Documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, represented by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, has filed a lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) against the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Department of Justice (DHS), and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI, which includes the NSA). The winner of an Oscar and a Pulitzer Prize for her independent journalism, Poitras is seeking the release of records kept by the government about her travels, and about why she has been detained for hours at a time, searched, and interrogated at airports whenever she entered or left the US.
We welcome Ms. Poitras’ lawsuit, and we wish her and EFF all success. But we’ve been down this road before, and the results aren’t encouraging:
- In 2006, Ms. Julia Shearson, Executive Director of the Cleveland Chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), filed suit pro se against the DHS under the Privacy Act, seeking disclosure of records about why she was detained at gunpoint at the US-Canada border and falsely labeled as a terrorist in government blacklists. Despite years of litigation, Ms. Shearson still hasn’t received any information about why or by whom she was blacklisted as a terrorist, or any confirmation that any of the blacklist entries about her have been corrected.
- In 2008, Ms. Sophie In ‘t Veld, a Member of the European Parliament from the Netherlands, also represented by EFF, sued the DHS under FOIA for records about her travel from the DHS “Automated Targeting System” (ATS). Although Ms. In ‘t Veld eventually received some excerpts from the DHS dossier about her travels, the pre-crime “risk assessment” scores assigned to her each time she traveled to or from the US were redacted and withheld, as was all information about the algorithms and the information used as the basis for those scores.
- In 2010, Mr. Edward Hasbrouck, an award-winning travel journalist and a consultant to the Identity Project, represented by our parent organization the First Amendment Project, sued the DHS under both the Privacy Act and FOIA, seeking disclosure of records about himself and his travels from ATS, including risk assessments and rules used for determining them, and information about ATS search and data-mining functionality. Like Ms. In ‘t Veld, Mr. Hasbrouck eventually received some excerpts from the ATS files about his travels, but with all information about risk assessments and risk assessment algorithms redacted and withheld. While Mr. Hasbrouck’s requests were pending, DHS exempted ATS from all of the access and disclosure accounting requirements of the Privacy Act, and a US District Court judge upheld the retroactive application of those exemptions to unanswered requests that Mr. Hasbrouck had made three years previously. The judge also upheld the withholding of all information about DHS data-mining capabilities for ATS travel records, without even looking at any of the requested records.
- In 2011, Mr. David House, a computer programmer associated with the Chelsea Manning (then Bradley Manning) Support Network, represented by the ACLU of Massachusetts, sued the DHS for wrongly searching and seizing Mr. House’s electronic devices and data at the airport when he returned to the US from a vacation abroad. As part of a settlement of the lawsuit, the government eventually turned over some records from its files about Mr. House and about how the government used its travel surveillance capabilities to target him for his work to publicize Ms. Manning’s case and raise funds for her legal defense. The records released to Mr. House give a partial picture of how the DHS uses manually-created flags (“lookouts”) to target travelers, but still doesn’t give any information about the algorithms or data inputs used for automated pre-crime profiling and “risk assessment” scores.
- In 2013, Messrs. C.J. Chivers and Mac William Bishop, two reporters for the New York Times represented by the Times’ in-house legal department, sued the DHS under both FOIA and the Privacy Act for records about why the two journalists were targeted for unusually intrusive searches and interrogations at airports while leaving and returning to the US on reporting assignments for the Times. The Times hasn’t (yet) reported on what, if any, records they have received in response to the lawsuit. We presume that means that the government has yet to disclose any significant new information about its targeting of journalists and their travels. [In response to the lawsuit, DHS did release redacted portions of its TECS and Automated Targeting System (ATS) files about the journalists, including PNR data. But the codes indicating profiling results and reasons for DHS actions as well as some entire pages of ATS records were redacted.]
We’ve been involved as plaintiffs, attorneys, or consultants to plaintiffs and their counsel in all but one of these cases, and we support continued litigation on these issues.
Harassment of journalists and political activists and interference with their right to travel are only part of a bigger picture. Government surveillance and control of travel is a threat to everyone’s rights. It’s important for the government to disclose what it’s been doing, but it’s equally important to expunge the government’s travel metadata surveillance archives and end the government’s pre-crime profiling and permission-based controls on who it “allows” to travel by common carrier or public right-of-way.