Photo courtesy Transportation Security Administration

December 1, 2006

­In a memo-type document released in early November 2­006, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) revealed aspects of a targeting program that most citizens and many lawmakers didn't know about. A computerized profiling program called the Automated Targeting System (ATS), initially implemented in the 1990s to screen incoming and outgoing cargo for drugs and other contraband at border crossings, has apparently been profiling all travelers entering and leaving the United States for the past four years. Since the DHS released this detail, some members of Congress -- which rejected an air-passenger-profiling system in 2004 due to concerns about accuracy -- have revealed that as far as they knew, the ATS program was still only used for targeting cargo.

As it turns out, if you travel internationally, you probably have a "terrorist score" that rates how risky you are. You also probably have a score if you work in the import/export business, the shipping business or the travel industry in any capacity.

­If your score is low, you won't be bothered by airport or border personnel. A higher score may earn you extra questioning at a security checkpoint or land you in an interrogation room, and a very high score could make it nearly impossible for you to travel internationally or get a job in shipping or travel anywhere in the world. The DHS has not explained what analytical methods they use to come up with the score. It says only that it uses certain "rules" to establish the riskiness of a particular behavior or pattern. But it has made public which data resources it accesses in the rating process. These resources include federal, state and local government databases, criminal records, Department of Motor Vehicles information, international terrorist watch lists, and the Passenger Name Records (PNR) submitted by all airlines prior to your stepping foot on one of their planes. According to the notice published by the DHS, this PNR information is quite expansive and includes:

  • Your dates of travel
  • How many people you're traveling with
  • Which seat you choose or are assigned to
  • Your address
  • All forms of payment you use and all related payment information
  • Your billing address
  • All of your contact telephone numbers
  • Your frequent-flyer information
  • The travel agency or travel agent you use
  • Any free tickets you've received
  • Any one-way tickets you've purchased
  • Your e-mail address
  • The date you bought your ticket
  • Your no-show history
  • The number of bags you check for each segment of your trip and their tag numbers
  • Any special services you request
  • Any voluntary or involuntary upgrades you receive
  • Any changes ever made to your PNR information

It seems like few people would argue that their preference for an aisle seat or a vegetarian meal is a major privacy issue. However, from the ACLU's standpoint, the fact that your credit card numbers, payment records, addresses and travel history are accessed, analyzed and kept on record for 40 years -- the length of time each passenger's assessment is kept on file in the ATS database -- is troublesome from a privacy standpoint. Civil liberties experts also take issue with the fact that you can't access your own ATS score or records. All sorts of government and private agencies can access your ATS score for security purposes, but you can't. The Department of Homeland Security, citing national security, has declared the ATS data (and its methodology of risk assessment) to be exempt from that part of the Privacy Act of 1974, which made most government records open to the public.

According to the DHS, if you are pulled aside at an airport or other border crossing due to your ATS score and you believe your apparently high score is in error, what you can do is correct the errors that may (or may not) have contributed to your high score. That means you can call your credit card companies, any airlines you have ever traveled on, your local police department, the FBI and all the other collectors of the information that may or may not have targeted you as a terrorist or criminal and see if you can correct the data from that end. Any changes in the contributing databases will update your ATS record, as well.

For more information on the Automated Targeting System and related topics, check out the links on the next page.