Dec 12 2018

The Department of “Mother, May I?”

[Federal Probation System Form PROB-37, “Permission To Travel”. Note that even as used for probationers, this form is illegal: It lacks the required OMB approval, OMB control number, and Paperwork Reduction Act notice.]

Have all travelers become convicted criminals subject to court supervision, who have to apply in advance for permission from the government every time they want to travel?

And does the US government have extraterritorial jurisdiction over travel worldwide?

Apparently so, at least in the eyes of the Department of Homeland Security.

Case in point: The National Vetting Center (NVC).

The NVC was established pursuant to President Trump’s February 2018 executive order NSPM-9. The “vetting” in the name is what President Trump has referred to as “extreme vetting” of immigrants and non-US citizens visiting or transiting the US. The first use of the NVC will be to “vet” citizens of countries in the US Visa Waiver Program applying for ESTA permits (online visas) to travel to the US.

The NVC is an inter-departmental body coordinated by a DHS component, US Customs and Border Protection (CBP), and this week the DHS has published a Privacy Impact Assessment (PIA) and released a redacted version of the  Implementation Plan for the NVC.

Here’s how the DHS describes the purpose and role of the NVC:

Every day, the U.S. Government determines whether to permit individuals to travel to and enter the United States…  and consider other actions…. The U.S. Government has developed several different processes and procedures to evaluate an individual’s suitability for access to the United States or other travel- or immigration- related benefits against information available to the U.S. Government (generally referred to as “vetting”)….Creating, maintaining, and facilitating the operation of that process is the primary mission of the NVC.

As even this summary self-description shows, the NVC is founded on a fundamental disregard for human and Constitutional rights.

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Dec 03 2018

Smile, travelers! You’re on candid DHS cameras.

The Department of Homeland Security has posted the latest update to a series of Privacy Impact Assessments attempting to whitewash the invasions of privacy and human rights inherent in a comprehensive system of automated facial identification of travelers.

The latest PIA reveals more than the DHS has previously admitted about the nature and scope of its planned use of automated facial ID technology.

The DHS plans to use image data aggregated from commercial surveillance systems operated by airlines and airports, as well as DHS cameras, including non-obvious cameras, to identify air travelers (including both domestic and international travelers), international ferry and cruise passengers, and travelers crossing US land borders in vehicles or on foot.

Automated identification of travelers based on facial images would be used as the basis for who is, and who is not, allowed to travel, based on travel histories and algorithmic “risk assessments” that form the US counterpart of, and predecessor to, China’s control of  travel and other activities through facial recognition and “social credit” scoring.

The latest PIA makes a variety of claims about how the risks to privacy and human rights inherent in this scheme will purportedly be “mitigated”. Some of these “reassurances” are implausible, while others are already contradicted by the facts on the ground. And none of them would cure some of the ongoing violations of Federal law in current DHS practices.

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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 03 2018

3rd Circuit to reconsider impunity of TSA checkpoint staff

Good news: The 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals has decided to reconsider whether, as a panel of that court decided earlier this year, TSA checkpoint staff should have legal impunity to assault or otherwise violate the rights of travelers without consequences.

When it was issued in July 2018, we said that “The details of the opinion dismissing Ms. Pellegrino’s complaint might be described charitably as arcane, and uncharitably as twisted.” There was a well-argued dissent by one of the three members of the panel.

The majority of the panel recognized that the job of TSA checkpoint staff is to search travelers, but then somehow managed to conclude that they aren’t “officer[s] of the United States who [are] empowered by law to execute searches.” The majority of the panel also went outside the factual record to base their decision on false speculation that TSA checkpoint staff don’t conduct searches for general law enforcement purposes.

Based on these arguments and “facts”, the panel majority found that TSA staff are immune from lawsuits for travelers, even if they admit to assaulting travelers.

The decision by a majority of the judges of the 3rd Circuit to grant rehearing en banc in the case of Pellegrino v. TSA voids the original opinion by a three-judge panel. The appeal will now be re-argued de novo, after new briefing, before all of the judges of the 3rd Circuit.

Let’s hope that the full court gets it right this time, and recognizes that TSA checkpoint staff are not above the law.

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.

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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:

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Jul 29 2018

Federal Air Marshals blow the whistle on TSA “Quiet Skies” traveler surveillance program

Jana Winter has a detailed investigative report on the front page of today’s Boston Globe about a previously secret TSA program of illegal surveillance of innocent air travelers, “Quiet Skies”.

According to the story in the Globe, based in part on descriptions and documents  apparently leaked by dissident Federal Air Marshals, the “Quiet Skies” program selects certain airline passengers, who aren’t on any blacklist (“watchlist”) or under investigation for any crime, on the basis of algorithmic profiling, countries previously visited (merely traveling to Turkey has been enough to get some people selected), phone numbers or email addresses, and/or other factors in DHS files about them.

A FAM or team of FAMs is assigned to follow each targeted traveler from the time they arrive at their airport of origin (which the TSA knows from its access to airline reservations through the Secure Flight program), onto and on the plane, through any connecting airports, and until the unwitting target of their surveillance leaves the airport at their final destination.

The FAM gumshoes are required to file detailed reports on each traveler they are assigned to stalk, including a checklist of details such as whether the person being tailed used the toilet in the airport or on the plane, whether they slept for most of the flight or only briefly, and whether they had “strong body odor” or engaged in “excessive fidgeting.”

Is this the reincarnation of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, the (re)emergence of an American Stasi, or standard operating procedure for a government that regards travel as inherently suspicious, rather than as the exercise of human and Constitutional rights?

All of the above, unfortunately.

The story in the Globe speaks for itself, and is worth reading in full.

But lest it be misunderstood, here are some key points about what today’s news reveals, what’s new and what isn’t, and why it’s significant:

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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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