Mar 30 2018

State Department proposes more surveillance of social media, communications, and travel

(Excerpt from proposed US visa application form as posted at Regulations.gov)

Today the US Department of State published proposals in the Federal Register to expand its ongoing surveillance of social media, e-mail, and travel by applicants for immigrant and nonimmigrant (tourism and other temporary visits) visas:

The Department is revising the collection to add several additional questions for…  visa applicants. One question lists multiple social media platforms and requires the applicant to provide any identifiers used by applicants for those platforms during the five years preceding the date of application. The platforms listed may be updated by the Department by adding or removing platforms….

Other questions seek five years of previously used telephone numbers, email addresses, and international travel.

Questions about social media identifiers were added to the applications for visas and the ESTA form (electronic visa for citizens of countries in the US Visa Waiver Program) in 2016. But until now, the State Department has claimed that answering these questions was “voluntary”.

This expanded social media, telephone, and e-mail surveillance has all the problems we and other organizations have previously objected to, and more.

There has not previously been any requirement for would-be visitors or immigrants to the US to provide current or past telephone numbers, e-mail addresses, or a comprehensive list of which countries other than the US have been visited or when they have been visited.

The State Department will use these identifiers and share them with other Federal agencies such as DHS, including through the National Vetting Center, to target surveillance of foreign citizens, to mine its historical archives of dragnet surveillance, and to decide whether or not to allow foreigners to enter or remain in the US.  As part of “Visa Lifecyle Vetting” (formerly known as the “Extreme Vetting Initiative”) they will also be used for “continuous vetting”: ongoing suspicionless monitoring, profiling, and scoring by “pre-crime” algorithms purported to have robotic “pre-cognitive” abilities to predict future crimes based on what people say and who they associate with.

Read More

Mar 13 2018

Is the DHS using this Unisys pre-crime software?

A press release last week from Unisys gives a disturbing glimpse into the extent to which border guards — possibly including US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and other components of the US Department of Homeland Security — are making decisions on the basis of automated “pre-crime” predictions of future bad actions or bad intentions.

Unisys describes its “LineSight” (TM)  product as,

[N]ew software that uses advanced data analytics and machine learning to … enable border agents to make … on-the-spot decisions about whether to trigger closer inspection of travelers … before admitting them into a country…. The solution [sic] uses advanced targeting algorithms to continuously ingest and analyze high volumes of data from multiple sources and to flag potential threats in near real time. For travelers crossing borders, LineSight assesses risk from the initial intent to travel and refines that risk assessment as more information becomes available – beginning with a traveler’s visa application to travel, reservation, ticket purchase, seat selection, check-in and arrival.

Think about what this means: This is not a tool for investigation of illegal conduct or prosecution of people who have committed crimes. It presumes that government agencies will be sufficiently deeply embedded in travel industry infrastructure and have the surveillance capability to know as soon as you form an “initial intent to travel”. It’s being marketed to government agencies as a “pre-crime” system alleged to have “pre-cognitive” ability to predict intentions and future actions, and to generate its own algorithms for doing so:

“Many legacy border security solutions identify potentially risky travelers and cargo based on previously known threats – which is kind of like driving a car and only using your rear view mirror,” said Mark Forman, global head of Unisys Public Sector….

LineSight does not depend solely on pre-defined pattern matching rules; it also includes predictive analytics and machine learning that allow the system to learn from experience and automatically generate new rules and algorithms to continuously improve assessment accuracy over time.

Decisions about which travelers should be subjected to more intrusive searches should be be made on the basis of probable cause to believe that  crimes have been committed, not on the basis of fantasies of “pre-cognitive” pre-crime prediction.

It’s wrong to delegate judicial decisions to administrative agencies, wrong to further delegate those decisions to software ‘bots, and wrong to set those robots loose to make up their own rules to govern whch individuals are subjected to searches or other sanctions.

Read More

Mar 09 2018

If you build a surveillance system, the police will come.

There’s a cautionary tale for people who travel by public transit in the latest report on collaboration with Canadian police by the Toronto regional transit agency, Metrolinx.

If you build a system that keeps personally-indentifiable logs of when and where people go, eventually the police will want to exploit those logs for their own purposes — regardless of the original purpose for which the data was collected, or the policies that, at the time the data was collected, purported to restrict how it would later be used.

Read More

Mar 07 2018

FOIA request for information about DHS “Extreme Vetting”

Despite a “shell game” of changing program names, most recently “Visa Lifecycle Vetting”, the general intent of what the DHS and President Trump previously refered to as the “Extreme Vetting Initiative” is clear and has remained unchanged:

  1. To expand the ongoing unconstitutional warrantless and suspicious surveillance of refugees, asylum seekers, immigrants, foreign residents, and US citizens who travel internationally, so that this dragnet sureveillance will be carried on continuously rather than only in conjunction with specific controlled actions such as vsia issuance or  entering or leaving the US, as though international travel were per se probable cause for search and surveillance rather than the exercise of a right; and
  2. To convert the present systems for making decisions as to who is or is not issued a visa or electronic “travel authorization“, allowed to enter or leave the US, or allowed to exercise their right to travel by common carrier, which are already based on pre-crime profiling, into a system of continuous pre-crime policing under which DHS pre-cogs can assign extrajudicial adverse consequences at any time, not just when individuals are attempting to engage in specific controlled actions.

While the DHS has made its intent clear, it has provided few details about who would be subjected to this “vetting”, what data would be used as inputs to the pre-crime prediction system, what algorithms would be used to make predictions, or what procedures would be followed in assigning consequences. More of this information has been provided in “Industry Day” briefings to private contractors to which these extraducial functions would be outsourced than to the public.

In November 2017, we joined dozens of other organizations in a letter to the Secretary of Homeland Security opposing and requesting more information about this program.

The response to our letter was a cursory brush-off providing no further information.

So this month, as part of a coalition led by Muslim Advocates, we filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) for more information about these DHS programs, including infomation about outsourcing of “vetting” to private conteractors and about DHS monitoring of social media.

We requested expedited processing of our request, but we don’t expect a prompt response. The DHS has a dismal track record of noncompliance with FOIA deadlines. But we hope that this request will eventually help us learn more about DHS surveillance and control of immigrants, foreigners, and travelers, including which companies are building the infrastructure of this police state.