Homeland Security Assigns Ratings to Travelers

Few people know about it, but the Homeland Security Department runs a program that assigns a security rating to international travelers. The department has downplayed the practice, but it revealed the existence of the "automated targeting system" in the Federal Register last month. Privacy groups are calling the program an illegal invasion of privacy, but others are more supportive.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

I'm Robert Siegel.

When Democrat Patrick Leahy takes over as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, he says that one of his first orders of business will be to give greater oversight to a program at the Department of Homeland Security. The program checks out every person coming into the U.S. and assesses the likelihood that each is a terrorist.

As NPR's Adam Davidson reports, Leahy says he is sensitive to the concerns raised by civil liberties groups.

ADAM DAVIDSON: The program is called the Automated Targeting System. If you fly, drive or walk across a U.S. border, your name and details will go into the system, then Customs or border guards will be told whether you deserve extra scrutiny. It's a way of catching potential terrorists whose names are not already on any list, says Homeland Security spokesman Jarrod Agen.

Mr. JARROD AGEN (Homeland Security Department): We would basically be blind to potential threats until someone has entered the United States if we didn't have screening methods like this in place.

DAVIDSON: Agen says there's nothing new here. The program has been active for about 10 years. Complex software looks at all sorts of data - how and when you bought your plane ticket, whether it's a one way or roundtrip, what countries you visited. If you happen to, say, have the same phone number as a known terrorist you might be flagged and then screened more carefully at the U.S. border.

Have we caught any terrorists using this system?

Mr. AGEN: That would be classified.

DAVIDSON: Have people been stopped from entering the country?

Mr. AGEN: Yes. We do stop individuals coming into the U.S. through the system.

DAVIDSON: Agen says the system changes all the time, looking at new data or weighing old data differently depending on how the risks in the world are changing. Agen wouldn't give a detailed list of the data used. Some have reported that the system looks at travelers' credit reports and past purchases, even their mortgage details.

Jack Riley, a Homeland Security expert at the Rand Corporation, says the system's value is not so much in identifying terrorists, but in weeding out the people who don't require extra attention from overburdened law enforcement.

Mr. JACK RILEY (Rand Corporation): Those are people who are effectively being profiled out and authorities are not wasting the resources on them.

(Soundbite of dog barking)

Mr. RILEY: Sorry. Hey, will. Come here. Good girl. Sit. She'll pretty much bark at anything that moves.

DAVIDSON: And that's exactly what we're trying to avoid, right? Barking at anything that moves?

Mr. RILEY: Yeah actually, you know, that's a very good analogy. We're trying to avoid barking at anything that moves by identifying those things that we ought to be spending extra time and attention on.

DAVIDSON: Barry Steinhart with the American Civil Liberties Union says the program is disastrous. Some people, he says, will be identified as likely targets without even knowing why and that could ruin lives.

Mr. BARRY STEINHART (American Civil Liberties Union): This system is not simply going to be used to decide whether or not you can fly, whether or not you can cross the border. It's going to be widely shared within the government. History tells us it's going to be shared outside the government with the private sector. People are going to find this has consequences in everything from whether or not you can get a job with the government or outside the government to whether you can get a loan.

DAVIDSON: DHS spokesman Agen says Steinhart's wrong. The program's data will be carefully protected.

Adam Davidson, NPR News.

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