Nov 13 2012

How Australia profiles travelers: A look inside the “black box”

At a “Big Data” conference in Sydney earlier this month, the head of Australia’s traveler tracking and profiling office (his actual title — we are not making this up — is “Director Intent Management & Analytics“) gave an  unusually revealing presentation (PDF) [also here] about the nature of the government’s travel data warehouse and how it is used to predict the “intent” of travelers to and from Australia.

Klaus Felsche of the Australian Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) didn’t mince words, referring explicitly to “data mining”, “risk scoring”, and “profiling” systems and algorithms, although lamenting that DIAC doesn’t (yet) have access to social media profiles or some data from other Australian  government agencies.

The US government has rarely used the words “scoring, “profiling”, or “data mining” with respect to its warehousing and use of Passenger Name Records (PNRs) and other travel data.  Most of the architecture, as well as all of the rules and algorithms, have been withheld from public disclosure, even when we have requested this information under the Privacy Act, FOIA, and/or through foreign governments and airlines that have allowed PNR data subject to their jurisdiction to be fed into these data warehouses and data-mining systems.

The “threat analysis” component of US travel control systems like Secure Flight has remained an unexplained “black box” whose operations are part of the magical secret sauce that justifies the government in enforcing  whatever its oracle decrees.  In this diagram — the most detailed yet provided by the TSA — it’s the red box at right center.

So we are grateful to Mr. Felsche of the Australian DIAC for providing a clearer picture of what data governments are archiving about us and our travels, and how they are using it.  Just remember, as you study his presentation, that:

  1. “Targeting” — the one euphemism that still permeates Mr. Felshe’s presentation — means search, seizure, interrogation, and prohibition of travel. In other words, deprivation of fundamental rights, to a greater or lesser degree depending on whether it means mere delay and intrusion or whether it means being confined by a no-fly order to the island of Australia for the remainder of one’s natural life.
  2. Australia is a relatively small country in population and (as his presentation makes clear) computing resources available to this component of the government.  Presumably, what’s being done with travel data by DIAC is only a subset of what is being done by the DHS, and perhaps in the European Union.