The Pervasive Effort to Know, Know, Know All About You

Tuesday, September 25, 2007 at 08:48 PM

Pick the government snooping program that bothers you most: (a) warrantless surveillance; (b) Patriot Act sneak peeks at your reading habits; (c) the collection and coordination of vast amounts of personal data on travelers; (d) all the above, because the info obtained is in all likelihood being aggregated and coordinated so that there is little if any difference between the programs.

If you picked d, welcome aboard my fear for the day. I do not for one minute believe that info collected under one program will be kept separate from info collected under other programs. That would be so contrary to this government's mind set that I could more easily believe that George Bush intends to revive the American Socialist party after leaving office.

So even though the government's original idea for a blanket collection of information about its citizens was supposedly abandoned, I think we have the same thing in a de facto form. And my oh my what a wide and wonderful set of data it is if you happen to be a government snoop.

Just this week we got the news about the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and its mightily flawed efforts to collect and use data on travelers. Ellen Nakashima reported in the Saturday Washington Post that:

The U.S. government is collecting electronic records on the travel habits of millions of Americans who fly, drive or take cruises abroad, retaining data on the persons with whom they travel or plan to stay, the personal items they carry during their journeys, and even the books that travelers have carried, according to documents obtained by a group of civil liberties advocates and statements by government officials.

The personal travel records are meant to be stored for as long as 15 years, as part of the Department of Homeland Security's effort to assess the security threat posed by all travelers entering the country. Officials say the records, which are analyzed by the department's Automated Targeting System, help border officials distinguish potential terrorists from innocent people entering the country.

But new details about the information being retained suggest that the government is monitoring the personal habits of travelers more closely than it has previously acknowledged. The details were learned when a group of activists requested copies of official records on their own travel. Those records included a description of a book on marijuana that one of them carried and small flashlights bearing the symbol of a marijuana leaf.


Officials yesterday defended the retention of highly personal data on travelers not involved in or linked to any violations of the law. But civil liberties advocates have alleged that the type of information preserved by the department raises alarms about the government's ability to intrude into the lives of ordinary people. The millions of travelers whose records are kept by the government are generally unaware of what their records say, and the government has not created an effective mechanism for reviewing the data and correcting any errors, activists said.

The activists alleged that the data collection effort, as carried out now, violates the Privacy Act, which bars the gathering of data related to Americans' exercise of their First Amendment rights, such as their choice of reading material or persons with whom to associate. They also expressed concern that such personal data could one day be used to impede their right to travel.

Turns out that "the activists" are a little slow on the uptake. Later in the same article it is made absurdly clear that the government's store of personal info is, indeed, already wide and is, indeed, already being used to impede travel:
Zakariya Reed, a Toledo firefighter, said in an interview that he has been detained at least seven times at the Michigan border since fall 2006. Twice, he said, he was questioned by border officials about "politically charged" opinion pieces he had published in his local newspaper. The essays were critical of U.S. policy in the Middle East, he said. Once, during a secondary interview, he said, "they had them printed out on the table in front of me."
Looks like I may have some travel impedance of my own, given the nature of posts here on WTW and op-ed contributions to my local paper. But I digress (paranoia will do that to you).

What are these trustworthy folks learning about?

The DHS database generally includes "passenger name record" (PNR) information, as well as notes taken during secondary screenings of travelers. PNR data - often provided to airlines and other companies when reservations are made - routinely include names, addresses and credit-card information, as well as telephone and e-mail contact details, itineraries, hotel and rental car reservations, and even the type of bed requested in a hotel.

... Ann Harrison, the communications director for a technology firm in Silicon Valley who was among those who obtained their personal files and provided them to The Post, said she was taken aback to see that her dossier contained data on her race and on a European flight that did not begin or end in the United States or connect to a U.S.-bound flight.

And even apart from general privacy considerations, how dangerous can this type of info be in making an innocent into a suspect (if you need any help with that one)?
Edward Hasbrouck, a civil liberties activist who was a travel agent for more than 15 years...said that travel records are among the most potentially invasive of records because they can suggest links: They show who a traveler sat next to, where they stayed, when they left. "It's that lifetime log of everywhere you go that can be correlated with other people's movements that's most dangerous," he said. "If you sat next to someone once, that's a coincidence. If you sat next to them twice, that's a relationship."
And forget sitting next to the same person, what about sitting next to members of the same organization, by pure coincidence? Just imagine the kind of fun you could be in for if you had the misfortune to live in the same city as a terrorist group called, say, Al Blowen'm Upp, and managed by pure chance to sit next to two members of that group on two separate flights? What about if you were of Middle Eastern descent and had that same misfortune? What if you also had written two op-eds critical of American foreign policy? AND had a tiny flashlight with you?

But don't worry, the DHS has its usual impeccable explanation for why they need this info:

Stewart Verdery, former first assistant secretary for policy and planning at DHS, said the data collected for ATS should be considered "an investigative tool, just the way we do with law enforcement, who take records of things for future purposes when they need to figure out where people came from, what they were carrying and who they are associated with. That type of information is extremely valuable when you're trying to thread together a plot or you're trying to clean up after an attack."
On that theory, there is no speck of info, personal or not, that could/should not be collected. And unlike "law enforcement" info collection, this is all being done before there's a crime to investigate. We're not only conducting preemptive war, we're collecting preemptive personal and private information.

If all this isn't bad enough, you'll be really happy to know that the GAO already issued a report back in May that criticized DHS's Automated Targeting System for, among other things:

Although CBP [Customs and Border Protection] officials have stated that they have taken and are continuing to take steps to comply with these requirements [on privacy], the current prescreening process allows passenger information to be used in multiple prescreening procedures and transferred among various CBP prescreening systems in ways that are not fully explained in CBP’s privacy disclosures. Although CBP recently published additional privacy disclosures related to its use of passenger data during the prescreening process, CBP’s current public disclosures do not fully explain its uses of personal information during the entire prescreening process. If CBP does not issue all appropriate disclosures, the traveling public will not be fully aware of how their personal information is being used during the passenger prescreening process.
Not worried enough, yet? Well, the government gumshoes initially planned to hold this info for 40 years, and reduced that to the current 15 years only this month.

There's more. The DHS's own Privacy Office Report to the Public on the Transportation Security Administration’s Secure Flight Program and Privacy Recommendations, issued in December, 2006 acknowledged that the Transportation Security Agency's "Secure Flight" program had allowed data obtained from a commercial data contractor to reach the government agency despite assurances that it would not. As I read the report, it claims that the inappropriate data was never actually added to or used by the government program, but I don't find that point at all clear.

If you're interested, the commercial data was obtained from three different commercial data mining companies: Acxiom, Insight America, and Qsent.

So we have the government collecting info on your reading habits via the Patriot Act (presumably--no one knows how frequently this is really done); your e-mails and phone calls via collection of data under the politically named "Terrorist Surveillance Program"; your travel, hotel, and God knows what else information; your political leanings and beliefs via some apparent program to monitor such things from publications; whatever info may be available via commercial data mining companies; and whatever info the government has already collected on you via such things as military service, arrest records, and birth and/or marriage records.

And we no longer consider a lot of practices to be "torture" which, up until a short while ago, we pretty clearly considered torture. And we make use of secret prisons, and we don't much like Habeas Corpus or the presumption of innocence anymore. And our overall society is showing signs of considerable economic strain, including an ever increasing proportion of people in poverty, an ever increasing degree of disparity between the haves and have nots, and an ever increasing amount of household debt. And the security and validity of elections in this country is extremely questionable at best.

Thank God we're a democracy, or I'd be really worried.


"Getting to know you. Getting to know all about you"

People's privacy is the enemy.
Governmental secrecy is the answer.
All hail big brother!!
Spud is now prepare fer his two minute hate.
(You never know who might be watching)
Did Spud say that last part aloud or just think it?

Oops! Room 101 Here eye come!

Be Well.