Feb 23 2016

US border guards have root access to all Amtrak domestic reservations

The latest installment in Amtrak’s response to one of our FOIA requests confirms our suspicion that Amtrak has given US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) access to all Amtrak reservations including those for purely domestic passengers and trains — but in an additional and harder-to-track manner than we had previously been aware of.

In October 2014, we asked Amtrak for its its records related to data-sharing and other collaboration with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and other US and foreign law enforcement agencies. Amtrak is still in the process of searching for and censoring responsive records, more than a year after the legal deadline for its full response. In the mean time, however, Amtrak has been providing intermittent “interim” responses, which we’ve been analyzing and reporting on as we receive them. Because Amtrak is a Federal government entity subject to FOIA, unlike commercial airlines or bus lines, we’ve been able; to find out much more about Amtrak collaboration with DHS and other law enforcement agencies than about the parallel practices of private transportation carriers.

We’ve learned that Amtrak’s own police — who are commissioned by individual states, but have unusual multi-state jurisdiction — have root access to Amtrak’s “ARROW” computerized reservation system, and even a special “Police GUI” (graphical user interface) to mine passenger reservations for police purposes.

We’ve also learned about Amtrak’s transmission to DHS of information about all passengers on Amtrak trains that cross the US-Canada border.

What we didn’t know, until the latest interim release of Amtrak documents this month, was whether DHS or any other Federal police agency also has access to complete reservation details for the much larger number of passengers on domestic Amtrak trains within the US.

Now we know: Agents of US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) have the same access to all Amtrak reservations as Amtrak onboard train conductors, in such a way that their access evades ever being logged or associated with CBP, but appears to Arrow and Amtrak as though it was carried out by Amtrak staff.

It works like this:

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