DHS traveler assessments may violate Congressional ban
Officials are debating whether the Department of Homeland Security’s computerized risk assessments of international travelers violate a specific ban that Congress imposed on the agency’s spending for the past three years.
Members of Congress and privacy advocates are questioning the legality of the Automated Targeting System, or ATS, risk assessments that have been assigned to millions of Americans and foreigners who entered or left the United States over the past four years, The Associated Press reports.
“It clearly goes contrary to what we have in law,” Rep. Martin Sabo (D-Minn.), says. He adds that ATS is the kind of computerized risk assessment “we have been trying to prohibit.”
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff tells The Associated Press: “I don’t think it (the prohibition) can be read as applying to this program. The statute doesn’t bar the use of funds for the purpose of analyzing the risks for people entering the country.”
Department spokesman Russ Knocke says Congress had been informed many times since 2003 that ATS was being used to assess people.
ATS has operated with little public notice or understanding until a description was published last month in the Federal Register.
The Homeland Security Department’s notice said people could not see their assessments or directly challenge them. It plans to keep the assessments for 40 years and share data with state, local and foreign governments for hiring, contracting, licensing and other decisions. In some instances, data could be shared with courts and private contractors.
Sabo, the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Homeland security subcommittee, wrote into the agency’s spending bills the ban on computerized passenger risk assessments. For the past three budget years, the legislation has said no funds from the appropriations bill could be used to develop or test computerized data-mining tools “assigning risk to passengers whose names are not on government watch lists.”
“They should concentrate on making their watch lists comprehensive and correctable,” Sabo says.
Jayson P. Ahern, assistant commissioner of customs and border protection, tells the AP all that passenger data is analyzed by ATS. Data on rail and some land travelers also have been assessed, he said.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, agrees. “There is growing concern in Congress that this program invites abuse, and that the administration is plowing ahead with it in apparent violation of the law,” says Leahy, a member of the counterpart subcommittee in the Senate and incoming chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Chertoff notes that the prohibition barred risk assessments of “passengers.” He said “other people may have a different opinion of what they intended, but it’s clear this is all aimed at what Secure Flight was, which was deciding who could board aircraft” in the United States.
Ahern, the customs and border protection official, tells the AP that ATS “is a very proven, forward-leaning border initiative that we put in place to try to take a look for people that basically weren’t watch-listed.”
Ahern says the ATS software finds people whose travel histories in the passenger records forwarded by air and cruise lines coincides with patterns of behavior that agents had seen among terrorists or criminals over time.