Newsday | September 24, 2007
The Bush Administration has been collecting detailed records on the travel habits of Americans headed overseas, whether you fly, drive or take cruises abroad -- not simply your method of transit but the personal items you carry with you and the people you stay with, according to documents and statements obtained by the Washington Post.
They even keep sometimes keep track of what books you read. For as long as 15 years.
In a terrifying front-page article Saturday, the Post outlines the latest in US government surveillance.
According to officials, the records are intended "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."
The new details suggest a much broader net than that. The details of the program were revealed when a group of activists requested copies of records on their travel and found someone had written a note about their flashlight carrying the symbol of a marijuana leaf.
"The Automated Targeting System has been used to screen passengers since the mid-1990s, but the collection of data for it has been greatly expanded and automated since 2002, according to former DHS officials," the Post said.
"The federal government is trying to build a surveillance society," said John Gilmore, a civil liberties activist in San Francisco whose records were requested and then first revealed in Wired News. The government, he said, "may be doing it with the best or worst of intentions. ... But the job of building a surveillance database and populating it with information about us is happening largely without our awareness and without our consent."
According to Wired, passengers pulled aside for extra screening are those most likely to enter the record books. Gilmore had been pulled aside and border patrol officials took notes of his belongings. Read about the document collection at the Identity Project here .
Homeland Security officials defended the program.
"I flatly reject the premise that the department is interested in what travelers are reading," DHS spokesman Russ Knocke told the paper. "We are completely uninterested in the latest Tom Clancy novel that the traveler may be reading."
According to the Post, "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."
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 paper 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, according to the report.