Nov 23 2022

The airport of the future is the airport of today — and that’s not good.

[Facial recognition at each step in airline passenger processing. Slide from presentation by Heathrow Airport Holdings Ltd. to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) Traveler Identitification Program symposium, October 2018]

Today, the day before Thanksgiving, will probably be the busiest day for air travel in the USA since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020.

If you are flying this week for the first time in three years, what will you see that has changed?

Unfortunately, many of the most significant changes made during the pandemic are deliberately invisible — which is part of what makes them so evil.

During the pandemic, largely unnoticed, the dystopian surveillance-by design airport of the future that we’ve been worried and warning about for many years has become, in many places, the airport of today.

While travelers were sheltering in place during the COVID-19 pandemic, airports have taken advantage of the opportunity to move ahead with expansion and renovation projects. While passenger traffic was reduced, and terminals and other airport facilities were operating well below capacity, disruptions due to construction could be minimized.

A characteristic feature of almost all new or newly-renovated major airports in the U.S. and around the world is that they are designed and built on the assumption that all passengers’ movements within the airport will be tracked at all times, and that all phases of “passenger processing” will be carried out automatically using facial recognition, as shown in this video from a technology vendor, Airport of the Future:

[Stills from 2019 vendor video, Airport of the Future.]

In the airport of the future, or in a growing number of present-day airports, there’s no need for a government agency or airline that wants to use facial recognition to install cameras or data links for that purpose. As in the new International Arrivals Facility at Sea-Tac Airport, which opened this year, the cameras and connectivity are built into the facility as “common-use”  public-private infrastructure shared by airlines, government agencies, and the operator of the airport — whether that’s a public agency (as with almost all U.S. airports) or a private company (as with many foreign airports).

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Oct 04 2022

ICAO expands travel tracking and control through RFID passports

The triennial general assembly of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) is underway in Montreal for its first session since the outbreak of COVID-19, with speakers at its opening plenary last week including US Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg.

It’s been many years since the US delegation to an ICAO meeting has included a Cabinet member. Secretary Buttigieg’s presence brought greater public attention than usual to the ICAO general assembly and related side events.  Unfortunately, news reports have focused on what Secretary Buttigieg said (mainly his comments about Taiwan) rather than on what ICAO is actually doing.

Despite its ostensibly limited role as a specialized international organization with a mandate to administer aviation treaties — a role which would make it logical for the US delegation to be headed by the Secretary of Transportation — police in the US and other ICAO members have coopted ICAO into functioning as a policy laundering venue for imposition of surveillance mandates on all travelers, whether or not they travel by air.

Rather than “faciliating” travel, ICAO’s Facilitation Programme is increasingly devoted to facilitating government control of travel. This includes a new ICAO standard, as discussed below, to enable global blackballing of travelers disfavored by any ICAO member country.

So far as we can tell, no representative of a data protection authority or a ministry primarily responsible for protection of human rights or civil liberties has been included in any country’s ICAO delegation or appointed to any ICAO technical working group.

But that hasn’t stopped ICAO from issuing mandates, under the purported authority of aviation treaties but directly contrary to human rights treaties, for the creation of a new surveillance and pre-crime profiling agency in every ICAO member, and for deployment and use of passports containing remotely-readable RFID chips.

ICAO’s lack of expertise in this non-aviation policy area makes it exceptionally vulnerable to capture — and indeed it has been entirely captured — by a malign convergence of interest between proponents of government  surveillance and control of travel and a travel industry which has been given a free ride for its shared use of government surveillance infrastructure and information for its own business process automation.

Here’s the bad news about what’s happening at ICAO with RFID passports:

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Sep 22 2022

Freedom to travel to get an abortion

[Arrows indicate populations of states where abortion is, or is likely to become, illegal, and directions and distances to the nearest states where abortion is legal. Note that some of the routes shown are more likely to be followed than others, since abortion is more or less heavily restricted in some states where it is shown on this map as legal. Diagram by Bloomberg News based on data from the Guttmacher Institute.]

Increasing variations between state laws related to abortion are prompting an increase in the already large numbers of women who travel across state lines to obtain abortions.

For women in many states, bans on abortion are making the right to interstate travel an essential prerequisite to the right to obtain an abortion.

Both anti-abortion vigilantes and state laws criminalizing actions related to abortion, including facilitating abortion-related travel, are prompting women seeking abortions as well as those who support abortion rights to think about how to protect abortion travelers and their supporters against identification, surveillance, stalking, harassment, or legal sanctions.

In this context, the right to anonymous travel has acquired new importance and urgency. If you’ve wondered, “Why would anyone want to travel anonymously?” now you know one of the reasons.  But what’s needed is “right to travel” legislation, not just “privacy” legislation. Current Federal “privacy” bills would do little to protect abortion travelers.

What are the patterns of abortion-related travel? How could state authorities or private vigilantes identify or track the travels of these women — whether they drive or take buses, trains, planes, or automobiles? What, if anything, can women traveling across state lines to obtain abortions do to protect themselves against being identified, tracked, and potentially prosecuted or subjected to retaliation, harassment, or other sanctions?  What could the Federal government do to protect these women’s right to travel, and to do so privately and safely?

As discussed in detail below, the possibilities for technical self-defense against threats to the right to travel are limited. Congress needs to act to include protection for the right to travel — regardless of the purpose for which you  travel — in any abortion rights legislation.

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Sep 19 2022

CBP aggregates and disseminates travel data from warrantless searches

A series of revelations in recent months have highlighted a pattern of misuse by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) of data about travelers and their activities.

Information obtained without a warrant or probable cause under a under a variety of exceptions to the Fourth Amendment (including administrative searches and mug shots at airports, border searches, and “consent” to collection of location information by private third parties) has been aggregated, indexed, and made available for search and retrieval by other CBP staff, other law enforcement agencies, and foreign governments.

Use of the fruit of this surveillance of travelers hasn’t been limited to the government agency that first obtained it from travelers or commercial third parties, or to the purpose that purportedly allowed CBP to obtain it without warrant or probable cause. No access logs are maintained for some of these databases of travel surveillance data, so it’s impossible to audit how they have been used.

Here’s some of what CBP has been up to with its travel surveillance databases:

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Jun 21 2022

European Court ruling on air travel surveillance

The highest court of the European Union ruled today that an EU mandate for dragnet surveillance of travelers through government access to airline reservations might be permissible under EU law — but only under conditions that governments of EU member countries, and the US government, may be unable or unwilling to meet.

In 2016, the EU enacted a directive requiring each EU member state to enact a law requiring airlines to hand over copies of passenger name records (PNRs) to the government, and establish a new surveillance agency to profile travelers based on this PNR data.  This EU PNR Directive was modeled on US law and on the extrajudicial practices — never tested against the provisions of international human rights treaties, which generally can’t be invoked in US courts — of the US Department of Homeland Security.

The Belgian “Ligue des droits humains” (LDH) filed a lawsuit in the Belgian Constitutional Court challenging the law enacted in Belgium to implement the EU PNR Directive as contrary to multiple provisions of Belgian and EU law.

Before deciding the questions of Belgian law, the Belgian court requested a preliminary ruling from the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU), the highest EU court, as to whether the EU PNR Directive is consistent with fundamental EU human rights law.

In today’s ruling (press release and summary in English, full text of judgment in French, provisional translation of judgment in English), the CJEU finds that the EU PNR Directive is not, on its face, invalid — but only if it is implemented and applied in accordance with a long list of conditions specified by the CJEU in its decision.

Governments of EU member states may be unable or unwilling to comply with all of those conditions.

The decision by the CJEU addresses the implications and validity of the EU PNR Directive both as a mandate for suspicionless dragnet surveillance and as a mandate for control of travel, in which PNR data is used as the basis for profiling and other actions.

Of the many conditions set by the CJEU, we find this one on secret law, secret evidence, and judicial review among the most significant. According to the court’s press release:

[T]he Court also stresses that the competent authorities must ensure that the person concerned can  understand the operation of the predetermined assessment criteria and programs applying those criteria, so that it is possible for that person to decide with full knowledge of the relevant facts whether or not to exercise his or her right to judicial redress. Similarly, in the context of such an action, the court responsible for reviewing the legality of the decision adopted by the competent authorities as well as, except in the case of threats to State security, the persons concerned themselves must have had an opportunity to examine both all the grounds and the evidence on the basis of which the decision was taken, including the predetermined assessment criteria and the operation of the programs applying those criteria.

In cases where EU governments act on “recommendations” from the US government to restrict travel to, from, or within the EU, the EU authorities nominally responsible for these actions may not know what evidence (if any) or algorithms for the basis for US recommendations. And the US may not be willing to share that information with EU governments, especially if EU law might require EU governments to disclose that information to European judges, much less to individuals who are “targeted” on the basis of US recommendations.

The court case now returns to the Belgian courts, but it  seems likely that changes to the laws implementing the EU PNR Directive in Belgium and most if not all other EU member states will be required to conform these laws to the conditions laid down today by the CJEU. Another round of litigation in EU member states and perhaps again in the CJEU is likely to be needed to determine whether amended laws have met those tests. Stay tuned!

May 20 2022

New reports on DHS surveillance and profiling

Two new reports from university think-tanks call attention to surveillance and profiling — including surveillance of, and action against, domestic and international travelers — by the Department of Homeland Security and its components.

A Course Correction for Homeland Security, a report by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, cites to some of our work and some examples of cases we have been involved with in its analysis of DHS data collection (surveillance), and “risk assessments” (algorithmic profiling and control), especially as they relate to travelers.

American Dragnet: Data-Driven Deportation in the 21st Century, a report by the Center on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown University Law School, focuses on DHS’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) division, especially ICE access to facial images and other information obtained from drivers licenses and commercial data brokers.

A common theme of both reports is that DHS surveillance is more pervasive, more intrusive, and less visible than is generally recognized.

Airline reservations and demands for ID from travelers are used not merely to check for currently blacklisted would-be travelers, but are retained and used to build travel histories and social networks maps that are then used by suspicion-generating guilt-by-association algorithms to expand the web of surveillance, profiling, and extrajudicial blacklisting.

ICE represents itself as an agency with jurisdiction only over non-US citizens, but in fact runs photos and drivers license and location data about a large fraction of the entire population of US citizens through its profiling and enforcement algorithms. DHS lurks (usually invisibly) in the background, “ingesting” or obtaining access to personal information, when individuals pose for drivers license photos, make airline reservations, or interact with businesses that “share” data directly or indirectly with DHS.

What is to be done about this sorry state of affairs?

Both of these reports suggest that some reforms could be made by policy, at the direction of the President, the Secretary of Homeland Security, or the heads of DHS components.

However, given the thoroughly bipartisan continuity of support by both Democratic and Republican administrations for the continual expansion of DHS surveillance, especially of travelers and foreigners and most especially of border crossers, since its creation 20 years ago, we have little hope for reform from within DHS or at the behest of the White House.

Exposure of abuses is good, but more is needed than a change of administration policy.

While we welcome any additional attention paid to the problems with the DHS, we think they call for court action to uphold the Constitutional and treaty rights of travelers and other individuals, and Congressional action to effectuate those rights and to facilitate judicial review and redress for government actions that violate those rights.

The DHS, as these reports reveal, is an ever-growing dragnet surveillance agency, operating outside the rule of law. What are we going to do to alter or to abolish it?

Jan 26 2022

9th Circuit to review secrecy of CRS-based travel surveillance

May court records related to orders requiring a travel reservations company to provide real-time updates to the U.S. government whenever a “person of interest” makes reservations for flights or other travel  be kept secret from the public, the press, and other travel companies including the airlines on which the target plans to travel?

That issue is now before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in the case of Forbes Media and Thomas Brewster vs. the United States (Court of Appeals Docket #21-35612).

The legal question before the 9th Circuit is whether courts can keep their own actions secret. That’s important, but the the underlying facts raise other issues as well.

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May 19 2021

A race to the bottom: DHS “Biometric Tech Rally”

Today the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced a competition between hardware and software vendors to demonstrate the facial-recognition systems that are most useful for surveillance and other malign uses: cameras or other sensors and facial and/or other biometric matching algorithms that can identity travelers (or other people in public places) even if they are wearing masks:

[T]he 2021 Biometric Technology Rally will focus on evaluating the ability of systems to reliably collect and/or match images of individuals, including those wearing face masks. The intent is to improve the ability to recognize people without requiring travelers to remove protective equipment….

The 2021 Biometric Technology Rally will be held at the Maryland Test Facility (MdTF) in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, later this fall. Testing will be performed in controlled scenarios relevant to DHS operations….

Providers of face and multi-modal biometric acquisition systems, as well as providers of biometric matching algorithms, are encouraged to participate.

Requiring travelers to remove their masks at checkpoints operated by or on behalf of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and/or other DHS components endangers travelers and makes clear that the U.S. government has put surveillance and tracking of travelers ahead of safety and health.

But the way to completely eliminate the threat to travelers’ health and safety posed by unmasking is to stop trying to identify travelers,  which is based on the “pre-crime” fantasy that identity-based algorithms can read travelers’ minds and predict which of them intend to  commit future aviation-related crimes. Instead, the TSA should confine its searches to those intended to detect genuinely threatening objects: weapons and explosives.

May 17 2021

ACLU: “Digital IDs Could Be a Nightmare”

As the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is soliciting proposals from vendors for how to put digital versions of drivers licenses and other ID credentials on smartphones, the ACLU has released a timely and insightful white paper, Identity Crisis: What Digital Driver’s Licenses Could Mean for Privacy, Equity, and Freedom, by Jay Stanley of the ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, along with an executive summary in the form of a blog post, Digital IDs Might Sound Like a Good Idea, But They Could Be a Privacy Nightmare.

The ACLU white paper links to some of our research and reporting and highlights many of our concerns with compelled identification, the REAL-ID Act, invisible virtual checkpoints, ID-based blacklists and controls on what we are and aren’t allowed to do, and the role of AAMVA and other “private” entities as outsourced, opaque, unaccountable, creators of ID “standards” that function as de facto laws and regulations that govern our movements and activities, but that are adopted in secret, exempt from the Freedom Of Information Act or other transparency laws, and lack basic privacy protections. or respect for rights recognized by the U.S. Constitution and international human rights treaties.

We encourage readers interested in these issues to read the ACLU white paper in full. But here’s an excerpt form the introduction to the white paper, framing the issue:

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