Friday, December 01, 2006
Homeland Security's ATS System May Be Tracking You...and Your Dinner 
by Lenka Reznicek [permalink] 
I guess this means I shouldn't request the halal meal on my next flight?
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Without their knowledge, millions of Americans and foreigners crossing U.S. borders in the past four years have been assigned scores generated by U.S. government computers rating the risk that the travelers are 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 government calls the system critical to national security following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Some privacy advocates call it one of the most intrusive and risky schemes yet mounted in the name of anti-terrorism efforts.

Virtually every person entering and leaving the United States by air, sea or land is scored by the Homeland Security Department's Automated Targeting System, or ATS. The scores are based on ATS' analysis of their travel records and other data, including items such as 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. [read full article]
Besides the troubling privacy aspects of the Automated Targeting System, what bothers me most is that travelers have virtually no recourse to challenge an ATS trigger - they aren't allowed to see their ATS scores, nor the reasons why they might be tagged as security risks, even in error.

In this instance, the "if you aren't doing anything wrong, you don't have anything to worry about" argument doesn't wash, since the ATS system is monitoring the personal data of millions of average travelers, not just suspected terrorists. What if my national origin, travel patterns, and even - for Pete's sake - my choice of airline seat or meal tag me as a "risk"? For instance, is the vegetarian meal considered more un-American* than the lamp-warmed steak-and-glue combo?

Fear not: Homeland Security's computers plan to keep a record of your seating assignment - and whether you had the beef or the chicken - possibly for years after you're dead.

Homeland security may contend that allowing travelers to know their risk scores would jeopardize public safety - but how? By allowing them to change behavior patterns that generate "red flags"?

If ATS sounds like just another small concession we all have to make for everyone's security, consider this: imagine how frustrating it would be if you had no way of knowing your financial credit score. Suppose you were repeatedly denied access to a home or car loan, a credit card, or even a job or apartment because your "secret" credit rating tagged you as a high risk. Now imagine you had no way of knowing what your score was, if there were any erroneous information on your record causing a problem - and had no way of challenging the situation?

*Considering some of the craziness abounding these days, choosing veg might even tag me as a Satanist; you never know.