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Monday, August 30, 2010

Department of Homeland Security Sued Over Secret Traveller Files

Posted By on Mon, Aug 30, 2010 at 4:59 PM

click to enlarge We'll collect all this personal information, y'see. And then we'll make a giant database... - MATT SMITH
  • Matt Smith
  • We'll collect all this personal information, y'see. And then we'll make a giant database...
San Francisco travel writer Edward Hasbrouck has sued the U.S. Department of Homeland Security over what he says is the agency's refusal to give a complete accounting of secret files detailing his numerous border crossings around the world.

"This is not something I'm doing lightly, or that I'm doing every day, or that I like doing," said Hasbrouck, who has long been the U.S. media's go-to guy on the subject of traveling travails. 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."

The surveillance program in question is called the Automated Targeting System.

It requires airlines to collect information on travelers. The

government then analyzes and cross-references that information in search

of terrorists and other possible law-breakers. The project bears

similarities to Total Information Awareness, the private data-collection system helmed by Admiral John Poindexter during the early 2000s. According to a 2006 ATS report:

ATS standardizes 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 traveler,

import, or export in context with previous behavior of the parties

involved. Every traveler and all shipments are processed through ATS,

and are subject to a real-time rule based evaluation

According to a Nov. 2006 filing in the U.S. Federal Register, the program harvests as many as 50 types of passenger data, including e-mail addresses, credit card information, contact telephone numbers, payment information, frequent flyer totals, and other information.

Hasbrouck has been researching and writing about the program since it was first revealed five years ago. He's made requests, under the Privacy Act and the Freedom of Information Act, for data collected about him. Yet, he says, the agency has failed to release a full accounting of his file. With the help of attorneys from Oakland's First Amendment Project, Hasbrouck has sued demanding the government provide him with his entire Automated Targeting System data trove.

Since he began his crusade, Hasbrouck has been contacted by other travelers who have made Freedom of Information Act requests for information collected about them.



"This is a guilt-by-association machine," he said. "Let's say they say you're linked to terrorists. What does that mean? Today, being linked to terrorist could mean you stayed at the same hotel and used the same phone number. Due to these mirror associations, you are going to be subjected to interrogations, or be prevented from traveling."

The government isn't the only entity in a position to abuse this information. Airlines are required to collect this information from international travelers, and the government doesn't adequately prevent those companies from using the information themselves. Hasbrouck theorizes the information could be valuable to companies wishing to track the voyages of a competitor's sales staff, as a form of industrial espionage.

"There is a lot of stuff that shows our associations with other people. That includes friends' phone numbers, or the place we were staying when we confirmed a flight.

I've seen one person's file that shows not merely who they were travelling with, and the other person's gender, but whether they asked for one bed or two in a hotel room, because their hotel was booked through the same reservation as their flight. The airline, and the government, can look behind your hotel room seeing who's sleeping with who."

J. Edgar Hoover might have been proud.

Follow us on Twitter at @TheSnitchSF and @SFWeekly 

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Matt Smith

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