Oct 27 2009

DHS Inspector General rips “TRIP” kangaroo courts

The DHS Office of the Inspector General (OIG) has released a redacted version of a report (OIG-09-103) that was provided to Congress in August, evaluating the TSA’s “Traveler Redress Inquiry Program” (TRIP). The TRIP name may be corny, but it’s also oddly accurate: it’s a system for inquiries, not answers, and as the OIG concludes it advertises more than it delivers and and often doesn’t result in real redress.

We commend Rep. Bennie Thompson, Chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, for requesting this report. It’s worth reading for giving one of the most detailed public descriptions to date as to the actual process by which a constellation of Federal agencies decide what entries to put on (and off) their “watch lists”, and who to allow to fly.

The OIG doesn’t consider the statutory, Constitutional, and international treaty-law right to travel, referring at one point to “the privilege of boarding an aircraft” (p. 68). But even within this perspective of travel as a privilege, not a right, the OIG concludes that the current redress and review procedure “is not fair” (p. 59):

This approach provides no guarantee that an impartial review of the redress complaint will occur. Instead, it ensures that the offices that initially acted on the TECS lookout and were the source of the redress-seeker’s travel difficulties will also be the final arbiters of whether the basis for the traveler’s secondary inspection is overridden…

DHS is required to offer aggrieved travelers a “fair” redress process. Impartial and objective review and adjudication of redress petitions is an essential part of any fair redress process. A process that relies exclusively on the review and consideration of redress claims by the office that was the source of the traveler’s grievance is not fair. CBP should modify its redress process in this area to provide for independent review.

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Oct 27 2009

TSA sends our FOIA request into a black hole

We learned yesterday from the U.S Postal Service that the TSA has been assigned a new zip code, 20598 (or at least so we were told on the phone by the USPS Customer Affairs department — we have no way to verify whether it’s true, or what the “correct” zip code should be), replacing the former 22202, and has instructed the USPS that they will not accept delivery of anything addressed to zip code 22202.  But the TSA still lists 22202 as the zip code for FOIA requests on their Web site, and they have yet to publish a new Federal Register notice officially designating a new FOIA request address.

Our most recent request was under FOIA.  But the same address is officially designated for TSA Privacy Act requests on the TSA website and in numerous System of Records Notices (SORNs), and we assume that Privacy Act requests have the same problems.

A FOIA request we sent (by Express Mail, with a request for expedited processing) 12 days ago has gone into a black hole: It hasn’t been returned to us as the sender, but there’s no record of it being delivered. Nor is there any written record of the TSA refusing to accept it or directing the USPS not to attempt to deliver it.

We haven’t been able to find out how long this has been going on, or how many sacks (truckloads?) of mail and how many tens or hundreds of FOIA requests may have been similarly dealt with.

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Oct 27 2009

Who’s watching the watchers at the DHS “Privacy” Office?

The Identity Project has joined with more than two dozen other organizations and individual experts from the Privacy Coalition in a joint letter to the House Committee on Homland Security, criticizing the DHS Privacy Office and its annual report and calling for better Congressional oversight of privacy-invasive DHS practices and the DHS Privacy Office itself.

There’s more about the letter, and the DHS response, today in the Washington Post.

We’re pleased to be part of this joint effort, and we hope Congress does more to rein in the DHS — although of course we are disappointed that DHS noncompliance with the law, the Constitution, and international treaties has made such a campaign necessary.  The DHS consistently tries to exempt itself from major requirements of the Privacy Act, such as:

  • Obtaining personal information from the person affected, rather than from third parties.
  • Making personal information accessible to the person affected.
  • Giving people a serious opportunity to correct records about them at DHS (or collected and held by “private” entities at DHS behest and used by the DHS).
  • Only collecting information that is relevant to lawful purposes.
  • Only collecting information that is timely.
  • Only collecting information that is accurate.
  • Only collecting information about categories of individuals disclosed in formal “System of Records Notices” in the Federal Register.
  • Not collecting information about the First Amendment protected activities of US persons — such as who they are associating with, the books they are carrying or reading, the art or slogans or expressive insignia on their clothing or possessions, or where, why, how, and with whom they are assembling.

DHS claims for itself the ability to “exempt” itself from these statutory requirements. They do not cite any statute or court case that allows them to do so.

The DHS Privacy Office has been intimately involved in producing Federal Register filings that claim these exemptions from fundamental statutory Federal record-keeping requirements, and fail to properly disclose the extent of DHS systems of travel records. DHS travel records include information about numerous categories of people not mentioned in the SORNs, from people who pay for other people’s tickets to people whose phone numbers where entered in reservations of houseguests reconfirming flights, as well other information prohibited form collection by the Privacy Act.  In this way, the Privacy Office has actively undermined the Privacy Act that they are sworn to uphold, and has been a party to criminal violations of the Privacy Act in the continued operation of these systems of records.  We’ve gotten no response whatsoever to our repeated formal complaints of these crimes filed with the DHS Privacy Office.