December 01, 2006

Go Greyhound

Secret threat-screening scores raise civil liberties concern

WASHINGTON - Without notifying the public, federal agents for four years have assigned millions of international travelers, including Americans, computer-generated scores rating the risk they pose of being terrorists or criminals.

The travelers aren't allowed to see or directly challenge the risk assessments, which the government intends to keep on file for 40 years.

Some or all data in the system can be shared with state, local and foreign governments for use in hiring, contracting and licensing decisions. Courts and even private contractors can obtain data under certain circumstances.

"It is simply incredible that the Bush administration is willing to share this sensitive information with foreign governments and even private employers, while refusing to allow U.S. citizens to see or challenge their own terror scores," Leahy said. This system "highlights the danger of government use of technology to conduct widespread surveillance of our daily lives without proper safeguards for privacy."

"I have never seen anything as egregious as this," said Kevin Mitchell, president of the Business Travel Coalition, an advocate for business travelers. It's "evidence of what can happen when there isn't proper oversight and accountability."

"What's going on here is the terrorist scoring of U.S. citizens which really should have been left on the shelf after TIA was canned," said Mark Rotenberg, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Electronic Privacy Information Center.

Jayson Ahern, a Customs and Border Protection assistant commissioner, said the agency intends to eventually enter data for all border-crossers in the ATS database.

Government officials asserted that creating a vast database over time on travelers — including those who are law-abiding — will help analysts build models of normal and suspicious behavior. Ahern said there are 309 million land and sea border crossings and 87 million air border crossings each year — more than 95 percent for lawful reasons.

Airport X-rays reveal passengers' bodies

WASHINGTON — The federal government plans this month to launch the nation's first airport screening system that takes potentially revealing X-ray photos of travelers in an effort to find bombs and other weapons.

Transportation Security Administration screeners at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport will test a "backscatter" machine that could vastly improve weapons detection but has been labeled a "virtual strip search" by the American Civil Liberties Union. Backscatter can show clear images of nude bodies.

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