THE MAGAZINE

Privacy

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has announced that its Automated Targeting System, which was originally designed to track cargo, is being used to profile travelers, operators, and crew members on all vessels, vehicles, aircraft, and trains that enter or exit the United States. In announcing the existence of the program, DHS simultaneously exempted the program from the provisions of the Privacy Act of 1974. For example, the new program is exempted from provisions that protect citizens from undue scrutiny by allowing people access to the information the government holds on them. The type of information gathered on passengers includes all information given to make travel reservations, including financial data. In a letter sent to the DHS, Bennie G. Thompson (D-MS) argues that this facet of the program raises additional privacy concerns.

DHS representatives have stated that citizens should have no expectations of privacy regarding this information because they freely give this information to airlines and ticket agents to make travel arrangements. Thompson, who is chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, says that much of the collected data is information passengers want to keep private, such as credit card numbers, e-mail addresses, billing information, and telephone numbers. The fact that "this information is given to reservation agents for the sole purpose of buying a ticket does not abolish this [privacy] expectation," Thompson writes. Privacy watchdog groups, such as the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), have expressed concern that DHS has exempted itself from a Privacy Act provision requiring that agencies keep only relevant and necessary information. This means that there would be no check on the sort of information the government could amass on travelers. Read the DHS announcement, Rep. Thompson's statement, and EPICs critique of the program.

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