Sep 27 2016

Proposed laws would expand travel controls from airlines to passenger railroads

Legislation has been introduced in both the USA and Belgium to subject rail travelers to the same sorts of travel surveillance schemes that are already being used to monitor and control air travelers.

If these proposals are enacted into law, passenger railroads would be required to collect and enter additional information such as passport or ID numbers and dates of birth (not currently required or routinely included in US or European train reservations) in Passenger Name Records (PNRs), and transmit rail travel itineraries and identifying information about passengers to the government, in advance.

As is already the case for all airline travel in the USA, including domestic travel, railroads would be forbidden to allow any passenger to board unless and until the railroad receives an explicit, affirmative, individualized, per-passenger, per-flight permission-to-board message (“Boarding Pass Printing Result”) from the government.

In both the USA and Belgium, the proposed legislation would create legal conflicts with civil liberties and human rights, and practical conflicts with railroad business processes and IT capabilities.

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Aug 10 2016

DEA recruits airline & travel industry staff to inform on travelers

Brad Heath reports in USA Today that the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has been recruiting airline and other travel industry staff to inform on travelers. The DEA has been using these tips from industry insider informers with access to travel reservations as the basis for searches, seizures, and “civil forfeiture” proceedings to confiscate cash from travelers on the basis of allegations that it was somehow associated with illegal drugs:

USA TODAY identified 87 cases in recent years in which the Justice Department went to federal court to seize cash from travelers after agents said they had been tipped off to a suspicious itinerary. Those cases likely represent only a small fraction of the instances in which agents have stopped travelers or seized cash based on their travel patterns, because few such encounters ever make it to court.

Those cases nonetheless offer evidence of the program’s sweep. Filings show agents were able to profile passengers on Amtrak and nearly every major U.S. airline, often without the companies’ consent. “We won’t release that information without a subpoena,” American Airlines spokesman Ross Feinstein said.

In almost none of these cases has the DEA actually brought any criminal charges against the travelers whose cash has been confiscated:

A DEA group assigned to Los Angeles’ airports made more than 1,600 cash seizures over the past decade, totaling more than $52 million, according to records the Justice Department uses to track asset seizures. Only one of the Los Angeles seizure records included an indication that it was related to a criminal indictment…. Of the 87 cases USA TODAY identified in which the DEA seized cash after flagging a suspicious itinerary, only two resulted in the alleged courier being charged with a crime. One involved a woman who was already a target of a federal money-laundering investigation; another alleged courier was arrested a month later on an apparently unrelated drug charge.

According to USA Today, “The DEA would not comment on how it obtains records of Americans’ domestic travel, or on what scale.” USA Today wasn’t able to identify any of the travel industry informers who have been tipping off the DEA about customers they thought might be carrying cash. But DEA spokesman Russ Baer said DEA agents “receive information from employees at ‘airlines, bus terminals, car rental agencies, … or other businesses.'”

Because airlines and computerized reservation systems don’t keep any access logs, it’s impossible for anyone to tell, after the fact, which travel industry personnel looked at a reservation and might have been DEA informers (or any other sort of attacker or threat: identity thief, stalker, industrial spy, etc.).

Some of the examples reported in USA Today relate to DEA access to Amtrak reservations. In court filings quoted in the USA Today story, DEA agents described their review of reservations for domestic Amtrak travel within the US as “routine”. From one of Amtrak’s responses to our FOIA requests, we know that Amtrak has a special “police GUI” for police to use in mining and reviewing data from Amtrak’s “Arrow” reservation system. We’ve asked Amtrak for all records pertaining to access to reservations by law enforcement agencies. After more than a year and a half, Amtrak is still continuing to process responsive records, as discussed in our previous articles about Amtrak. But Amtrak hasn’t yet disclosed anything to us about DEA access to Arrow or other Amtrak data.

The story in USA Today notes that the DEA isn’t supposed to have access to the information about travelers on domestic flights that airlines are required to transmit to the TSA before they can get permission to issue boarding passes. The TSA has defended the Secure Flight passenger surveillance and control scheme as an administrative search for the limited purpose of aviation safety. But we’ve heard rumors that the TSA is under pressure from other law enforcement agencies to open up the Secure Flight database of domestic air travel itineraries for general law enforcement uses. Those uses would likely include both arrest warrants and lookouts derived from NCIC, and profiling for forfeiture targeting by the DEA.

 

Jun 07 2016

How hard was it for Amtrak to require names in reservations?

Since the start of the post-9/11 shift from case-by-case government access to travel reservations to dragnet surveillance of all reservations and pre-crime profiling of all travelers, the government has claimed repeatedly that the information to which it has demanded access was already “routinely” provided by travelers to airlines and other travel companies.

We’ve recently received some details of just how untrue those claims are, through the latest installment of a continuing trickle of responses by Amtrak to a Freedom Of Information Act request we made in 2014. (See our previous reports on government surveillance of Amtrak passengers.)

Anyone familiar with travel industry practices and reservation data has known all along that the government’s demands for data about airline, train, bus, and cruise ship passengers have exceeded what was needed by common carrier for commercial purposes. Until after September 11, 2001, walk-up customers could buy tickets for cash, for themselves or anyone else, at airline or Amtrak or Greyhound ticket counters, without providing any information at all except an (unverified) name.  No address, phone number, or other identifying or contact information was required.

The government has demanded not just access to existing travel industry databases, but the logging of additional details about travelers that were never previously required. The travel industry worldwide has had to spend billions of dollars modifying every layer and component of their IT systems, and of all the systems that interact with them, to collect and store this additional information and deliver it to the government in standardized government-dictated formats.

Even names of travelers weren’t required for reservations, tickets, or travel.  Space could be reserved for a group of travelers with only a group identifier or lead contact. Sometimes dummy or placeholder names would be entered for group members, but they could be and often were omitted.

The latest file we’ve received from Amtrak is a PDF of images of printouts or views of email messages (we haven’t received the raw “message source” files we requested, and will eventually be appealing Amtrak’s failure to release them) within Amtrak and between Amtrak, the big four CRS/GDS companies (Sabre, Amadeus, Worldspan, and Galileo/Apollo — then owned by Cendant) and possibly their contractors or other “partners” (names redacted).

These messages date from 2006, when Amtrak “voluntarily” decided to start sending data about all passengers on cross-border Amtrak trains and buses between the USA and Canada to the DHS Advance Passenger Information System (APIS).  In order to populate the API data fields, Amtrak decided to make “Passenger ID” (PID) a required field in all Amtrak reservations.  That took some work in itself, but it also caused a cascade of new problems for reservations without names, especially those for as-yet-unknown members of groups:

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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 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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Sep 23 2015

Does CBP have access to domestic Amtrak reservations?

Documents released to us by Amtrak suggest that since 2012, US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has had direct access to Amtrak’s reservation system, possibly including access to reservations for Amtrak passengers traveling entirely within the USA.

What do these documents show? And why would an immigration and border patrol agency want access to records of travel by US citizens and other residents within the borders of the US?

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Jun 21 2015

More on Amtrak passenger data requirements

Amtrak has released a third batch of records (1st interim response, 2nd interim response) in response to our Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for information about Amtrak’s collection and “sharing” with the US and Canadian governments of information about Amtrak travelers on international routes between the US and Canada:

  1. Amtrak-FOIA-29OCT2014-signed.pdf (note that this file is actually in .doc format, and is not a copy of our request, as the filename might imply, but a collection of responsive records)
  2. date of birthAM.doc
  3. Function summary.doc
  4. IDPFOIARequest.pdf (another collection of responsive records, beginning with a list of all of Amtrak’s cross-border routes including both trains and Amtrak feeder buses)
  5. Regression User testing 9222305 (4).doc
  6. TheIdentityProject_InterimResponse3.pdf (cover letter from Amtrak’s FOIA office accompanying the interim response)
  7. wspBORDER.doc

The files with “.doc” filenames all appear to be from Amtrak’s IT department, and relate to the implementation by Amtrak of requirements for inclusion of passenger ID data desired by the US government in each Amtrak reservation for travel across the US-Canada border. As we have noted previously, this “requirement” was imposed internally and “voluntarily” by Amtrak, and was not a requirement of any law, regulation, or order from any other US or Canadian government agency.  It remains unclear from the records released to date whether anyone in Amtrak’s IT department was aware that this was solely an Amtrak requirement and not an externally imposed obligation.

According to these records, Amtrak began requiring a date of birth in the reservation, before a ticket could be issued, for each passenger on any international route, including infant passengers, beginning in November or December of 2000. (There are some inconsistencies in the dates in different records.)  Beginning in July or August 2005, Amtrak began also requiring a nationality and passport or other ID number in each such reservation, as part of Amtrak’s “voluntary” participation in the DHS “Advanced Passenger Information System” (APIS) also used by airlines.

These records include the formats used by Amtrak sales agents working directly in Amtrak’s own “ARROW” reservation system, as well as the formats used by travel agents making Amtrak reservations through each of the four major CRSs/GDSs: Amadeus, Galileo, Sabre, and Worldspan.  Amtrak’s software testing staff noted the complexity of these formats (which is indicative of how burdensome they are for the travel agents who have to learn and use them) and the likelihood of errors by travel agents. The Amtrak records include information provided to travel agents and travelers, describing these “requirements” but giving no clue that these requirements were voluntarily self-imposed by Amtrak itself.

The files linked above are posted here exactly as we received them by email from Amtrak’s FOIA office. The filenames are not indicative of the actual file contents, and some of the filename extensions don’t correspond to the file formats. One of the “.pdf” files, for example, is actually in MS-Word “.doc” format (also readable in Libre Office among other programs) rather than in PDF format.

We requested that all records found in digital form be released as bitwise copies of the files as found in Amtrak’s filesystems, but some of the files we received appear to be derivative, modified versions of copies of the original files, in some cases in completely different formats.

Most of the the records responsive to our request that we believe are likely to exist have not yet been released. Amtrak is continuing to process our request, and we expect further responses.

Apr 23 2015

Amtrak formats for passenger ID data dumps to governments

Eight pages of command-line formats for users of Amtrak’s ARROW computerized reservation system have been made public in the second of a series of interim responses to our Freedom of Information Act request for records of Amtrak’s collaboration with police and other government agencies in the US and Canada in “dataveillance” of Amtrak passengers.

The ARROW user documentation covers syntax and codes for entering ID information into Amtrak passenger name records (PNRs), generating reports (“passenger manifests”) by train number and date or other selection criteria, and transmitting these “manifests” or “API data” to the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) “Advance Passenger Information System” (APIS).

Amtrak extracts “manifest” (API) data from PNRs, formats it according to CBP standards, and pushes it to CBP in batches using EDIFACT messages uploaded through the CBP Web-based online eAPIS submission portal.

Although Amtrak knows it isn’t actually required by law to do any of this, it “voluntarily” (and in violation of Canadian if not necessarily US law) follows the same procedures that CBP has mandated for airlines. The sample EDIFACT headers in the Amtrak documentation refer to Amtrak by its usual carrier code of “2V”.

Travel agents — at least the declining minority who use the command-line interface — will find nothing particularly surprising in these formats. ARROW formats for train reservations are generally comparable, although not identical, to the AIRIMP formats used for API data by the major computerized reservation systems (CRSs) or global distribution systems (GDSs) that host airline PNRs.

CRS/GDS companies and US airlines are private and not subject to FOIA, however, and CRS/GDS documentation is proprietary to the different systems and restricted to their users. There is no freely and publicly-available guide to commercial CRS/GDS data formats. Because Amtrak is a creature of the federal government subject to FOIA, we have been able to obtain more details of its internal procedures than we can for airlines or CRSs/GDSs

The ARROW user documentation shows — again, unsurprisingly — that the “data-mining” capabilities built into ARROW for retrieving and generating reports on selected PNR or manifest (API) entries are quite limited. This is why, despite having access to an ARROW “Police GUI” with additional data-mining functionality, CBP wants to import and retain mirror copies of API and PNR data in its own, more sophisticated TECS and Automated Targeting System databases and its new integrated data framework.

We’re continuing to await more releases from Amtrak of information about its policies for collaboration with law enforcement and other government agencies, and its apparent violation of Canadian privacy law.

Mar 20 2015

Amtrak lies about police use of passenger data

Passenger Name Record (PNR) view from Amtrak “Police GUI”. (Click image for larger version.)

The first “interim” release of documents responsive to our FOIA request for records of police and other government access to Amtrak reservation data show that Amtrak is not only giving police root access and a dedicated user interface to mine passenger data for general state and local law enforcement purposes, but also lying to passengers about this, misleading Amtrak’s own IT and planning staff about the legal basis for these actions, and violating Canadian if not necessarily US law.

Our FOIA request was prompted by Amtrak’s obviously incomplete response to an earlier FOIA request from the ACLU.  That response omitted any mention  of government access to Amtrak reservation data, even though we’ve seen records of Amtrak travel in DHS files about individual  citizens obtained in response to previous Privacy Act and FOIA requests. The documents we have just received were clearly responsive to the ACLU’s request, and should have been, but weren’t, included in Amtrak’s response to that request.

Amtrak is still working on our request, but has begun providing us with responsive records as it completes “processing” of them: search, retrieval, and redaction. (Amtrak is even further behind in responding to some other FOIA requests, such as this one for certain disciplinary records related to misconduct by Amtrak Police.)

The first “interim” release to us by Amtrak includes just a few documents: a 2004 letter from US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to the Amtrak Police legal department, requesting “voluntary” provision by Amtrak to CBP of Advanced Passenger Information System (APIS) identification data about all passengers on international Amtrak trains, and a 2004-2005 project summary and scoping document for the work that would be required by Amtrak’s IT department to automate the collection, maintenance in Amtrak’s “ARROW” passenger reservation database, and delivery to CBP of this data.

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Oct 30 2014

Amtrak admits passenger profiling but not DHS collaboration

(Excerpt from DHS “TECS” travel history log showing API data extracted from the reservation for a passenger on Amtrak (carrier code 2V) train 69 from Penn Station, New York (NYP) to Montreal (MTR). “QYRSLT” redacted by DHS (at left on second line from bottom) is result of pre-crime risk score query to DHS profiling system. Click on image for larger version.)

Amtrak has admitted to profiling its passengers, while improperly withholding any mention of its transmission of railroad passenger reservation data to DHS for use in profiling and other activities.

In response to a Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) request from the ACLU, Amtrak has disclosed profiling criteria that Amtrak staff are instructed to use as the basis for reporting “suspicious” passengers to law enforcement agencies.  As the ACLU points out in an excellent analysis in its “Blog of Rights”, pretty much everyone fits, or can be deemed to fit, this profile of conduct defined as “indicative of criminal activity”.

It’s suspicious if you are unusually nervous — or if you are unusually calm. It’s suspicious if you are positioned ahead of other passengers disembarking from a train — or if you are positioned behind them.

Normal, legal activities are defined as suspicious: paying for tickets in cash (Amtrak and Greyhound are the common carriers of last resort for the lawfully undocumented and unbanked), carrying little or no luggage (how many business day-trippers on the Acela Express are carrying lots of luggage?), purchasing tickets at the last minute (also the norm for short-haul business travelers), looking around while making telephone calls (wisely keeping an eye out for pickpockets and snatch thieves, as Amtrak police and notices in stations advise passengers to do), and so forth.

“Suspicion” based on this everyone-encompassing profile is used to justify interrogations and searches of Amtrak passengers, primarily for drugs but also for general law-enforcement fishing expeditions.  Suspicion-generation is a profit center for Amtrak and its police partners: The documents obtained by the ACLU from Amtrak include agreements with state and local police for “equitable sharing of forfeited assets” seized from passengers or other individuals as a result of such searches.

The ACLU requested, “procedures, practices, agreements, and memoranda governing the sharing of passenger data with entities other than Amtrak, including but not limited to… other… federal… law enforcement agencies;” and, “Policies, procedures, practices, agreements, and memoranda regarding whether and how passenger data is shared with any law enforcement agency.”

But Amtrak’s response included no records whatsoever concerning the provision of passenger data obtained from Amtrak reservations to DHS or any other government agency.

We know that DHS obtains information from Amtrak about all passengers on all international Amtrak trains.  DHS has disclosed this in public reports, and we have confirmed it from DHS responses to FOIA and Privacy Act requests.  The example at the top of this article is of a DHS “TECS” travel history log showing Advance Passenger Information (API) data extracted from a record in Amtrak’s ARROW computerized reservation system for a passenger traveling on Amtrak (carrier code 2V) train number 69 in the outbound direction from the US (“O”) from Penn Station, New York (station code NYP) to Montreal (MTR). The entry in the “QYRSLT” column redacted by DHS is the result for this passenger and trip of the pre-crime risk score query to the DHS profiling system.

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Oct 22 2013

TSA’s lying “response” to today’s story in the New York Times

We’re quoted on the front page of today’s New York Times in a story by Susan Stellin, “Security Check Now Starts Long Before You Fly”:

The Transportation Security Administration is expanding its screening of passengers before they arrive at the airport by searching a wide array of government and private databases that can include records like car registrations and employment information….

“I think the best way to look at it is as a pre-crime assessment every time you fly,” said Edward Hasbrouck, a consultant to the Identity Project, one of the groups that oppose the prescreening initiatives. “The default will be the highest, most intrusive level of search, and anything less will be conditioned on providing some additional information in some fashion.”

More:

The TSA refused to say anything to the Times on the record, but published a blog post today (with the misleading title “Expediting Screening for the Traveling Public”) responding to the Times’ story with a succession of lies and prevarications.

We call “bullshit” on the TSA:

  • “We are not using “private databases.”” This is an out-and-out lie, as “Blogger Bob” and the TSA surely know. All TSA pre-secreening systems relie primarily on information from private commercial databases of airline reservations (PNRs). Since there is no requirement for a U.S. citizen to notify the government directly before taking a trip by common carrier, “pre-screening” would be impossible without access to, and reliance on, these private commercial databases. The US government has gone to great effort, through the APIS,  PNR, and Secure Flight regulations and through lobbying for changes to Canadian privacy law and exceptions to European privacy law, to implement requirements for DHS access to this data.  If these databases are no longer “private”, that is only because the TSA and other DHS components have compelled airlines and reservation hosting companies to make this data available to government agencies.
  • “TSA does not monitor a passenger’s length of stay in any location.” The TSA doesn’t always retain the travel itinerary information it compels airlines to provide for domestic travel, but it claims the right to do so for anyone deemed (arbitrarily or according to secret criteria) to be “suspicious” or to “match” an entry on any of the government’s (arbitrary, secret) “watchlists”.  And for international travel, CBP (another DHS component agency) does retain complete PNR data, including travel itineraries, and comprehensive border crossing and entry/exit logs, for all travelers, in its Automated Targeting System (ATS) — and claims the right to “share” all this data with the TSA. (And that doesn’t even begin to consider the NSA’s apparently independent hacking of airlines and reservation systems and potential sharing of PNR and other travel data with DHS.)
  • “We are not using car registrations.” Again, it’s CBP rather than the TSA that is logging license plates and vehicle movements (using cameras near borders and optical character recognition software), linking them to individual ATS records, and using them to generate “risk” scores and watchlist messages — which are then passed on to the TSA.  TSA is using this data, just (slightly) indirectly. According to the latest System Of Records Notice for ATS, published in the Federal Register in 2012, “ATS maintains the official record for … the combination of license plate, Department of Motor Vehicle (DMV) registration data and biographical data associated with a border crossing”.
  • “[W]e rely on the same security information passengers have been required to submit at time of booking for many years…. [T]he info we rely on is the same info that passengers have provided for years when they book their flight.” Actually, we didn’t used to have to provide our ID number, date of birth, or gender in order to make an airline (or Amtrak train, or Greyhound bus) reservation. It used to be possible to hold airline reservations in “dummy” names, or with no names at all. The TSA relies on information that has only been required since the creation of the TSA. And in the past, we “provided” that information, if at all, only to airlines and travel companies. Prior to the creation of the TSA, we never had to provide any information to the government to book a flight.  (Unless we were traveling in a foreign country where a foreign government agency like the Stasi required us to show our ID cards or permission papers to book a flight.)
  • “Anyone who has never traveled outside the United States would not have a passport number on file and would therefore not be subject to the rules that the agency uses to determine risk.” Nonsense. Many people have our passport numbers on file with the TSA because we’ve used our passports as ID for domestic flights.  Many people have no government-issued ID except a passport.  Despite the State Department’s moves to make it more difficult to get a passport, the REAL-ID  law sometimes makes it even more difficult to get a drivers license or other state-issued ID than to get a passport.
  • “We are not expanding the type of information we use.” If that were true, why would the TSA have published formal notices in the Federal Register of new systems of records and new uses for existing systems of records?  They don’t publish these legal notices just for fun. Either (a) the TSA has already been illegally collecting and/or using this data without proper notice, in violation of the Privacy Act (as DHS did for years with the Automated Targeting System), (b) the TSA is doing what is says in the notices it is doing, and collecting and using new information in new ways, or (c) the TSA plans to do so in the future, and wants to be able to say, if someone later complains, “But we gave you fair notice that this was what we were going to do. If you wanted to object, you should have done so back in 2013 when we published that notice.”
  • “[W]e are not using any new data to determine low risk passengers.” Applicants for the TSA’s Pre-Check program — i.e. people who want to be relieved of suspicion-by-default and the associated more intrusive search each time they travel — are being required to provide information that the TSA has never before requested, including fingerprints, other biometric information, and authorization for checks of criminal, financial, and other government and commercial records.  If the TSA isn’t using any of this new data, why is it compiling it? More than likely, this new data is being or will soon be used — and retained for possible additional future uses for an unknown range of purposes.

[TSA Pre-Crime graphic from Leaksource]