Sunday, February 22, 2009

Big Brother Tracks Your Every Move.

Is this useful information, or a waste of time?

The oversize white envelope bore the blue logo of the Department of
Homeland Security.
Inside, I found 20 photocopies of the government's
records on my international travels. Every overseas trip I've taken
since 2001 was noted.

I had requested the files after I had heard that the government tracks
"passenger activity
." Starting in the mid-1990s, many airlines handed
over passenger records. Since 2002, the government has mandated that
the commercial airlines deliver this information routinely and

A passenger record typically includes the name of the person
traveling, the name of the person who submitted the information while
arranging the trip, and details about how the ticket was bought,
according to documents published by the Department of Homeland
Security. Records are made for citizens and non-citizens who cross our
borders. An agent from U.S. Customs and Border Protection can generate
a travel history for any traveler with a few keystrokes on a computer.
Officials use the information to prevent terrorism, acts of organized
crime, and other illegal activity.

I had been curious about what's in my travel dossier, so I made a
Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for a copy.

My biggest surprise was that the Internet Protocol (I.P.) address of
the computer used to buy my tickets via a Web agency was noted. On the
first document image posted here, I've circled in red the I.P. address
of the computer used to buy my pair of airline tickets.

(An I.P. address is assigned to every computer on the Internet. Each
time that computer sends an e-mail—or is used to make a purchase via a
Web browser — it has to reveal its I.P. address, which tells its
geographic location.)

The rest of my file contained details about my ticketed itineraries,
the amount I paid for tickets, and the airports I passed through
overseas. My credit card number was not listed, nor were any hotels
I've visited. In two cases, the basic identifying information about my
traveling companion (whose ticket was part of the same purchase as
mine) was included in the file. Perhaps that information was included
by mistake.

Some sections of my documents were blacked out by an official.
Presumably, this information contains material that is classified
because it would reveal the inner workings of law enforcement.

Here's the lowdown on the records.

The commercial airlines send these passenger records to Customs and
Border Protection
, an agency within the Department of Homeland
Security. Computers match the information with the databases of
federal departments, such as Treasury, Agriculture, and Homeland
Security. Computers uncover links between known and previously
unidentified terrorists or terrorist suspects, as well as suspicious
or irregular travel patterns. Some of this information comes from
foreign governments and law enforcement agencies. The data is also
crosschecked with American state and local law enforcement agencies,
which are tracking persons who have warrants out for their arrest or
who are under restraining orders. The data is used not only to fight
terrorism but also to prevent and combat acts of organized crime and
other illegal activity.

Officials use the information to help decide if a passenger needs to
have additional screening. Case in point: After overseas trips, I've
stood in lines at U.S. border checkpoints and had my passport swiped
and my electronic file examined. A few times, something in my record
has prompted officers to pull me over to a side room, where I have
been asked additional questions. Sometimes I've had to clarify a
missing middle initial. Other times, I have been referred to a
secondary examination. (I've blogged about this before.)

When did this electronic data collection start? In 1999, U.S. Customs
and Border Protection (then known as the U.S. Customs Service) began
receiving passenger identification information electronically from
certain air carriers on a voluntary basis, though some paper records
were shared prior to that. A mandatory, automated program began about
6 years ago. Congress funds this Automated Targeting System's
Passenger Screening Program to the tune of about $30 million a year.

How safe is your information? Regulations prohibit officials from
sharing the records of any traveler — or the government's risk
assessment of any traveler — with airlines or private companies. A
record is kept for 15 years—unless it is linked to an investigation,
in which case it can be kept indefinitely. Agency computers do not
encrypt the data, but officials insist that other measures — both
physical and electronic — safeguard our records.

I wonder if the government's data collecting is relevant and necessary
to accomplish the agency's purpose in protecting our borders. The
volume of data collected, and the rate at which the records is growing
and being shared with officials nationwide, suggests that the
potential for misuse could soar out of hand. Others may wonder if the
efforts are effective. For instance, I asked security expert Bruce
Schneier Schneider about the Feds' efforts to track passenger
activity, and he responded by e-mail:

"I think it's a waste of time. There's this myth that we can pick
terrorists out of the crowd if we only knew more information."

On the other hand, some people may find it reassuring that the
government is using technology to keep our borders safe.

Oh, one more thing: Are your records worth seeing? Maybe not, unless
you've been experiencing a problem crossing our nation's borders. For
one thing, the records are a bit dull. In my file, for instance,
officials had blacked out the (presumably) most fascinating parts,
which were about how officials assessed my risk profile. What's more,
the records are mainly limited to information that airline and
passport control officials have collected, so you probably won't be
surprised by anything you read in them. Lastly, there may be a cost.
While there was no charge to me when I requested my records, you might
charged a fee of up to $50 if there is difficulty in obtaining your
records. Of course, there's a cost to taxpayers and to our nation's
security resources whenever a request is filed, too.

However, if you are being detained at the border or if you suspect a
problem with your records, then by all means request a copy. U.S.
Customs and Border Protection is required by law to make your records
available to you, with some exceptions. Your request must be made in
writing on paper and be signed by you. Ask to see the "information
relating to me in the Automated Targeting System." Say that your
request is "made pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act, as
amended (5 U.S.C. 552)." Add that you wish to have a copy of your
records made and mailed to you without first inspecting them. Your
letter should, obviously, give reasonably sufficient detail to enable
an official to find your record. So supply your passport number and
mailing address. Put a date on your letter and make a copy for your
own records. On your envelope, you should conspicuously print the
words "FOIA Request." It should be addressed to "Freedom of
Information Act Request," U.S. Customs Service, 1300 Pennsylvania
Avenue, NW., Washington, DC 20229. Be patient. I had wait for up to a
year to receive a copy of my records. Then if you believe there's an
error in your record, ask for a correction by writing a letter to the
Customer Satisfaction Unit, Office of Field Operations, U.S. Customs
and Border Protection, Room 5.5C, 1300 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.,
Washington, D.C. 20229
(By Sean O'Neill (AP))

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