|"Only dull people are brilliant at breakfast"
|"The liberal soul shall be made fat, and he that watereth, shall be watered also himself."
-- Proverbs 11:25
Without notifying the public, federal agents for the past four years have assigned millions of international travelers, including Americans, computer-generated scores rating the risk they pose of being terrorists or criminals.
The travelers are not allowed to see or directly challenge these risk assessments, which the government intends to keep on file for 40 years.
The scores are assigned to people entering and leaving the United States after computers assess their travel records, including where they are from, how they paid for tickets, their motor vehicle records, past one-way travel, seating preference and what kind of meal they ordered.
The program's existence was quietly disclosed earlier in November when the government put an announcement detailing the Automated Targeting System, or ATS, for the first time in the Federal Register, a fine-print compendium of federal rules. Privacy and civil liberties lawyers, congressional aides and even law enforcement officers said they thought this system had been applied only to cargo.
The Homeland Security Department notice called its program "one of the most advanced targeting systems in the world." The department said the nation's ability to spot criminals and other security threats "would be critically impaired without access to this data."
Still, privacy advocates view ATS with alarm. "It's probably the most invasive system the government has yet deployed in terms of the number of people affected," David Sobel, a lawyer at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties group devoted to electronic data issues, said in an interview.
Government officials could not say whether ATS has apprehended any terrorists. Customs and Border Protection spokesman Bill Anthony said agents refuse entry to about 45 foreign criminals every day based on all the information they have. He could not say how many were spotted by ATS.
A similar Homeland Security data-mining project, for domestic air travelers — now known as Secure Flight — caused a furor two years ago in Congress. Lawmakers barred its implementation until it can pass 10 tests for accuracy and privacy protection.
In comments to the Homeland Security Department about ATS, Sobel said, "Some individuals will be denied the right to travel and many the right to travel free of unwarranted interference as a result of the maintenance of such material."
Sobel said in the interview the government notice also raises the possibility that faulty risk assessments could cost innocent people jobs in shipping or travel, government contracts, licenses or other benefits.
The government notice says ATS data may be shared with state, local and foreign governments for use in hiring decisions and in granting licenses, security clearances, contracts or other benefits. In some cases, the data may be shared with courts, Congress and even private contractors.
"Everybody else can see it, but you can't," Stephen Yale-Loehr, an immigration lawyer who teaches at Cornell Law school, said in an interview.
In a privacy impact assessment posted on its Web site this week, Homeland Security said ATS is aimed at discovering high-risk individuals who "may not have been previously associated with a law enforcement action or otherwise be noted as a person of concern to law enforcement."