Nov 02 2018

What China calls “social credit”, the US calls “risk assessment”

A viral video of an announcement on a Chinese high-speed train and a series of reports (here and here) on NPR have prompted a surge of interest this week in China’s “social credit” system:

Dear passengers: People who travel without a ticket, behave disorderly, or smoke in public areas will be punished according to regulations, and the behavior will be recorded in individual credit information system. To avoid a negative record of personal credit, please follow the relevant regulations and help with the orders on the train and at the station.

Despite unwarranted comparisons to US financial credit scores, “social credit” scoring in China is used by the government and para-statal entities, not just private companies, and not just for financial decision-making.

One of the NPR stories as well as a report last month by the Australian Broadcasting Co. include interviews with people who discovered they were barred by the Chinese government from travel on high-speed trains as a result of “social credit” scores, regardless of their ability to pay for tickets.

Dystopian? Yes.

Unjust? Yes?

“It can’t happen here?” No.

It already happens here, every day, to everyone who travels by airline or engages in bank or credit card transactions.

You may not realize it until you are mysteriously unable to obtain a boarding pass or complete a financial transaction, but each of these activities is already subject to secret, permission-based, extrajudicial prior restraint by the US government.

The default is “no”.  Since a little over 10 years ago, US Federal regulations have forbidden any airline from issuing a boarding pass unless and until it has sent the would-be traveler’s itinerary and identifying information to the DHS and has received back an individualized, per-passenger, per-flight, permission-to-travel message from the DHS. The DHS generates a secret “risk score” for each passenger, which determines how closely they are searched and questioned, whether the airline is instructed to call the police when they try to check in, and other aspects of how they are treated.

Even before airlines or banks get to the point of consulting the government, “carrier sanctions” and similar sanctions against financial institutions give them a financial incentive to err on the side of saying “no”, not “yes”.

You don’t have to be on a government blacklist for your air travel or financial transactions to be blocked by the US government or by airlines or banks acting at the government’s behest. There are multiple air travel blacklists (euphemistically and inaccurately called “watchlists”), but no-fly and transaction-processing decisions are also made in real time, on the basis of algorithmic “pre-crime” predictions (euphemistically and misleadingly called “risk assessments”, despite the lack of any evidence of a correlation between these scores and actual “risk”).

What China calls “social credit scoring”, the US calls “risk-based screening”.

Government blacklists and real-time pre-crime policing are being applied to control a growing range of activities of daily life. But air travel and financial transactions are the areas where the US government already has a fully deployed and operational real-time “social credit” system in which private service providers are seamlessly integrated with government agencies to surveil and control our everyday activities.

The question isn’t whether the US should have a “social credit” system — it already does — but whether it should be expanded to more aspects of our lives, or rolled back.

It can happen here. It is happening here. It will continue to happen here until we stop it.

China’s social credit system provides a useful object lesson in the three essential preconditions for a system of ID-based surveillance and control. We can block or impede the expansion of such schemes by undermining any of these three legs of the tripod:

  1. ID requirements to travel or engage in other transactions or activities — If you travel, pay, or act anonymously,  your individualized “score” can’t be used to control you. China’s “social credit” system is enabled by requirements to show government-issued ID to open a bank or mobile payment account or purchase a SIM card.  You can only rent a shared bicycle in China through an app, not by cash, and you can’t use the app without an ID-linked mobile phone and ID-linked payment account. So even if you travel around a Chinese city by shared bicycle, you can be tracked. Travel anonymously, and use cash or other anonymous forms of payment.
  2. Collection of ID-linked transaction and position data  — Chinese “social credit” scores and US “risk assessments” are based on travel, movement, and transaction histories. Some of this data is collected through biometric identification, primarily automated  facial recognition. Other data is “ingested” by the government from commercial databases such as travel reservations and financial transactions. Private companies can and should resist requests for this data, but can’t be counted on to do so. No airline, for example, has ever challenged government demands for warrantless access to the entirety of their reservation database, including free-text derogatory internal comments by front-line reservation and customer-service staff that are imported directly into permanent DHS files used for “risk” scoring. Once personally identified or identifiable data is collected, it’s almost impossible to resist demands for government access made in the name of “security”.  Any data that is collected about you can and will be used against you. The only real way to oppose this mass surveillance is #DoNotCollect. Just say no to requests for information, for consent to search, or for sharing of data with the government.
  3. Government control of movement, activity, and transactions — A key step in the implementation of the “social credit” system for air travel was the installation (at a cost to the airline industry of at least US$2 billion) of the control lines that transformed a reporting (i.e. surveillance) system into a “pre-crime” control system. It’s critical to defend against having our Constitutional and human rights redefined as privileges to be exercised only by prior permission of the government —  as the right to travel by common carrier has already been. Demand that restrictions on the exercise of rights be based on evidence-based court orders, not pre-crime fantasies.

As for the specific Chinese examples of travel by high-speed train, Amtrak, like the operators of Chinese trains, is a para-statal government-charterted corporation. In 2014, we made a FOIA request to Amtrak for records of Amtrak’s sharing of passenger data with the DHS and other law enforcement agencies. Amtrak has been releasing a trickle of responsive records, as we’ve been reporting. But Amtrak’s response remains incomplete, and this is now the oldest pending unanswered request in Amtrak’s FOIA queue.

 

Oct 15 2018

TSA announces “biometrics vision for all commercial aviation travelers”

Today the US Transportation Security Administration released a detailed TSA Biometric Roadmap for Aviation Security & the Passenger Experience, making explicit the goal of requiring mug shots (to be used for automated facial recognition and image-based surveillance and control) as a condition of all domestic or international air travel.

This makes explicit the goal that has been apparent, but only implicit, in the activities and statements of both government agencies and airline and airport trade associations.

It’s a terrifyingly totalitarian vision of pervasive surveillance of air travelers at, quite literally and deliberately, every step of their journey, enabled by automated facial recognition and by the seamless collaboration of airlines and airport operators that will help the government surveil their customers in exchange for free use of facial images for their own business purposes and profits.

The  closest contemporary counterpart to what the TSA envisions for the USA is the pervasive surveillance and control of travelers in China through automated facial recognition by the Public Security Bureau.

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Oct 01 2018

Yes, the DHS wants mug shots of all air travelers

A new report by the DHS Office of Inspector General (OIG) gives perhaps the most detailed official picture to date of the US government’s plans for ed biometric identification, tracking, and control of international air travelers through automated facial recognition.

Contrary to specious claims in DHS propaganda that the current rollout of mug-shot machines at departure gates at airports across the country is “only a test,” the DHS OIG reports that US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) plans to expand the mug shot and automated facial image recognition program from 6 million air travelers in 2018 to 60 million in 2019, 120 million in 2020, and 129 million — 100% of international airline departures from the US — by 2021.

But that’s not all. “Over time, the program plans to … incrementally deploy biometric capabilities across all modes of travel — air, sea, and land — by fiscal year 2025,” according to the OIG report.

The scope of these plans should make clear that the only thing being “tested” is whether travelers will submit to this program, not whether it is justified or what interests it serves.

The OIG report mentions that US citizens have been “allowed” to opt out of the airport mug shot “pilot program “, but doesn’t say whether they were told they had a right to do so:

CBP allowed U.S. citizens to decline participation in the pilot. In such cases, CBP officers would permit the travelers to bypass the camera and would instead check the individuals’ passports to verify U.S. citizenship. When a U.S. citizen opted to participate in the pilot but did not successfully match with a gallery photo, the CBP officer would examine the individual’s passport but did not collect fingerprints. We observed biometric screening at four airports — a total of 12 flights — during our audit and witnessed only 16 passengers who declined to participate.

[Note the absence of any apparent notice that US citizens can “opt-out”.]

In preparing their report, OIG staff “met with a number of external stakeholders, including the Airlines for America trade association, Delta Airlines, JetBlue Airlines, and British Airways.” Notably, however, OIG made no attempt to consult consumer, civil liberties, or human rights organizations or to consider their objections to mandatory mug shots.

The only objections noted in the OIG report came from airlines and airport operators. But it would be a mistake to interpret this as “resistance” from the airline industry to biometric surveillance of airline passengers through automated facial recognition.

The OIG report makes clear that the only thing being disputed by airlines and airports is who will pay for equipment and staff, not whether these systems will be deployed: Read More

Sep 24 2018

Will the government get mug shots of all air travelers?

The dispute over government-mandated biometric identification of travelers through automated facial recognition continues to sharpen.

ID document requirements for air travel have been imposed on a de facto basis by DHS administrative fiat without ever having been approved by Congress or authorized by law.

In a similar way, requirements for US citizens to submit to mug shots — either by components of the Department of Homeland Security or by airlines, airport operators, or contractors who share photos with DHS — are being imposed on a growing scale without any Congressional debate or statutory  basis.

Last week the World Privacy Forum submitted a petition for rulemaking asking the DHS to “provide formal notice and solicit public comments pursuant to the Administrative Procedure Act” before proceeding with further “trials” of biometric identification of travelers: Read More

Sep 18 2018

Globalization and policy laundering of travel control

An interview with the head of US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) published this month by the U.S. Military Academy as part of a “View From The Foxhole” series provides an unusually revealing, and disturbing, picture of the expansion and globalization of surveillance and control of travelers. It also highlights the ways that policy is being “laundered” through the rationale of “compliance with international standards” to avoid any domestic political debate in the US or other collaborating countries.

CBP Commissioner Kevin K. McAleenan begins his overview of the role of the CBP by referring to “people who are… seeking that permission to travel to the United States”.

But US citizens don’t need “permission” from CBP or any other government agency to travel to the US. McAleenan’s comment makes clear the extent to which the US government has arrogated to itself, and now takes for granted, the illegitimate authority to condition the exercise of the right to freedom of movement on government permission.

CBP Commissioner McAleenan doubles down by asserting that “we have the responsibility to interview and inspect all travelers and make decisions on whether they present a risk.”

But that’s not true either. CBP’s authority to inspect travelers is limited to determining whether there is probable cause to charge them with violations of the law. We have a system of criminal law, not a pre-crime system of “risk-based” predictive denial of rights.

Read More

Aug 28 2018

CBP expands partnership with airlines on facial recognition

This month US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) posted the latest in a series of Privacy Impact Assessments (PIAs) for its Traveler Verification Service (TVS) program.

The  latest PIA gives notice (although not in the form required by Federal law) that CBP and its airline and airport  partners are carrying out a second expanded phase of “demonstrations” of TVS, an identity-as-a-service scheme designed to use automated recognition of images from a shared CBP/airline/airport database of facial photos for purposes including surveillance and control (for CBP) and business process automation and price personalization (for airlines and airports).

CBP (1) describes TVS as a “biometric exit” program, (2) describes the current use of TVS as merely a “demonstration”, (3) continues to claim that airlines and airports “have no interest in keeping or retaining” facial images any longer , or using them for any other purposes, than is required by CBP for “security”, and (4) says that U.S citizens aren’t required to submit to mug shots.

These claims are intended to lull the public into not protesting: “This is only a test, using photos for limited purposes. The photos will be deleted once you get on the plane, and not used for nay commercial or other purpose.” And so forth.

All that might be somewhat reassuring, if any of it were true. But  none of it is:

Read More

Jul 23 2018

Airlines, airports, and cruise lines “partner” with DHS

This month some cruise lines are joining airlines and airports in taking mug shots of travelers and passing them on to US Customs and Border Protection (CB P). CBP uses these facial images (“biometrics”) for border and travel control and general law enforcement (policing and surveillance) purposes, and shares them with other Department of Homeland Security components and other domestic and foreign entities.

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Jun 08 2018

“Governance” of the REAL-ID database

Attendance at the most recent face-to-face (F2F) meeting of the AAMVA S2S Governance Committee, Milwaukee, WI, March 22, 2018

We’ve been trying for years to find out who is really in charge of the national ID database being created to enable states that choose to do so to comply with the  Federal REAL-ID Act of 2005.

The national ID records system includes the SPEXS database and the S2S data network and system of central-site applications. S2S, including SPEXS, is operated by AAMVA (a non-governmental non-profit organization whose members are the directors of state driver licensing agencies) and Clerus Solutions (a for-profit  private contractor most of whose executives are revolving-door former staff of AAMVA).

But who is setting policy? Who decides what information from state drivers’ license and ID records is included in the central “pointer” database? Who decides what other entities are able to retrieve, mine, or otherwise obtain or use these records?

Are state governments really in control of their residents’ data once it is uploaded to the central site (outsourced to Microsoft as a cloud hosting provider)? Or is Is the US Department of Homeland Security, AAMVA, or Clerus Solutions in the driver’s seat?

Documents we’ve recently received in response to a request to the state of Alaska under that state’s public records law don’t answer many of our questions, but shed more light on on this little-known, aggregated, privately-held database of personally identifying information obtained from state records that already contains data about roughly 50 million US citizens and residents.

We also received explicit confirmation from the minutes of a June 2017 meeting (p. 64 of this PDF file) that AAMVA staff and state driver licensing officials expect that participation in S2S and SPEXS will be added to the criteria used by the DHS to determine whether to certify or re-certify states as “compliant” with the REAL-ID Act: The latest batch of records we received (see related records released to us earlier here) is a disordered jumble bundled into a single PDF file. Below are some of the other noteworthy details, with references to page numbers in this PDF file:

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May 24 2018

DHS aggregating commercial biometric data and position logs

The DHS is proposing to expand its biometric identification and surveillance programs, and its collaboration with commercial entities in biometric-based surveillance, with the creation of a new database of “External Biometric Records” (EBR). EBR would include (1) biometric identifiers (such as facial photos, iris scans, fingerprints, DNA profiles, etc.) and (2) logs of the location, date, and time where each image or biometric sample is created.   EBR records would be aggregated from commercial sources, and available for use by all DHS components and sharing  with other Federal, state, local, and foreign entities.

The DHS is also proposing to exempt EBR from most of the requirements of the Privacy Act, including the right of individuals to find out what information about them is in the database and to what other government agencies or third parties it has been disclosed.

Today we filed comments, together with four other national civil liberties and human rights organizations — Government Information Watch, the Cyber Privacy Project (CPP), Restore the Fourth, Inc., and the National Immigration Law Center (NILC) — objecting to the DHS proposals as unconstitutional and contrary to Federal law.

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May 14 2018

Senators say US citizens shouldn’t have to submit to airport mug shots

Senators Mike Lee (R-UT) and Ed Markey (D-MA) have sent another joint letter to Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielson renewing their objections to requiring US citizens to submit to mug shots (“facial recognition”) as part of a DHS “biometric exit” program for identifying and tracking international travelers departing from US airports and seaports.

The letter sent last Friday is a follow-up to an earlier letter six months ago, in which the Senators told the DHS that such a requirement for US citizens is “facially unauthorized”:

Most crucially, while Congress has repeatedly voted to authorize biometric entry-exit scanning of foreign nationals, it has never authorized biometric exit screening for U.S. citizens. In fact, Congress has pointedly neglected to authorize DHS to use the program on U.S. citizens for any purpose. Additionally, while airport infrastructure may not be conducive to separate boarding procedures for U.S. citizens and non-citizens, convenience should not be placed above congressionally mandated requirements. We are concerned that the use of the program on U.S. citizens remains facially unauthorized.

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