get over it," some of us still find ourselves annoyed by a growing culture of intrusion.

A couple of weeks ago, for example, I walked out of the Brannan Street branch of a national bike shop chain sans merchandise after a clerk, and then his manager, insisted they'd rather not sell to me until I'd provided my name for their customer database. Matt Magnani, director of retail marketing for the Performance bike chain, later said that customer information is collected "to communicate deals, sales, and events to guests," but I bristled at the gratuitous requirement that I provide my name for a database for the privilege of buying bike parts.

A friend of mine recently found himself arguing with a San Francisco Toyota dealer where he planned to pay cash for a used Prius. A salesman told him he would first need to complete paperwork for a credit check. My friend responded that he was paying in cash. The salesman insisted that he had to fill in the credit check forms anyway. No, my friend said: I'm paying cash.

We aren't Luddites or conspiracy theorists. Once upon a time those terms might have been appropriate for people who fear their movements and thoughts are being monitored. But that was before everyone seemed to be in on the personal-information database game, before mining cellphones' GPS and WiFi location data became America's hottest business frontier, and before the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) had spent half a decade compiling a database of detailed profiles of every person who'd crossed a U.S. border.

That last example "is a guilt-by-association machine," according to Edward Hasbrouck, a San Francisco travel writer who for several years has investigated the Automated Targeting System operated by DHS' division of Customs and Border Protection.

Like me, Hasbrouck is increasingly disturbed by the idea we're supposed to be an on-demand personal-information source for an ever-larger and intrusive collection of people and organizations. Hasbrouck is no privacy freak — he's a journalist who is regularly quoted by the likes of USA Today and The Washington Post when a travel story becomes national news.

Notwithstanding, on Aug. 25 he sued the Department of Homeland Security over what he says is its refusal to give a complete accounting of secret government files detailing his own global travels.

The Federal Privacy Act and Freedom of Information Act say individuals have the right to view information the government is collecting on them. But Hasbrouck claims that his multiple requests were partially denied, with officials citing concerns about the privacy of others who might be mentioned in those files.

So Hasbrouck has demanded in federal court to see his entire dossier. If he prevails, he, his attorneys, and allies say, the government will have to release full dossiers to anyone who asks. People may become alarmed that the government collects information so detailed that federal employees may know with whom they shared a hotel room. And an outraged public just might compel this personal-information snowball to slow down.

"This is not something I'm doing lightly, or that I'm doing every day, or that I like doing," Hasbrouck says. But "I think it's important for people to know about this surveillance program, and to understand what kind of dossiers are being kept, and how that information is being used."

In response to an inquiry, U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesman Jaime Ruiz said that the agency refrains from commenting on matters in litigation.

Full disclosure: The most hay I ever made as a journalist was in late 2002, when I monkey-wrenched a now-defunct Defense Department–funded program called Total Information Awareness. Like the Automated Targeting System, it made a science of collecting and cross-referencing personal data. In my column I printed the home phone number of program director John Poindexter — yes, the same guy who assisted in the siphoning of illegal funds to the Nicaraguan Contras.

I urged readers to call and ask him "why he needs our toll-booth records," and what videos he was watching. After a deluge of calls, Poindexter disconnected his phone. But an army of online sleuths posted pre–Google Earth photos of his house and details about his neighborhood. I appeared on Fox News (where, an Australian viewer e-mailed me to say, I looked like a limp rag) and about two dozen talk radio shows around the country.

Two months after my story went viral, Congress passed legislation to suspend and investigate the program because, critics said, people's personal information might be misused. The program changed its name to Terrorism Information Awareness. So it took another act of Congress in 2004 to finally shut it down.

Yet Total Information Awareness was an idea that wouldn't die: At around the time of its death, a different government agency was incubating a program with similar goals and similar techniques. In 2006, the U.S. Federal Register announced a system by which the government ordered airlines to collect up to 50 types of data, including billing information, telephone numbers, e-mail addresses, and seat numbers, to be compiled in an information "environment" designed to screen, target, and share information.

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