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Feds implement mass passenger data trawl

Introducing the 'Automated Targeting System'

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Whenever the US government runs afoul of public opinion with some data-mining scheme threatening to invade the privacy of millions, it changes the name and then goes ahead as planned. We had the "Total Information Awareness" (TIA) federal scheme to mine official and commercial databases, which morphed into the MATRIX, an interconnected state scheme to mine official and commercial databases, to which the federal government has access.

We had the Computer Assisted Passenger Pre-screening System (CAPPS-2), a scheme to mine official and commercial databases and produce a threat assessment of each passenger. After the public indicated its displeasure, its name was changed to the warmer and fuzzier "Secure Flight", but Congress still shut it down due to privacy and accuracy concerns.

Now it's back, with a new name and acronym, the Automated Targeting System (ATS). Nothing warm or fuzzy about that; it sounds like part of some hi-tech weapons system. But naturally, it's just CAPPS/Secure Flight by another name.

The new system will trawl for data, look for patterns, and calculate a score for each passenger, determining whether they will pass through security with relative ease, or whether the latex gloves will have to come out. DHS calls it a "decision support tool". It will, we're told, "improve the collection, use, analysis, and dissemination of information that is gathered for the primary purpose of targeting, identifying, and preventing potential terrorists and terrorist weapons from entering the United States."

"ATS standardises names, addresses, conveyance names, and similar data so these data elements can be more easily associated with other business data and personal information to form a more complete picture of a traveller, import, or export in context with previous behaviour of the parties involved".

So it's quite clear that commercial profiles will be in the mix: whether one rents or owns a house, credit activity, travel history, and the like. It was this sort of personal data that gave CAPPS-2 such a bad name among the public, and prompted Congress to suspend it. People are less concerned about a quick check against lists of known terrorists and wanted criminals. They're a lot more concerned about being "evaluated" on the basis of where they live, what they buy, where they travel, and how up-to-date their credit payments are by some remote government clerk with a computer.

The private data, we're told, will come from the airlines. At a minimum, this would include name, address, credit card number, origin and destination, passport number for international travellers, travel history, travel companions, and seat assignment (where do terrorists prefer to sit, anyway?). It could involve dates of birth, account details of frequent fliers, hotel accommodations of those booking a package through a travel agent, and even meal requests (note, pass on pre-ordering the halal option).

DHS says that different airlines collect different bits of data, so it can't always predict exactly what it will be working with, but the Department makes it clear that it intends to parse every scrap of information it can get its hands on.

And it seems to say that airline data is only an example of the sort of commercial information it will be using. ATS does not collect information directly from individuals. The information maintained in ATS is either collected from private entities providing data in accordance with U.S. legal requirements (e.g., PNR [passenger name records] from air carriers regarding individual passengers) or is created by ATS as part of the risk assessment and associated rules.

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