Traveler Assessments Little Altered
Sunday, September 9, 2007; 5:50 PM
WASHINGTON -- Rejecting a wave of criticisms, the government has agreed to only modest changes in the computerized system that assesses whether each American who travels abroad poses a terrorist threat.
The Homeland Security Department decided to keep the risk assessments for 15 years instead of 40 years and no longer will share them with federal, state and local officials who are deciding whether a person gets a job, a security clearance, a license to do business or a government contract.
Nevertheless, travelers still will not be allowed to see their actual assessments or the reasons for them. Federal agents still will be looking at an array of information about international travelers _ Americans and foreigners; this includes even meal choices, the names of traveling companions and the number of hotel beds requested.
"The revisions are useful, but they don't go to the heart of the matter," said James Dempsey, policy director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a civil liberties group. "Why should the government keep massive databases about people it has decided are innocent?"
Privacy advocates and civil libertarians also condemn the remedies for people who believe they were wrongly detained, delayed or even denied the right to travel.
The department's decision to continue the Automated Targeting System with few changes took effect last Thursday. It was announced in advance by an August notice in the Federal Register, a daily catalog of federal regulations that is read mostly by lawyers and lobbyists.
The computerized system is used by Customs and Border Protection officers to screen 400 million passengers a year who arrive from or depart for foreign locations by air, sea or rail. A separate part of the system is used for vehicles crossing the border.
Members of Congress, business travel associations, privacy and civil liberties groups and even European legislators protested after Homeland Security disclosed details of the system last fall for the first time; it had gone in service in 1999.
Some critics said the entire program was illegal; others wanted parts of it changed.
But the department said the system was crucial to preventing terrorists and other criminals from entering the United States, and helps border officers decide which travelers to pull aside for further scrutiny.
The department acknowledges the risk that "a negative Customs and Border Protection action could be taken" when relying on "computer generated information in ATS that has been skewed by inaccurate data." But the department emphasizes that it is agents who decide whether to release or detain people after interviews.
"ATS does not replace human decision-making," said Hugo Teufel III, the department's chief privacy officer.