In the Obama Administration’s parting gift to foreign visitors, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has approved the collection of social media IDs from foreign visitors to the US. As part of the online Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA), tourists, business travelers, and foreign citizens visiting friends and relatives in the US are now being asked whether they have accounts on any social media platforms, and if so, their user names or IDs.
We’ve heard a lot of talk in recent months about “extreme vetting” of immigrants, Muslims, and foreign visitors to the US. But what does “extreme vetting” really mean?
“Vetting” means examining people and deciding who to allow, and who not to allow, to do something.
Under DHS procedures that have been in place for a decade, no airline operating to, from, or within the US is allowed to issue a boarding pass or let you on a plane unless and until it has sent your personal information to DHS and received an individualized, per-passenger, per-flight “Boarding Pass Printing Result” (BPPR) message giving the airline “permission” to “allow” you to exercise your right to travel by common carrier. The default if DHS doesn’t respond is “no”, and both the algorithms used for the decision and the data put into that algorithmic black box are secret.
What could be more “extreme”? Manual strip searches for all travelers, instead of just virtual strip searches using as-though-naked imaging machines?
But as President-Elect Trump’s “extreme” rhetoric suggests, the government’s desire for surveillance and control of our movements is insatiable. It’s always possible to make yet another mirror copy of the government’s warehouse of metadada about our movements, disseminate it more widely, and pile on another layer of pre-crime profiling algorithms. More is always better, right — especially if you call it “intelligence”?
The latest replication and propagation of travel data, and the latest layer of traveler “vetting” tools, is the so-called “Analytical Framework for Intelligence” (AFI) operated by, or under contract to, US Customs and Border Protection (CBP). As we told Spencer Woodman of The Verge for his story today about AFI:
“When Trump uses the term ‘extreme vetting’, AFI is the black-box system of profiling algorithms that he’s talking about,” says Edward Hasbrouck of the Identity Project, a civil liberties initiative that focuses on the rights of travelers. “This is what extreme vetting means.”
DHS in general, and CBP in particular, have been playing a shell game for many years with their travel surveillance and control systems.
Government copies of airline reservations (Passenger Name Records) were first claimed to be part of a system of records called TECS, then declared to be part of a “new” system of records called the Automated Targeting System (ATS), although still stored in the TECS database. (Huh?) Now an additional mirror copy of all this PNR data (still stored in TECS and still also deemed part of ATS) is being created as part of another “newer” system of records known as AFI.
AFI is one several new user interfaces and front-ends to TECS data being developed for use by multiple DHS components including US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) as part of a long-term “TECS modernization” project.
If you’re confused by all the acronyms and name changes, and don’t know which government files you should ask for or worry about, that’s exactly what DHS wants.
AFI itself has changed fundamentally and for the worse in the last few months, at least if we can believe what DHS says. It’s always been a suspicion-generating and guilt-by-association machine, but now it’s a much more powerful one. More powerful, to be clear, does not mean “better” or “more accurate”. It means, “capable of placing more people under suspicion” based on more intrusive data aggregation, data mining, and profiling. Here’s how:
In a partial but symbolically significant victory, the Belgian government has postponed a final vote in the national Parliament on legislation to require certain international railways to provide passenger name records (PNRs) to the government for surveillance and advance “vetting” of train travelers, as is already being done for air travelers between the EU, the US, and other countries.
The Belgian proposal was approved by the anti-terror committee in Parliament despite a threat by the German national railway to suspend its high-speed services to Belgium if the bill passes, as well as other criticism.
One Belgian think tank, analyzing the proposal in the context of other anti-terrorism proposals, concluded that, “The creation of a Belgian PNR system is a good illustration of this dynamic: taking it as a given that it will facilitate the arrest of terrorists who are planning attacks is something of a fairy tale…. Social sciences, unlike astrology, is not about predicting the future.”
The decisive factor in the Belgian government’s decision to postpone the scheduled final vote in the national Parliament appears to have been intervention by the European Commission in response to a formal complaint by Access Now that the law would violate the right of EU citizens to move freely within the EU.
As with “rights” for US citizens that aren’t recognized as human rights for all, a decision by the EU or Belgium based solely on the rights of EU citizens falls short of full recognition of the right to travel. But so far as we know, this is the first time that the EU has blocked any proposed travel surveillance or control measure, in the EU or any of its members states, on the basis of the right to freedom of movement.
We hope that the Belgian government will withdraw its railway PNR proposal entirely, not leave it pending, and that other EU member states will take note of the incompatibility of measures like this with fundamental European and human rights principles.
Remarks by President Barack Obama on the Administration’s Approach to Counterterrorism, MacDill Air Force Base, Tampa, Florida, December 6, 2016:
Let my final words to you as your Commander-in-Chief be a reminder of what it is that you’re fighting for, what it is that we are fighting for…
The United States of America is not a place where some citizens have to withstand greater scrutiny, or carry a special ID card, or prove that they’re not an enemy from within. We’re a country that has bled and struggled and sacrificed against that kind of discrimination and arbitrary rule, here in our own country and around the world.
We’re a nation that believes freedom can never be taken for granted and that each of us has a responsibility to sustain it…. We are a nation that stands for the rule of law.
That sounds great in theory. But in practice?
- Some citizens do have to withstand greater scrutiny. That’s the whole point of the pre-crime profiling that the Obama Administration has called “risk-based security” and that President-Elect Trump has called “extreme vetting”.
- Under the REAL-ID Act and the TSA’s latest proposal, some citizens — those who want to exercise our right to freedom of movement and to air travel by common carrier — will have to carry a special “REAL-ID Act compliant” ID card and have our personal information added to a national ID database maintained by a private contractor that isn’t subject to government rules for transparency or accountability.
- The DHS has held itself above the law, arguing that its actions should not be subject to judicial review and that it needs to be allowed to act secretly and unpredictably (i.e arbitrarily) in order not to reveal “rules” that would help terrorists “game” the system — as if asserting one’s legal rights was tantamount to terrorism.
We’ll be watching closely to see whether the gap between the rhetoric and reality of profiling, discrimination, rights, and rule of law widens or narrows under President-Elect Trump and his nominee for Secretary of Homeland Security, retired Marine Gen. John F. Kelly.
In the meantime, we’ll keep doing our part, as we encourage our readers to do theirs, to act on the President’s statement that “freedom can never be taken for granted and that each of us has a responsibility to sustain it.”