Dec 02 2012

TSA updates its “notice” of Secure Flight records

The TSA published a revised System of Records Notice in the Federal Register on November 19th, updating its disclosures of what information about our “travel histories” it collects, retains, and uses through its Secure Flight program for airline passenger surveillance and control.

The new notice is both better and worse than it might appear at first glance. The new “Secure Flight” SORN describes some disturbing TSA practices that were not explicitly disclosed in the previous “Secure Flight” SORN published in 2008.

In particular, the new SORN discloses that if you are turned down or predetermined to be ineligible for the TSA’s “Pre-Check” or other “Registered Traveler” (a/k/a “Possibly Slightly Less Mistrusted Traveler”) programs, you can be placed on a new watchlist, as a result of which logs of your air travel will be retained by the TSA for 99 years. That’s especially problematic because applicants for the Pre-Check program aren’t told that being turned down could leave them worse off than if they had never applied, and subject to lifetime TSA air travel monitoring and itinerary logging.

Bad as this is, however, it isn’t really a change in what data TSA claims the right to collect, or how long it claims the right to retain and use it. These practices were already covered under “catch-all” clauses of the prior SORN, which are retained in the revised SORN, and that actually purport to authorize a much wider range of even worse practices.

Specifically, the “Secure Flight” SORN already disclosed that “Secure Flight” records might contain:

Records obtained from the TSC [Terrorist Screening Center] of known or suspected terrorists in the TSDB [Terrorist Screening Database] and records regarding individuals identified on classified and unclassified governmental watch lists

There’s no definition or limitation on the sources or purposes of these additional “watch lists”. But it’s clear from the description quoted above that these are watch lists other than those of suspected terrorists: lists of people who are to be watched, and whose air travel itineraries are to be logged for life, for (secret, unrestricted) reasons other than that they are suspected of terrorism. Read More

Nov 13 2012

How Australia profiles travelers: A look inside the “black box”

At a “Big Data” conference in Sydney earlier this month, the head of Australia’s traveler tracking and profiling office (his actual title — we are not making this up — is “Director Intent Management & Analytics“) gave an  unusually revealing presentation (PDF) [also here] about the nature of the government’s travel data warehouse and how it is used to predict the “intent” of travelers to and from Australia.

Klaus Felsche of the Australian Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) didn’t mince words, referring explicitly to “data mining”, “risk scoring”, and “profiling” systems and algorithms, although lamenting that DIAC doesn’t (yet) have access to social media profiles or some data from other Australian  government agencies.

The US government has rarely used the words “scoring, “profiling”, or “data mining” with respect to its warehousing and use of Passenger Name Records (PNRs) and other travel data.  Most of the architecture, as well as all of the rules and algorithms, have been withheld from public disclosure, even when we have requested this information under the Privacy Act, FOIA, and/or through foreign governments and airlines that have allowed PNR data subject to their jurisdiction to be fed into these data warehouses and data-mining systems.

The “threat analysis” component of US travel control systems like Secure Flight has remained an unexplained “black box” whose operations are part of the magical secret sauce that justifies the government in enforcing  whatever its oracle decrees.  In this diagram — the most detailed yet provided by the TSA — it’s the red box at right center.

So we are grateful to Mr. Felsche of the Australian DIAC for providing a clearer picture of what data governments are archiving about us and our travels, and how they are using it.  Just remember, as you study his presentation, that:

  1. “Targeting” — the one euphemism that still permeates Mr. Felshe’s presentation — means search, seizure, interrogation, and prohibition of travel. In other words, deprivation of fundamental rights, to a greater or lesser degree depending on whether it means mere delay and intrusion or whether it means being confined by a no-fly order to the island of Australia for the remainder of one’s natural life.
  2. Australia is a relatively small country in population and (as his presentation makes clear) computing resources available to this component of the government.  Presumably, what’s being done with travel data by DIAC is only a subset of what is being done by the DHS, and perhaps in the European Union.
Nov 06 2012

DHS Scrooge says U.S. citizen can’t come home for the holidays to see his ailing mother

In the latest episode in the increasingly bizarre but all too real saga of standardless secret administrative no-fly orders from the DHS to airlines, prohibiting the transportation back to their home country of US citizens,  Oklahoma native Saadiq Long is being prevented from returning home to the US to spend the holiday season with his terminally ill mother.

Long is a US citizen and an honorably discharged veteran of the US Air Force, never charged with any crime in the US or any other country, who has been living and working as an English teacher in Qatar for the last several years.  He’s also a convert to Islam, which shouldn’t be relevant but probably is.

When he learned of his mother’s illness back home in Oklahoma, he made reservations and bought tickets from KLM for flights from Qatar to the US for what might be a last visit with his mother.

Less than 24 hours before his scheduled departure from Qatar in May, KLM told Mr. Long that the airline (and all others serving the US) had been forbidden from allowing him to board any flight to the US.

Mr. Long has been trying ever since to find out why the government of his country has forbidden all airlines from transporting him, or to find a way to get those orders rescinded. But to date, the DHS has maintained its position that it will neither confirm nor deny whether it has issued any no-fly orders with respect to any specific person, much less the basis (if any) for such orders.

KLM explicitly informed Mr. Long that it had received a no-fly order from the DHS. So in theory, KLM would be required by Dutch data protection law to disclose that order to Mr. Long on request. That wouldn’t tell Mr. Long why he had been banned form returning to his country (the DHS probably didn’t share the reasons for its order with the airline), but would prevent the DHS from claiming in court that whether Mr. Long has been prohibited form flying is a state secret.

Given KLM’s poor track record when individuals have requested KLM’s records of its communications with governments, and the Dutch data protection authority’s poor track record of enforcing the law, it’s hard to predict whether KLM would comply with a request from Mr. Long for all orders or communications pertaining to him between KLM and the US government.

Mr. Long is being assisted by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), which has led the struggle for judicial review of no-fly orders. CAIR staff attorney Gadeir Abbas, the leading advocate for US citizens exiled by no-fly orders, told Glenn Greenwald that, “Every few weeks I hear of another Muslim citizen who cannot return to the country of which he is a citizen.”

[Update: Mr. Long was again denied boarding by KLM in Qatar on November 8, 2012.]

Oct 03 2012

Government Surveillance of Travelers

For those attending today’s discussion of Government Survelliance of Travellers and the DHS “Automated Targeting System” (ATS) at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, or those who can’t make it but are interested in the topic, here are the slides from the presentation by Edward Hasbrouck of the Identity Project (, and links to additional references:

Today’s event is open to the public, so please join us if you are in New York and free at mid-day.

Sep 22 2012

“Automated Targeting System” briefing 10/3 at the Brennan Center

Identity Project consultant and policy analyst Edward Hasbrouck will give a brown-bag lunch presentation on the DHS “Automated Targeting System” and government surveillance and control of travelers on Wednesday, October 3, 2012, 12:30 – 2 p.m., at the Brennan Center for Justice, New York University School of Law, 161 Avenue of the Americas (6th Ave.), 12th Floor, New York (in SoHo, 1/2 block from the Spring St. station on the C and E subway lines).

Hasbrouck will give an introduction to the DHS “Automated Targeting System” (including examples of data from ATS records obtained through Privacy Act and FOIA litigation), its role in US government surveillance and control of travelers, and the civil liberties and human rights issues it raises.

The “Automated Targeting System” (ATS) is one of the largest of post-9/11 warrantless dragnet surveillance programs.  Built at a cost of more than $2 billion in government-mandated changes to commercial travel IT systems, to which DHS now has root access, ATS “ingests,”  archives, and mines complete mirror copies of all international airline reservations (“passenger name record“) data for travel to, from, or via the US. ATS records include where, when, and with whom you traveled; your IP address; what credit card was used; whether you asked for a kosher or halal meal; and whether you and your traveling companion asked for one bed or two in your shared hotel room.

While little known or debated in the US, ATS has been at the center of intense disputes with the European Union and Canada over US demands for access to travel reservation data from other countries.

Edward Hasbrouck works with the Identity Project on travel-related civil liberties and human rights issues. An award-winning travel journalist, blogger, and author, he also has 15 years of travel industry experience in airline reservations technology and travel agency  operations. Hasbrouck has testified before the TSA as well as the European and Canadian Parliaments on issues related to government access to airline reservations, and was the plaintiff in a recently-concluded Privacy Act and FOIA lawsuit seeking ATS records about himself as well as information about ATS data-mining capabilities.

The event is free and open to the press and the public.

Apr 25 2012

European Parliament approves PNR agreement with the US. What’s next?

MEPs picket outside the plenary chamber to ask their colleagues to say "No" to the PNR agreement with the US. (Photo by greensefa, some rights reserved under Creative Commons license, CC BY 2.0)

Last week — despite the demonstration shown above (more photos here) by Members of the European Parliament as their colleagues entered the plenary chamber for the vote — the European Parliament acquiesced, reluctantly, to an agreement with the US Department of Homeland Security to allow airlines that do business in the EU to give the DHS access to PNR (Passenger Name Record) data contained in their customers’ reservations for flights to or from the USA. (See our FAQ: Transfers of PNR Data from the European Union to the USA.)

The vote is a setback for civil liberties and the the fundamental right to freedom of movement, in both the US and Europe.

But the vote in the European Parliament is neither the definitive authorization for travel surveillance and control, nor the full grant of retroactive immunity for travel companies that have been violating EU data protection rules, that the DHS and its European allies had hoped for.

Many MEPs voted for the agreement only reluctantly, in the belief (mistaken, we believe), that it was “better than nothing” and represented an attempt to bring the illegal US surveillance of European travelers under some semblance of legal control.

Whatever MEPs intended, the vote in Strasbourg will not put an end to challenges to government access to airline reservations and other travel records, whether in European courts, European legislatures, or — most importantly — through public defiance, noncooperation, and other protests and direct action.

By its own explicit terms, and because it is not a treaty and is not enforceable in US courts, the “executive agreement” on access to PNR data provides no protection for travelers’ rights.

The intent of the US government in negotiating and lobbying for approval of the agreement was not to protect travelers or prevent terrorism, but to provide legal immunity for airlines and other travel companies — both US and European — that have been violating EU laws by transferring PNR data from the EU to countries like the US.  The DHS made this explicit in testimony to Congress in October 2011:

To protect U.S. industry partners from unreasonable lawsuits, as well as to reassure our allies, DHS has entered into these negotiations.

But because of the nature of the PNR data ecosystem and the pathways by which the DHS (and other government agencies and third parties outside the EU) can obtain access to PNR data, the agreement does not provide travel companies with the full immunity they had sought.

Most of the the routine practices of airlines and travel companies in handling PNR data collected in the EU remain in violation of EU data protection law and subject to enforcement action by EU data protection authorities and private lawsuits by travelers against airlines, travel agencies, tour operators, and CRS companies in European courts.

Why is that?

Read More

Mar 01 2012

Google is now in the PNR hosting business

Today Google and Cape Air announced that Cape Air has migrated its reservations and Passenger Name Records (PNRs) to a new computerized reservation system (CRS) provided by Google’s ITA Software division.

ITA Software was working on a CRS even before it was acquired by Google last year, but had appeared to lack a launch customer to fund the project after its original partner, Air Canada, backed out. In his first public statement last November after the Google acquisition was completed, Google Vice President and former ITA Software CEO Jeremy Wertheimer anticipated today’s announcement and said that with Google’s new backing, his division was “burning the midnight oil” to complete the project.

Cape Air, Google’s CRS launch customer, is a very small US airline that mainly flies 9-seat piston-engined propeller planes to small resort islands. Most of what might look like “international” destinations on their route map are actually US colonies. But Cape Air does serve some British colonies in the Caribbean, including Anguilla and Tortola. All reservations for those flights, as well as any reservations for Cape Air’s domestic US and other flights made through travel agencies, tour operators, or “interline” airline partners in the European Union, are subject to EU data protection laws.

So as of today Google should have in place an airline reservation system, including PNR hosting functionality, which fully complies with EU laws including in particular UK data protection law and the EU Code of Conduct for Computerized Reservation Systems.

We’re doubtful that Google (or Cape Air) have complied with these requirements of EU law. Cape Air’s privacy policy says, “CapeAir does not fly routes within Europe, so this Privacy Policy is not adapted to European laws.” It appears to be true that Cape Air doesn’t fly within Europe, but it does operate flights to and from UK territories that are legally part of the EU. Cape Air also says, “By agreeing to Cape Air’s Privacy Policy, you consent to Cape Air applying its Privacy Policy in place of data protections under your country’s law.” It’s not clear whether such a waiver of rights is valid. The “Privacy Policy” link  on goes directly to Google’s new global privacy policy, which appears to say that Google may merge information from all Google services, presumably including Google’s new PNR-hosting service.

At the same time, in accordance with the Advance Passenger Information System (APIS) and PNR regulations of US Customs and Border Protection (CBP, a division of the DHS), that also means that Google has connected its system to CBP’s Automated Targeting System (ATS).  Whether Google has given CBP logins to “pull” data whenever CBP likes (as the other CRSs have done), or whether Google “pushes” PNR data to CBP, remains unknown until some Cape Air passenger requests their PNR data under EU law.

In accordance with the US Secure Flight rules, the Google CRS for Cape Air must also have a bi-directional connection to the US Transportation Security Administration to send passenger data to the TSA and receive permission-to-board (“cleared”) fly/no-fly messages in response.

This is, so far as we can tell, an unprecedented level of direct connection between Google’s databases and any government agency.  Has Google complied with EU law? Probably not, but we can’t tell. We invite Google to allow independent verification of how it handles PNR data, and whether its CRS system and its connections to the US government comply with EU rules.

[It’s also important to note that the privacy and data protection practices of CRSs, including Google’s “ITA Software” division, are outside the jurisdiction of the Federal Trade Commission and subject to policing only by the do-nothing Department of Transportation.]

There are also interesting questions about what profiling and data mining capabilities are built into Google’s CRS system. “Legacy” CRSs store PNRs in flat files in which PNRs for different trips by the same traveler can be difficult to link. But a report on the new Google CRS in the online trade journal Tnooz says it “enables … call center agents ‘to see customers’ history,’ including past trips and upcoming flights, ‘right in front of them’.” Greater designed-in profiling and data mining capabilities are selling points of Google’s CRS compared to its “legacy” competitors.

EU oversight and enforcement bodies should have demanded answers as well. Last May the European Parliament approved a resolution calling on the European Commission to carry out, “an analysis of … PNR data which may be available from sources not covered by international agreements, such as computer reservation systems located outside the EU.” In November, shortly after Google’s announcment that they were moving forward with their CRS project, a Member of the European Parliament submitted written follow-up questions to the Commission as to whether the EC has conducted such an analysis, as well as whether the EC has “considered the technical or policy implications of potential new CRS providers such as Google, which may use different technology platforms from those of legacy CRS vendors?”

As we’ve noted, the “response” to these questions by Commission Cecilia Malmström said nothing about Google or other new CRS providers, contradicted the statements that have been made by European airlines, and largely ignored the issues raised by the European Parliament.

Cape Air is a small first step into the CRS industry by Google, but it won’t be the last.  Everyone concerned with how PNR data is stored and processed, including data protection authorities in countries that (unlike the US) have such entities, should carefully scrutinize and demand satisfactory, verifiable answers as to what this means about Google’s relationship to US government agencies and the need for oversight and enforcement of privacy data protection rules applicable to all CRS companies.

Feb 06 2012

State Dept. finalizes passport fee increases, continues to ignore human rights complaints

On February 2, 2012, the State Department published a final rule in the Federal Register setting fees for issuance and renewal of U.S. passports and related consular services.

Contrary to some press reports, this rule didn’t actually increase the current fees. It merely “finalizes” the fee increases that have already been in effect for the last 18 months since the publication of an interim final rule (don’t you love that bureaucratic doublespeak?) in June, 2010.

What’s noteworthy about the “final rule” is that while it purports to include an updated analysis of the public comments on the fee increases, it continues to ignore our complaints that these fees, and the process by which they were adopted, violate both U.S. treaty obligations related to freedom of movement as a human right, and Federal law that requires an assessment of their economic impact on freelancers and other self-employed individuals.

We filed our complaint in the State Department’s designated docket, but also submitted it directly to the Secretary of State with a request that it be forwarded to the State Department’s designated “single point of contact” responsible for insuring that complaints of human rights treaty violations are responded to.

Our complaint of human rights treaty violations isn’t mentioned in the State Department’s analyses of public comments, and we’ve received no acknowledge or response from the Secretary’s office or anyone else at the Department.  Our FOIA request and appeal for records of who the Secretary of State has designated as responsible for responding to such complaints, and what (if anything) they have done with ours, has been pending without even a partial response since July 2011.

Dec 02 2011

DHS “Automated Targeting System” records

The “Automated Targeting System” (ATS) has been a topic of discussion this week at the Securing Our Rights in the Information-Sharing Era convening on national security, surveillance, and immigration enforcement.

ATS is operated by the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) component of DHS, although ATS apparently contains links to records held by other agencies and other commercial databases. ATS records include passenger name records (travel reservations), border crossing logs, secondary inspection notes, “risk assessments” of all travelers (even if you aren’t on any watch list), risk assessment algorithms, and pointers to other databases.

Public notice of the existence of ATS was first provided in 2006, but ATS records provided in response to individual requests show that it had already been in operation, illegally, for years before that. If you’ve been on an international airline flight to or from the U.S. in the last ten years, or crossed the U.S. land border in the last few years, CBP has an ATS file of information about you and your travels. There might be ATS records of earlier trips, although older ATS records are spottier. Some ATS files include border crossings and international flights from as far back as the early 1990s.

We’ve posted forms you can use to request your own ATS file from CBP, as well as examples of some of the types of data included in responses to requests for ATS records. (There’s more about what we’ve found in ATS records in this front-page story from 2007 in the Washington Post.) Contact us if you want help with requests or administrative appeals, or in interpreting responses.

If you think there’s any chance you might be on a watch list, you should also send a separate request to the DHS Chief Privacy and FOIA Officer for records from the DHS /ALL-030 Use of the Terrorist Screening Database (TSDB)  System of Records.  Be sure to state that your request is made under both the Privacy Act and FOIA, and include a request for an accounting of all disclosures of records about you.

The first panelist at the conference was Julia Shearson, a native-born U.S. citizen who was arrested when she tried to drive back into the U.S. after an innocent weekend trip to Canada, on the basis of an entry in ATS falsely flagging her as an “armed and dangerous terrorist”. She’s suing DHS under the Privacy Act to find out why they labeled her a terrorist. Her lawsuit is still pending on remand after a favorable Circuit Court ruling reinstating her complaint. We last reported on her case here; there’s more about her story in this video which was shown yesterday at the conference, and this article from the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Whether the Privacy act provides for recovery of emotional damages was the subject of oral argument before the Supreme Court earlier this week in FAA v. Cooper.

Also still pending is our Privacy Act and FOIA lawsuit against CBP on behalf of Identity Project consultant Edward Hasbrouck, who is seeking ATS records about himself (including his “risk assessments” and the rules used for determining those risk assessments), an accounting of disclosures of those records to other agencies or third parties, information about how ATS records are indexed and retrieved, and records of the processing of his initial requests for ATS records. (He received only incomplete and redacted responses, and not until three years after his initial request and three weeks after he filed suit against CBP for its failure to respond or provide the requested records). A hearing on motions for summary judgment was held in September, and a decision is pending.

Other previous lawsuits related to ATS are discussed here. We’ve also filed comments on CBP rulemakings, objecting to ATS as in violation of the Privacy Act and international human rights treaties.

[On a separate note, the ongoing prosecution of Dr. Ghulam Nabi Fai under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, which was also mentioned at the conference, is discussed here.]

Oct 12 2011

Events in Europe on US travel surveillance and control

We’ll be participating in a series of public events and private meetings next week with European activists and with European Union and European national officials on PNR data (airline reservations), privacy, data protection, and human rights. Our presentations at all of these events will be in English, although much of the publicity is (naturally, given the venues) in German. see the links below for slides, handouts, video, and news reports on our presentations:

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