DHS: Passenger screening no threat to privacy

The Department of Homeland Security defended its use of a controversial passenger screening system Wednesday, saying the system uses link analysis techniques of the kind which would have caught the 9/11 hijackers had they been employed and that the program “does not pose a threat to privacy.”

Assistant secretary for policy Stewart Baker, speaking Tuesday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in front of a hand picked audience, also took a few shots at privacy advocates, saying that “It seems as though the only thing these groups would let DHS do to prevent an attack is to pray it won’t happen. As long as we don’t pray in public.”

Baker went into some detail about how ATS works, describing it as a “link analysis” system rather than a data mining (pattern analysis) system.

“ATS runs the travelers’ names against lists of known or suspected terrorists,” he said. “It can also do a quick link analysis, looking for travelers who gave the airline a phone number that’s also used by a known terrorist.”

ATS does its work while the customs official is asking the first few questions, like are you bringing in any illegal fruits or vegetables. “Most people go right through,” Baker said. “But a few of them are sent to ‘secondary’ inspection, where officers can spend more time asking more questions.”

He gave two examples of people who had been stopped by ATS. The first was Ra’ed al-Banna, who was denied entry into the U.S. in 2003, and later turned up as a suicide bomber who killed 132 people who were applying to become police in Hilla, Iraq. The other was a woman who was smuggling children into the country from the Dominican Republic.

Baker said that passenger screening using ATS was no secret, that Congress specifically authorized ATS and provided funding for it, and that the 9/11 Commission specifically noted it and recommended it be expanded.

And he said the program “does not pose a threat to privacy.”

“ATS is not exactly a dossier of our most intimate secrets,” he said. “How are they harmed if DHS uses it to make sure they actually arrive at their destination?”

Baker said that anyone who accessed ATS inappropriately would be subject to disciplinary action.

But not everybody was satisfied with the department’s explanation.

Baker said that travelers could obtain data about their personal information in the ATS via Freedom of Information Act procedures. That assertion belies years of futile attempts by travelers to expunge their names from databases that ATS relies on. . . .

Baker suggested that if “the privacy advocates got their way and shut down the program,” the nation’s security would be gravely at risk. In response, [Jim] Harper of the Cato Institute noted that such reasoning amounts to knocking down a nonexistent “straw man,” by rejecting a position that most privacy advocates don’t uphold. Like many such advocates, Harper has called for limits on data-processing methods that jeopardize privacy while continuing robust intelligence functions to ward off terrorism. . . .

Baker said repeatedly that the department’s use of the audit trail feature of ATS to control and punish improper use of the system provides a privacy safeguard. However, while touting the system’s legal and policy benefits, he sidestepped questions about whether the addition of anonymization features and other technical means of buttressing data protection would help safeguard travelers’ privacy. — Government Computer News

I can say that I have much less concern now about ATS than I did before. Primarily this is because it uses proven link analysis techniques which can reasonably tie a person to terrorist groups. For instance, I would expect someone to be carefully screened who booked their plane tickets and gave Osama bin Laden’s phone number. That’s the sort of thing we should be looking for, because there’s a good chance such a person isn’t coming here for a vacation.

This is in contrast to data mining, or pattern analysis, which tries to find non-obvious links in large data sets, and is all but worthless in tracking terrorists, but useful for falsely identifying millions of people.

Of course, any program, established even with the best of intentions, can be perverted to some other use. So it is on us to be eternally vigilant and to ensure that Homeland Security does not use the system for something else in the future, such as tracking political dissent.

One thought on “DHS: Passenger screening no threat to privacy

  • December 21, 2006 at 6:35 am
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    not to their privacy, in fact when you invade their privacy, like exposing flaws in their “brilliant” plans for keeping us safe, you lose your job, or get your home raided by some federal agency.

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