Screening Program Draws Fire - Business Travel News

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Screening Program Draws Fire

December 06, 2006 - 10:55 PM ET

By Mary Ann McNulty

Citing concerns over privacy, the potential for business disruptions, lack of redress, prohibition by Congress and other factors, at least 60 associations, businesses and individuals called on the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to rethink, or at least further study, its recently disclosed Automated Targeting System. The system is currently assessing the threat risks of tens of millions of travelers entering and exiting the United States. DHS on Tuesday extended the comment period to 29 Dec, from the original 4 Dec date.

However, this screening system has been in use for some time, although it was previously believed to only cover cargo. Details of the program emerged in press reports only last month after DHS revealed in a notice in the Federal Registerthat the data mining screening extended beyond cargo to travelers. Mining information on passenger name records, forms of payment, travel itineraries, frequent flyer programs, travel agencies, baggage and other details, the system assigns a risk assessment score that is confidentially kept in a database for 40 years. Passengers are not allowed to learn of or change their scores.

The Business Travel Coalition condemned the program and called for congressional intervention and hearings. "Evolving ATS from a publicly supported cargo screening program begun four years ago to a secretively implemented global traveler screening program represents 'exhibit a' in the case against mission creep and government abuse of authority," according to BTC chairman Kevin Mitchell. "What's more, DHS seeks to exempt ATS from virtually all relevant provisions of the Privacy Act of 1974, and in so doing, dismisses the intent of Congress."

The National Business Travel Association noted that the "risk management approach of ATS is praiseworthy," but wrote that "risk-based border and travel security systems should be seen as trustworthy by citizens and other end users." Emphasizing ten areas of focus that Congress mandated for oversight of the Transportation Security Administration's Secure Flight passenger prescreening program, NBTA called upon DHS to demonstrate that it has met the concerns, and called on Congress to exercise oversight to ensure that they are met.

Calling for the program to be scrapped before more resources are pumped into it, former Congressman Bob Barr of Georgia, now president and CEO of Liberty Strategies, said, "It not only constitutes a highly intrusive and unconstitutional evidence-gathering system on law-abiding citizens, but it is neither an effective, nor cost-efficient way to identify terrorists attempting to use the airlines to carry out terrorist acts." Barr questioned whether the program violates the Second, Fourth and 14th Amendments and raises federalism problems.

Siemens travel manager Dan Baillie expressed concerns "that such far-reaching and invasive screening of millions of business travelers entering and exiting the United States could do significant personal harm to those whose interests we look after, and reduce the productivity of the organizations that field business travelers." He urged DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff to suspend the program immediately.

A First Amendment rights group called The Identity Project contended that ATS defies not only privacy laws, but congressional appropriations directives--the most recent in late October. Each of the last three annual DHS Appropriations Acts stated that "none of the funds provided in this or previous appropriations Acts may be utilized to develop or test algorithms assigning risk to passengers whose names are not on government watch lists," project consultant Edward Hasbrouck wrote.

The Associated Pressquoted incoming Senate Judiciary Committee chair Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., as calling the ATS "simply incredible." He also promised more congressional scrutiny of such anti-terrorist databases next year.

In the European Union, Dutch MEP Sophie In't Veld urged the EU to protect the rights of community members from the "Big Brother" approach of the new American screening system. She questioned whether the system violates the EU-US passenger data agreement.

Comments may be filed with DHS by mail, fax or online through 29 Dec at the government's portal, www.regulations.gov, searching for Docket Number DHS-2006-0060, or by keyword "Automated Targeting System." Online submissions were blocked at press time, but are supposed to be available by Thursday.

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