Apr 28 2011

State Dept. responds to passport form furor — with lies

Several readers (among the thousands who submitted comments) have forwarded copies of the email message the State Department is sending as an auto-response to all mail to the point of contact for their proposed new “Biographical Questionnaire” for passport applicants, Form DS-5513.

For your entertainment, and so we won’t be accused of quoting out of context, we’ve copied the State Department’s statement in full below the fold.

The good news is that the State Department seems to have realized that they’ve gone too far, and “may very well” revise the proposal.  The bad news is that they are still talking about trying to get Office of Management and Budget approval for a “revised version” of the proposed form, rather than scrapping the idea entirely.  And they make no mention of the (illegal) unapproved form that the public comments revealed they are already using.

But rather than admit they have gone too far, much less done anything wrong, the State Department lies about what the proposed form says, and tries to attribute the surge of outrage to “misperceptions regarding this form.”

The State Department says that, “Many of these questions may not apply to the majority of applicants.” But both proposed Form DS-5513 and the current (unapproved and illegal) Supplemental Worksheet state that the respondent must “Complete this form in its entirety” and under penalty of perjury. Proposed Form DS-5513 says that, “failure to provide the information requested may result in … the denial of your U.S. passport application.”

That’s not a “misperception.”  That’s the plain and unambiguous language of the form. Read More

Apr 27 2011

State Dept. already using illegal passport questionnaire

The most frequently asked question in the ongoing discussion about the State Department’s proposed new “Biographical Questionnaire” for (some) passport applicants has been, “Is this a hoax?”

We wish this were a joke, but it’s for real. The proposed Form DS-5513 that we published is the one we and others who requested it received from the State Department’s designated contact for the proposal.

The second most frequently asked question about this proposal is, “Why is the State Department doing this?”

We think we’ve found the answer: The State Department is already using a version of this form, illegally, without OMB approval, and has probably been doing so for several years. The point of the current proposal is to try to regularize and give legal cover to an ongoing and clearly illegal practice — and, while they are at it, to make the current form even worse. Read More

Apr 26 2011

Public outrage at proposed questionnaire for passport applicants

Back in March, the State Department published a notice in the Federal Register that they were proposing a new “Biographical Questionnaire” for (some) passport applicants. But the notice didn’t include the proposed form itself. Curious, and concerned, we requested a copy of the proposed form from the State Department contact person listed in the Federal Register notice.

When we got the proposed Form DS-5513, we were horrified. We immediately posted the form here on our website, with an alert about the proposal. We also prepared and submitted formal comments to the State Department opposing the proposal, which were co-signed by the Center for Financial Privacy and Human Rights (CFPHR), Knowledge Ecology International (KEI), Center for Media and Democracy (CMD), Privacy Activism, Consumer Travel Alliance (CTA), Robert Ellis Smith, and John Gilmore.

Unfortunately, the mainstream media didn’t pick up the story until after we wrote about the filing of our comments at ConsumerTraveler.com last Friday. After that, the story went viral.  And it’s still spreading: today it’s reported on MSNBC and across the spectrum of political blogs and news sites from Glenn Beck to the Daily Kos.

What’s consistent across that political spectrum is the outrage. From fewer than 50 public comments in the State Department docket on Friday, the count went to more than 900 before the comment deadline yesterday (Monday) at midnight. But that’s not all. State Department docket clerks are still processing the backlog of last-minute submissions, which can take up to a couple of weeks. By lunchtime today, the count of public comments was up to more than 3000. We haven’t had time to read them all, but we haven’t found any in those we sampled that support the State Department’s proposal.

Organizational comments opposing the proposed “Biographical Questionnaire” were submitted by:

In addition to the comments submitted to the Department of State, here are some of the other discussions of this issue going on around the Web as news of this scheme spreads: Read More

Apr 22 2011

Travel and surveillance industries join in campaign for traveler profiling

The travel industry — concerned that treating all travelers as suspected terrorists will discourage travel and reduce their business — has joined forces with the homeland-security industrial complex of providers of travel surveillance and control technology in a pseudo-grassroots lobbying and propaganda campaign for more profiling of travelers.

The motives of DHS contractors and their lobbyists are obvious. But we’re disgusted with travel companies, especially “common carriers” required to transport all would-be customers, whose pitch to the public is that it’s OK for the travel industry to collaborate with the government in collecting lifetime travel histories of their customers, and to subject some of them to everything from virtual strip-searches and/or manual groping to standardless secret no-fly orders, as long as those invasions of privacy and the right to travel are imposed selectively.

Making sexual assault, warrantless searches, and denial of transportation discriminatory and selective — where the selection is based on anything other than a search or arrest warrant, injunction, or  other court order — only exacerbates the unfairness and the denial of rights.

The latest euphemistic buzzword for “trusted traveler” and other profiling schemes is “risk-based”. The term “risk-based’ is used to create the mis-impression that profiling actually measures risk. But let’s be clear: whether there is sufficient evidence of “risk” in a particular case to justify search, detention, and/or denial of freedom of movement is a matter to be determined by a judge, not a profiling algorithm. And even if we wanted to ignore the Bill of Rights, there is no reliable algorithm for identifying “risky people”.  Some people do bad things, but trying to identify “bad people” is impossible without trying to read minds. Any trusted traveler program would inevitably be a “Department of Pre-Crime”, and not based on any actual judicial determination of risk — much less of risk sufficient to justify prior restraint on the exercise of First Amendment rights of assembly.

The travel industry and the profiling companies want you to think that you’d never fit the profile, that you’d be considered a “trusted” traveler, and that all the bad things would be reserved for other bad people who, on the basis of their travel history or other (legal) activities, “deserve” to be treated like terrorists. But the reality is that any trusted traveler program is a threat to all our rights.

Just say no to any “trusted traveler” proposal. Just say no to the traveler surveillance and profiling it would require. And just say no to the discrimination it would embody and institutionalize.

Apr 21 2011

DHS can’t “opt out” of liability for violating the Privacy Act

The DHS can’t exempt itself from the civil remedies provided by the Privacy Act for people who are harmed by government violations of the law, according to a decision announced today by the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati in the case of Shearson v. Department of Homeland Security.

The case was brought by Julia Shearson, Executive Director of the Cleveland chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). The incident that led to the case is described in today’s court opinion as follows:

Shearson and her four-year-old daughter, United States citizens by birth and Muslims, returned by car from a weekend in Canada at around 8:30 p.m. on January 8, 2006, via the Peace Bridge in the Buffalo, New York/Fort Erie area. On scanning their United States passports, the CBP computer flashed “ARMED AND DANGEROUS,” and CBP agents asked Shearson to turn over her car keys and step out of the car. Shearson was handcuffed, and, after several hours of questioning in the terminal, she and her daughter were released without explanation. As they left, Shearson inquired whether her vehicle had been searched and was told no search had been conducted. This proved to be false; Shearson’s vehicle had been searched and was damaged in the course of the search. After Shearson wrote several Ohio congressional representatives, who in turn contacted the CBP, the CBP advised the legislators that its agents had acted “in response to what later proved to be a false computer alert.”

The DHS admitted that they had improperly flagged her as a “suspected terrorist” in the (illegal) travel records system that later came to be known as the “Automated Targeting System,” but refused to say why or on the basis of what, if any evidence or allegation against her they did so. Five years later, she’s still trying to find out why — other than working for CAIR — she was labeled in ATS as a “suspected terrorist” to be arrested at gunpoint, separated from her child, and held in handcuffs.

Shearson brought suit against the DHS under the Privacy Act for, among other violations, improperly maintaining records of her religious and other activities protected by the First Amendment, failure to maintain accurate records, improper disclosure of the erroneous records about her, and refusal to show her their files about her.  She filed and argued the case pro se for several years, although Gadeir Abbas (then a law student and now a staff attorney with CAIR) and David Wolfe Leopold (now the president of AILA, the American Immigration Lawyers), later assisted in the case, and attorney Kurt Hunt represented Ms. Shearson in the appeal to the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals.

In response to the lawsuit, CBP (U.S. Customs and Border Protection, a division of DHS), argued that they had exempted themselves from any liability related to ATS for under the provisions of the Privacy Act for civil remedies. Such overbroad self-exemption claims have been a common technique of the DHS to shield itself from acountability to the courts for its actions, even when they infringe citizens’ rights.

As Shearson’s attorney in the 6th Circuit appeal, Kurt Hunt, described the ruling, it means that, “A citizen can sue the government for breaching mandatory provisions of the Privacy Act (for example: improperly maintaining records of First Amendment activity), and the government cannot simply pass a rule to ‘exempt’ itself from potential civil liability for violating those mandatory provisions. In short, it makes it possible for a citizen to actually enforce the Privacy Act in a civil action.”

Hunt notes that, “The circuits are currently split about this question, and the split appears to be widening. Because this was the first 6th Circuit decision to address civil remedies exemptions, today’s ruling will have national implications. We hope the Sixth Circuit’s decision will be the start of a trend of decisions putting the “teeth” back into the Privacy Act.”

Now that DHS’s attempt at self-exemption has been overturned by the Court of Appeals, Shearson’s case has now been remanded for further action on her claims for violation of the Privacy Act and her rights.

We don’t yet know whether similar claims of total self-exemption from  liability to civil remedies will be asserted by CBP in our own case, Hasbrouck v. CBP, which so far as we know is the only other case to have been brought under the Privacy Act and related to Automated Targeting System records.

Apr 11 2011

California bill would condition the right to travel on … draft registration?

A bizarre bill currently pending in the California Senate, S.B. 251, introduced Feb. 10, 2011, by Senator Lou Correa of Orange County, would require all applicants for California drivers’ licenses to consent to having the information they provide to the state Department of Motor Vehicles forwarded to the U.S. Selective Service System and used to register them for a possible military draft.

Whatever one may think of Selective Service, the draft, draft registration, or the wars for which they might be used, this bill reflects a disturbing failure by its sponsors to recognize that travel, within and between states as well as internationally, is a right — subject only to the most limited and essential administrative restrictions — and not a privilege that can at the government’s whim, to serve unrelated purposes, be granted, denied, encumbered, or conditioned on the waiver of other rights.

In our letter to the California Senate’ Standing Committee on Transportation and Housing, which will hold a hearing on S.B. 251 tomorrow where we plan to testify, we outlined our objections as follows:

Read More