Jan 27 2012

Retroactive Privacy Act exemptions could cost a US citizen his life

In his ruling this week in Hasbrouck v. CBP, Judge Seeborg of the US. District Court for the Northern District of California suggested that US citizens have no “rights” that would be prejudiced by applying newly-issued Privacy Act exemption rules to previously-made requests for government records.

But a parallel case currently before the U.S. District Court in DC shows how retroactive application of Privacy Act exemptions can be a potentially life-or-death issue.

Sharif Mobley is a native-born U.S. citizen who was living in Yemen with his wife (also a US citizen) and their two infant children when he was shot and seized by agents of the Yemeni government in January 2010, and taken to a Yemeni hospital in police custody.  He’s been in a Yemeni prison ever since, and needs US government records to defend himself against capital charges.

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Jan 24 2012

First rulings in our lawsuit over DHS travel records

U.S. District Court Judge Richard Seeborg has issued his first rulings in Hasbrouck v. CBP, our lawsuit seeking information from and about DHS records of the travels of individual US citizens.

Judge Seeborg granted some of the government’s motions for summary judgment and some of ours, ordered US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to conduct further searches and disclose any non-exempt responsive records they find, and ordered the parties to confer on the remaining unresolved issues.

We’re still studying the order, which we received notice of late yesterday. But here are some key aspects of the ruling — including some issues of first impression for any Federal court — and some issues it raises:

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Jan 12 2012

What’s it like to be labeled an “armed and dangerous terrorist”?

We’ve written before about the case of Julia Shearson, a US citizen who was detained in handcuffs at gunpoint, and separated from her four-year-old daughter, when she tried to re-enter the US by land after a weekend holiday in Canada.

The DHS has admitted that they had improperly flagged her as a “suspected terrorist” on the terrorist watch list and in the (illegal) travel records system that later came to be known as the Automated Targeting System, but to this day — despite her ongoing Privacy act and FOIA lawsuit — Ms. Shearson doesn’t know why.

We urge anyone who wants to know what it’s like to be caught up in the post-9/11 dragnet to listen to this talk given by Ms. Shearson at an event last month in San Francisco, and this video also shown at that event.

Jan 12 2012

US report on human rights ignores complaints

On December 30th, 2011, the US government filed its latest report (and appendices; also here in PDF format) to the United Nations Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) concerning US implementation of, and compliance with, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

The ICCPR is one of the most important human rights treaties to which the US is a party. By the terms of the ICCPR, each party to the treaty, including the US, is required to report to the UNHCR, every five years, on its implementation of, and compliance with, its obligations under the treaty.  Following each such self-report by a national government, the UNHCR has the opportunity to pose questions both in writing and during a face-to-face hearing concerning the report and other issues of treaty compliance by that government. The UNHCR also meets with, and receives “shadow” reports (such as these regarding the previous US report) from, non-governmental organizations with concerns about the government’s self-reporting or other treaty compliance issues concerning that country.

Since the US doesn’t recognize the jurisdiction of most other international human rights tribunals, the UNHCR is one of the only independent bodies empowered to cross-examine the US government and demand answers to questions about its actions and its compliance with international law.

The fourth US report concerning the ICCPR filed in December 2011 was due a year earlier, in 2010. The UNHCR will schedule its review and response to the US report for one of its future sessions in Geneva or New York, perhaps in late 2012 or sometime in 2013.

What’s most notable about the latest US report is how much goes unmentioned, even with respect to topics raised in the previous US report. There’s no substantial discussion, for example, of the comprehensive system of control and surveillance of travelers that has been set up by the DHS, or of whether it complies with the standards established by the UNHCR for government actions which restrict the right to freedom of movement guaranteed by Article 12 of the ICCPR. We’ll be raising that issue in detail, of course, in our shadow report to the UNHCR, as we have in our previous complaints to the DHS and the Department of State. Read More

Jan 03 2012

The EU-US PNR Agreement — A Legal Analysis of Its Failures

[The following complete article (27 pages) or a summary of the key points (3 pages) can be downloaded in PDF format. Additional analyses and critiques of the proposed EU-US PNR agreement have been published by, among others, the Identity Project, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and a coalition of US and EU NGOs.]


Chair, Friends of Privacy USA
December 26, 2011


The proposed agreement regarding Passenger Name Records (PNR) between the United States and the European Union is riddled with faulty assertions and assumptions about US law and the actual operations of the US Government.

These faulty assertions and assumptions go to the heart of the agreement and undercut the claims of protections for European travelers.

As an American lawyer with substantial experience on the PNR and related issues, I want to set the record straight for the European officials who must act on the proposed agreement.

This memo highlights the most serious of those faulty claims and assumptions.

In summary:

  1. The Agreement does not apply to the agency – the Terrorist Screening Center – which actually decides which travelers will be subject to the No Fly rules.
  2. The US Laws cited in the agreement as offering protections to European travelers actually provide very little benefit or are completely irrelevant to the international transfer of PNR data;
  3. Europeans cannot, as the agreement suggests, obtain independent and adequate relief from unlawful actions by the US Executive Branch (USG) by appealing those decisions under the Administrative Procedure Act (the APA).There are virtually insurmountable substantive and procedural hurdles to the use of the APA in “appealing” decisions of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).Of greatest importance, most of the relevant actions taken pursuant to the agreement will not qualify as a “Final Order” that can be appealed under the APA;
  4. Beyond that the APA is of little use to travelers who want to challenge the centrally important actions taken by the Terrorist Screening Center (TSC) of the Department of Justice (DOJ).The Agreement is focused on the TSA’s screening of air passengers. It gives short shrift to and offers very little protection from the Automated Targeting System (ATS) operated by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) which is a wholly separate branch of DHS.It is CBP – not the TSA – that use the ATS to decide how Europeans will be treated when they enter exit the US;
  5. There are substantial uncertainties about which, if any, court would be empowered to hear an “appeal” and which agencies would need to be sued. Complex jurisdictional rules regarding APA appeals and transportation security issues throw air passengers into a procedural thicket from which they may never escape;
  6. The DHS Chief Privacy Officer has neither the independence nor the authority claimed in the Agreement. Nor does the CPO of the Justice Department whose jurisdiction includes the TSC, and;
  7. The Agreement does not cover the USG’s uses of private commercial data e.g. data obtained from the Computer Reservation Services (CRS) and the USG has wide power under the Patriot Act and related law to obtain data them.

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