Apr 06 2020

Airline passenger data and COVID-19

The New York Times published a lengthy but deeply flawed report last week,  “Airlines Refused to Collect Passenger Data That Could Aid Coronavirus Fight.” Here’s the lede:

For 15 years, the U.S. government has been pressing airlines to prepare for a possible pandemic by collecting passengers’ contact information so that public-health authorities could track down people exposed to a contagious virus.

The airlines have repeatedly refused, even this month as the coronavirus proliferated across the United States. Now the country is paying a price.

The implication of both the headline and the article is that airlines “could” have collected and provided the government with the (additional) information it wants. But that isn’t true.

While the Times’ reporters interviewed multiple government sources, they failed to fact-check this allegation with any sources independent of airlines or the government. And they failed to mention — if they even realized, which they may not have — that this isn’t an isolated dispute, but part of a continuing saga that has been going on since 9/11.

The supposed basis for the government’s demands for airlines to collect and pass on more information about travelers has shifted from “security” to “health.” But what’s happening is just another chapter in a long-running story.

Understanding that story requires a deep dive into twenty years of history of airline and government collaboration and conflict over collection and use of data about travelers.

Here’s some of the factual and historical context that the Times overlooked:

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Mar 30 2020

“Known Traveler Digital Identity” (KTDI)

On March 26, 2020, the World Economic Forum published specifications  and launched a new website for a project it has christened “Known Travel Digital Identity” (KTDI):

KTDI is a “surveillance-by-design” vision for tracking and control of travelers more dystopian than anything we have seen before.

KTDI would use a blockchain-based distributed ledger to bind together, through an app on a traveler’s mobile device, all of the following data:

  • Biometrics (initially facial images, possibly also fingerprints, etc.)
  • Government-issued ID credentials (passport number, etc.)
  • Travel history including logs of border crossings, hotel stays, and possibly also car rentals and/or other events
  • Purchase logs and possibly bank account information and/or other financial and transaction records
  • Pre-crime predictive “risk assessment” and profiling scores generated at each “intervention” point before and during each trip or transaction

Read More

Mar 24 2020

How drivers license photos are aggregated and shared

During a press conference yesterday, President Trump announced a postponement of the “deadline” previously announced by the Department of Homeland Security for “enforcement” of the REAL-ID Act of 2005 at TSA checkpoints:

I’m also announcing that we’re postponing the deadline for compliance with REAL ID requirements…. We will be announcing the new deadline very soon. It’s going to be announced in a very short moment.

The REAL-ID Act “deadline” was set by DHS press release, not by law or regulation. It’s unclear if a new date will be announced by decree of the Secretary of Homeland Security, or by promulgation of regulations. There has been no further announcement by the DHS, and there is no notice of rulemaking in the Federal Register today.

As we noted yesterday, neither a postponement nor any of the other proposed amendments to the REAL-ID Act would address the central problems in this law: the requirement for states that want to be deemed “compliant” to share their drivers’ license and state-ID databases with all other states.

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Mar 23 2020

In a pandemic, freedom is the first casualty

We’ve seen before — notably after September 11, 2001 — how a crisis can result in damage to rights and freedoms that persists long after the initial cause of public panic.

Some advocates for restrictions on individuals and our movements and activities will exploit any crisis to ratchet the mechanisms of surveillance and control tighter.

Other officials, including many who mean well but are too traumatized to recognize the long-term consequences of their short-term actions, will advocate “temporary” restrictions on individual rights and freedoms that almost inevitably become permanent.

We don’t yet know what the cost in lost lives of the coronavirus pandemic will be. But we can already see the outlines of some of its potential cost in lost civil liberties.

Earlier in the pandemic, we reminded our readers of the risks of abuse of overbroad quarantine powers. But that’s only one aspect of the problem.

The basic methodology of control of travel and movement is that compulsory identification of travelers enables surveillance (tracking and logging) of travel and movement histories, and control of future movements based on individuals’ identities and the histories and other databases of personal information linked to those identities.

Already, changes to policies and practices related to (1) identification, (2) surveillance, and (3) control of travelers have all been proposed in response to the coronavirus pandemic: Read More

Mar 10 2020

Seattle Port Commission reneges on its “principles” for facial recognition

[CBP sign at biometric boarding gate at Newark Liberty International Airport. Note the absence of the OMB Control Number and other notices required by the Paperwork Reduction Act.]

Repudiating the principles for assessment of biometric identification of travelers  it adopted in December 2019, and effectively mooting the policy development process it had begun since then, the Port of Seattle Commission voted unanimously today to authorize a $5 million, ten-year contract to purchase and install Port-owned common-use cameras and facial recognition stations at all 30 departure gates of a new international terminal.

The Port issued a detailed, self-congratulatory press release within minutes after the vote, which strongly suggests that Port staff knew how the Commissioners would vote before today’s charade by the Commissioners of taking comments from the public and “debating” the issue even began.

Behind the scenes, US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) appears to have been playing hardball, using the typical law enforcement line of, “We’re going to do this to you anyway. You can either choose to make it easy for us, or we’ll make it hard on you.” The Seattle Times reported after the Port Commission vote that CBP recently began fingerprinting non-U.S. citizens boarding some international flights at Sea-Tac Airport. It seems likely that the implicit or explicit threat by CBP was that if the airport didn’t install and deploy automated facial recognition to track passengers, CBP would use a more humiliating form of biometric tracking, fingerprinting departing non-U.S. citizens the way it already fingerprints non-U.S. citizens when they arrive in the U.S.

The choice for the airport and its governing board was whether to collaborate with CBP. Port Commissioners seemed to want to reign in CBP. But at the end of the day, they proved unwilling to assert their authority as an elected public oversight  board against the malign convergence of interest between government agencies, airlines, and Port staff who identify with the police and the airline industry more than with the public. The Port Commissioners  chose to have the airport actively collaborate with and front for CBP, at the airport’s expense, rather than dissociating itself from CBPs flagrantly illegal activities, making CBP do its own dirty work at its own expense, or trying to mitigate the damage through signage informing travelers of their rights.

The Port press release claims that “the Commission’s goal is to replace CBP”, but that’s clearly false and appears intended to mislead the public. In fact, the sole purpose of the cameras and software to be purchased by the Port is to augment, not replace, the ability of CBP to use, retain, and share photos as its sees fit. Every photo of a traveler taken by the Port cameras will immediately be sent to CBP. There’s no plan to replace CBP, deny it access to any photos, or expose its secret algorithms and secret biometric databases.

All of the comments from the public to the Port Commission on this issue, as members of the Commission acknowledged, were opposed to the Port collaborating with CBP on facial recognition or spending Port money to do so. Members of the public, including experts in cybersecurity and threat modeling, pointed out that many key questions about the Port’s proposal and CBP’s and airline’s practices, plans, and policies remain unanswered. Most urged the Commission to reject the proposal outright and withdraw its request for bids for facial recognition equipment. All commenters agreed that approval of the procurement contract would be premature until more information is made available to the public and the current policy development process is completed.

In our latest written comments to the Port Commission today, which we summarized in person at today’s meeting (see also our previous submissions to the Port Commission on December 10, 2019, and February 25, 2020), we pointed out that:

The proposed procurement and deployment would violate Federal law, the norms of Fair Information Practices (FIPPs), and the professed “principles”, including FIPPs, of both the Port and US Customs and Border Protection (CBP). It should be rejected, and the RFP for this project should be withdrawn or, at a minimum, postponed….

It isn’t just that CBP is violating the Privacy Act, or that collecting facial images and sending them to CBP would make the Port complicit in this violation of Federal law. The violation of the Privacy Act by CBP lies specifically in CBP’s outsourcing the collection of this personal data to the Port, airlines, or any other non-Federal entities.

This provision was and is included in the Privacy Act for good reason. The Port should heed it, and make CBP comply with Federal law by collecting any personal data it uses for making decisions about individuals, including facial images of travelers, directly from those individuals. CBP could collect this data itself at Sea-Tac, as it does at some other airports. It doesn’t want to, but it has clearly demonstrated that it could do so.

If there is one lane at a departure gate, or on arrival, where a uniformed CBP agent is photographing travelers, and one lane without a Federal law enforcement officer with a camera, travelers will have a much clearer and more informed choice – and one that, unlike the proposal before the Port Commission, might comply with the Privacy Act.

Port Commissioners claimed, quite implausibly, to think that having the Port install and operate the cameras would give the Port some control of how CBP uses the photos after the Port sends them on, or at least more control over signage. But CBPs “Biometric Air Exit Business Requirements” for its airline and airport “partners”, which were finally disclosed only two days ago in response to our request, and were never provided to or reviewed by the Port’s “Biometrics External Advisory Group” (BEAG), tell a different story about who’s in control. As we explained in our comments:

Some Port staff, in their proposals to the BEAG and the Port Commission, have suggested that by owning and operating facial recognition systems the Port would have more control over signage and other notices provided to the public to enable more informed consent and mitigate the harm to the public of CBP’s (illegal) activities.

But in fact, the proposed procurement would have exactly the opposite effect. By agreeing to comply with CBP’s “Requirements” – which are explicitly incorporated by reference in the RFP and the proposal for action by the Port Commission – the Port would be tieing its own hands and committing itself to display CBP’s signs – regardless of their truth or falsehood or their compliance with the law – and not to display any signage, make any announcements, or provide any information not approved by CBP.

Item 8 of CBP’s “Requirements” would prohibit the Port from posting any signs or distributing any communications pertaining to CBP’s use of biometrics without CBP’s prior approval.

Item 13 of CBP’s “Requirements” would obligate the Port to post whatever signage CBP demands, regardless of whether the Port considers it inaccurate, misleading, or incomplete.

In effect, these provisions would amount to a (self-imposed) gag order not to criticize CBP, and a (self-imposed) agreement to serve as a mouthpiece for CBP propaganda, regardless of its truth or falsehood. Rather than enabling the Port to mitigate the harms of CBP’s (illegal) practices through more or better signs or announcements, the proposed action by the Port Commission would prevent the Port from doing so.

If CBP fails – as it has failed to date at Sea-Tac and all other airports with biometric departure gates – to post the notices required by the Paperwork Reduction Act, informing individuals, regardless of citizenship or immigration status, of their right not to respond to any Federal collection of information that does not display a valid OMB Control Number and PRA notice, the Port itself should post such notices at all gates. But the Port won’t be able to do so without CBP approval (which wouldn’t be likely to be granted) if the Port Commission approves the proposal on your agenda for action today.

Port Commissioners approved a motion declaring that CBP’s uses of facial recognition at airports are “lawful”, while simultaneously and hypocritically dismissing our objections to CBP’s flagrant violations of Federal law by saying that, “We’re not judges. If a court says it’s illegal, we won’t do it.” This ignores the fact that, as we also noted in our comments, CBP and DHS have promulgated regulations exempting the databases in which they store facial images from the rights otherwise available to individuals under the Privacy Act to access, accounting of disclosures, and civil remedies for violations. This makes it all but impossible to have CBP’s practices reviewed by the courts.

Today’s decision by the Port of Seattle Commission sets the worst possible national precedent. But it doesn’t render the Port’s ongoing  process of developing policies for use of biometrics at Sea-Tac entirely irrelevant. We will continue to monitor the process and engage with the Port Commission as it considers use of facial recognition (in collaboration with, and sending passenger photos to, CBP and perhaps in the future the TSA) by airlines and other commercial entities for their own purposes.

As we noted in response to the first draft of a Port of Seattle policy for “non-Federally mandated” uses of biometrics:

Missing from that draft is any explanation of the purpose or justification for airlines to identify passengers, independent of any Federal mandate.

Airlines could, and did, operate for decades without requesting ID from passengers. Airlines began asking (but not requiring) passengers to identify themselves only when they were ordered to do so by the FAA (the predecessor of the TSA). The only lawful reason for airlines to ask passengers for ID is to satisfy a government mandate.

As common carriers, airlines are required to transport all passengers, regardless of who they are, and are required to sell tickets at prices determined by a public tariff.

An airline cannot lawfully “reserve the right to refuse service”. It cannot lawfully personalize prices or charge different prices based on passengers’ identities.

So why do airlines think they “need” to identify passengers at all, by any means?

One cannot assess the justification (or lack thereof) for biometric identification of travelers for non-Federally mandated purposes without first assessing the justification (or lack thereof) for identification of travelers generally for such purposes.

This assessment is entirely absent from the draft recommendations for Port policy, but is essential.

Feb 10 2020

DHS doesn’t trust New Yorkers

In a new twist on the familiar US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) tactic of trying to intimidate state governments into sharing drivers license data with the DHS by threatening to harass, delay, or interfere with the rights of residents of those states when they travel,  the Acting Secretary of Homeland Security has declared that New York residents won’t be allowed to apply for or renew participation in any of the DHS Customs and Border Protection (CBP) “trusted traveler” programs.

The DHS says that this is because New York’s new “Driver’s License Access and Privacy Act… effective December 14, 2019… forbids New York Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) officials from providing… driver’s license and vehicle registration information to the United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS).”

That provision of New York state law appears to be intended to prevent New York DMV records pertaining to driver’s licenses issued to otherwise undocumented New York residents from being used by the DHS to round these New Yorkers up and deport them. The DHS doesn’t like it that New York, like at least fifteen other states, issues driver’s licenses on the basis of whether residents demonstrate competence to drive, not their immigration status.

The DHS knows that it has no authority to tell states to whom they can or can’t issue drivers’ licenses. Instead, it has used the data sharing prohibition in New York law as the pretext for retaliating against the state government by discriminating against New Yorkers.

As New York Governor Mario Cuomo pointed out in his response to the DHS decision, the DHS has never previously required applicants for any of its “trusted traveler” programs to have a driver’s license at all. No law supports the DHS demand for access to DMV data about drivers as part of its pre-crime assessments of would-be air travelers.

It’s clear from a comparison with DHS actions related to the REAL-ID Act that the DHS claim that it “needs” state DMV data to “vet” (i.e., make pre-crime assessments of) air travelers is pretextual, hypocritical, and fully warrants a judicial finding that it constitutes an arbitrary denial of equal protection of the law to New York residents.

The REAL-ID Act — unlike any law or regulation related to “trusted traveler” programs — does require states to share drivers license and state-issued ID data if they want to deemed “compliant” (although state compliance is optional).  An outsourced national ID database has been set up by a nominally private contractor to allow states that want to comply to do so. However, New York, like more than half of the other states and territories subject to the REAL-ID Act, hasn’t chosen to participate in the SPEXS database or share its data.

But the DHS, despite this manifest noncompliance with the explicit statutory criteria for driver’s license data sharing, has chosen to certify New York (and almost all of the other noncompliant states and territories) as “compliant” with the REAL-ID Act.

Members of the House of Representatives have already asked the DHS for an explanation of the legal basis for its new discrimination against New York residents. And both the state of New York and the New York Civil Liberties Union have announced that they plan to sue the DHS on behalf of New Yorkers who are being discriminated against.

Read More

Jan 22 2020

European high court to review PNR-based travel surveillance

The highest court of the European Union will be reviewing the legality of  the directive adopted by the EU in 2017 requiring airlines to send Passenger Name Record (PNR) data to the government of each EU member state, and requiring each EU member state to establish a “Passenger Information Unit” to carry out PNR-based surveillance and profiling of air travelers.

National courts first in Belgium and more recently in Germany have referred questions concerning the legality under European Union human rights law of government access to and use of Passenger Name Records (PNRs) to the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU).

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Jan 17 2020

Is the TSA “screening” for threats to aviation, or for cash and drugs?

A class-action lawsuit filed this week in Pittsburgh by the Institute for Justice, Brown v. TSA, exposes the dirty non-secret that TSA checkpoints are used primarily as drug checkpoints  and as a revenue center for law enforcement agencies, not to protect aviation.

Warrantless, suspicionless dragnet administrative searches at TSA checkpoints are justified as measures to “screen” travelers for weapons, explosives, and other threats to aviation.

When the actions of TSA Transportation Security “Officers” are challenged in court, the TSA has claimed that its “Officers” are not the “officers” referred to in the Federal Tort Claims Act (“any officer of the United States who is empowered by law to execute searches, to seize evidence, or to make arrests for violations of Federal law”) ; conduct only limited administrative searches for weapons, explosives, and threats to aviation; do not have any authority to conduct searches for any other purpose; and neither have nor exercise authority to arrest or seize travelers.

In practice, however, the primary use of TSA checkpoints by the government is to “screen” travelers for drugs and cash, and to seize and expropriate illegal drugs, drug-related cash, and all “large” sums of cash being carried by airline passengers, regardless of the presence or absence of any evidence linking that cash to illegal drugs or any other illegal activity.

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Jan 02 2020

Drivers’ license data sold to businesses, given to Feds

As we start the year of the once-a-decade US Census, it’s an appropriate time to start looking at some of the ways and the purposes for which data — including drivers license data — is used and shared by the Bureau of the Census.

State agencies that issue drivers’ licenses want us not to object to their demands for more and more personal information about matters unrelated to driving — digital photos, scans of birth certificates and social security cards, etc. — in order to obtain drivers’ licenses that comply with the Federal REAL-ID Act.

State driver licensing agencies say we shouldn’t worry — notwithstanding the requirement of the REAL-ID Act that drivers’ license and state ID data be made available electronically to all other states — because this data will only be shared “as permitted by law”.

But what does that mean? What sharing of this data does the law permit?

Recent reports show that drivers’ license data can be, and is, widely shared with both commercial entities and Federal agencies — including the Bureau of the Census, which will be conducting the decennial census in 2020 — for purposes unrelated to motor vehicle operation or drivers’ licenses. Both Federal and state agencies say that all of this is permitted by the Drivers Privacy Protection Act (DPPA).

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Dec 17 2019

Airports of the future: surveillance by design

As we’ve seen in the ongoing debate over biometric identification of travelers at Sea-Tac Airport, and as we’ve seen before elsewhere, airlines and government agencies want to pretend that each of their initiatives to identify and track travelers is a discrete, limited project, not part of any common agenda for government and commercial surveillance.

Don’t believe a word of this soothing blather. These measures are part of a conscious, deliberate, and (in their internal communications) explicit plan to deploy pervasive, integrated common-use infrastructure and data sharing for government and commercial identification and tracking  purposes throughout airports and each step of an air traveler’s journey. The airline/airport/government consensus is on surveillance by design, not privacy by design.

Here’s our latest glimpse at the real thinking behind the curtain of propaganda: The leading provider of communications and IT infrastructure and services for air transportation has a guest commentary of end-of-the-year predictions for “airports of the future” on an industry news site:

Airports of the future: SITA’s 10 predictions for the next decade
by Benoit Verbaere, business development director, SITA
Passenger Terminal Today, December 12, 2019

Air transport IT provider SITA has unveiled 10 bold predictions about the technology shaping how passengers will move through the airport of the future. Benoit Verbaere, business development director, SITA, predicts major change in almost every aspect of the airport experience….

Security will be integrated into a frictionless journey.

Over the next decade, going through security will mean walking along a corridor…. Passengers and their bags will be recognized automatically as they go through automated checkpoints. Hard checkpoints will be replaced by sensor corridors….

In future airports, risk will be constantly assessed by specialist artificial intelligence (AI), using the passenger’s digital identity…. [G]overnments… will use automated collaborative systems to approve – or, in some cases, not approve – the various steps of the journey….

Everything will have tags: people, bags and cargo. And they will be tracked throughout their entire journey, whatever mode of transport they are using…

The airport will be highly connected.

Our new era of connected airports will be driven by increasingly cheap sensors, less dedicated hardware and new data lakes, fed by every device….

Across every single journey, there are 10 or more different entities that are responsible for making the trip a reality. The only way to collect all the data to make this journey seamless is through close collaboration between everyone working at an airport: the airport itself, airlines, government agencies, ground handlers, restaurants, and shops. We also need collaboration across the entire ecosystem of connected airports….

The fast and frictionless journey to, and through, the airport will make some current revenue streams, for example, parking, weaker or obsolete. Airports will, therefore, need to find new ways to augment the travel experience to replace them. Personalization will be the key….

The future of airports lies in connected, highly-intelligent and efficient operations that offer passengers …  frictionless travel and rich, personalized experiences. Today’s … operational silos will dissolve, resulting in data sharing.

Is this point of view an outlier? No, just the opposite: SITA is jointly owned by airlines, and its agenda expresses its owners’ common agenda and the industry consensus.

SITA is a unique airline joint venture created by its airline owners to provide shared, common-use communications and IT infrastructure and services. SITA messaging has been for decades, and remains, the industry standard for reservations and operational communications between airlines, airport operators, contractors, and — increasingly — government agencies. Today most SITA messages are sent and received by ‘bots, via APIs, or through e-mail gateways, but airline and airport operations staff still have SITA addresses on their business cards along with, or instead of, e-mail addresses.

None of these predictions are new or considered controversial by airlines, airport operators, government agencies, and service providers including SITA and its competitors. Nor is this vision seen as dystopian — those who hold these views see the ability of governments and commercial entities to track each passenger in real time, and to seamlessly share data about travelers identities and movements between airlines, airports, and government agencies, as their utopia.

If we do not resist its implementation, this vision will be the future of travel.