Do You Know Your Terror Threat Score?

By John Pallatto  |  Posted 2006-12-08

Do You Know Your Terror Threat Score?

The United States government is assigning a terror "risk assessment" score to every person, citizen or foreign national who crosses the border.

The Department of Homeland Security plans to retain that score and information about your comings and goings for up to 40 years. But you have no way of learning what the score is.

This latest example of the government blithely eroding its citizens human rights in the name of national security was disclosed in the Nov. 2, 2006, edition of the Federal Register.

It gave notice in typically turgid bureaucratic prose that the government is operating the "Automated Targeting System" that is aimed at assessing the potential terror threats posed by people and cargo that enter and exit the country.

The system uses massive databases and data mining technology to compile information "obtained from the public" that is processed "to permit targeting of conveyances, goods, cargo or persons." The system is supposed to flag suspicious people and cargo to make it easier for the Department of Homeland Security to stop criminals, terror suspects or dangerous materials at the border.

Stopping terrorists before they get into the country is certainly a laudable goal. But it is questionable that the government can only do this by collecting information and maintaining a terror risk score on all who cross the border.

Worst of all, the system doesnt give citizens or their legal representatives the ability to check or challenge the accuracy of that information.

Click here to read CIO Insights feature on "The Death of Privacy."

But the government has the right to share this information with U.S. and international security authorities, and in some cases with private contractors.

The government is asking citizens to take it on faith that the information is accurate and wont be misused by the other organizations it shares it with.

This sets up a Kafka-esque security system wherein citizens traveling abroad or trying to return home might be detained, interrogated, held without charge—locked away in some secret government prison without knowing why they are being held.

Obviously the vast majority of us without criminal records or apparent connections to foreign insurgencies or international terrorist organizations will come and go across U.S. borders without attracting the attention of Homeland Security or its computer systems.

But we have already seen examples of the havoc wreaked by the governments security systems as innocent people try to go about their lives or travel overseas.

There are still examples of law-abiding people who are prevented from boarding planes because their names happen to match those of people on a terror watch list. The government has yet to provide an effective way for citizens to check these lists or to get the government to modify them so they dont encounter the same unwanted scrutiny.

Click here to read why a Central Intelligence Agency venture investment in a health records management software company is raising privacy fears.

The case of Khalid El-Masri, a Kuwait-born German citizen, illustrates the suffering that simple misspellings on a terror watch list can cause.

El-Masri was traveling on vacation in December 2003 when he was detained in Macedonia and flown to Afghanistan, where he claims he was interrogated, tortured and held without charge for months as part of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agencys "extraordinary rendition" program.

He says he was seized because his name is similar to another man with a similar name who is wanted as an al-Qaida operative. El-Masri is now trying to sue the U.S. government for his alleged pain and suffering during his detention.

Then there is the case of Canadian citizen Maher Arar, who was detained in 2002 at New Yorks John F. Kennedy Airport on his way back to Canada. U.S. authorities had acted on information from Canadian police that Arar, a Syrian native, may have had ties to Islamic extremists.

Next Page: Whats in a Name?

Cost of Mistakes

As a result, U.S immigration authorities deported Arar to Syria, which threw him in jail and held him for nearly a year. After his release, Arar claimed that he had been tortured and repeatedly whipped with electrical cables.

Canadian police later acknowledged that the information that it had passed on to the United States about Arars alleged ties to extremists was erroneous. The scandal that resulted from Arars detention ultimately compelled the head of Canadas national police force to resign.

The Automated Targeting System is supposed to speed up and improve the effectiveness and presumably the accuracy of our national terror screening effort. But are we just creating an automated system for compiling and compounding identity errors? A system of this scope also has the potential for causing suffering and injustice on a grand scale.

What we have really done is given our government carte blanche to build an automated police state, where our comings and goings are watched, recorded, reviewed and scored for their potential threat to society. Our governments security apparatus has become virtually a state within a state that is seemingly beyond the review and regulation of the democratic society that created it ostensibly for its protection.

The most distressing factor in this controversy is that through either apathy or ignorance we are all colluding in the erosion of our privacy rights. The government will keep building its screening databases if we are content to remain silent.

One of the cherished rights of living in a democratic society is that as long as you obey the law and live peaceably with your neighbors, you have a reasonable expectation that your government will pay little or no attention to your existence except when income taxes are due or when its time once every decade to conduct the national census.

We have to defend our privacy rights just as tenaciously as we guard our borders.

The incoming Democratic majority in Congress, led by the new Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, has pledged to review the various anti-terrorist database systems like the Automated Targeting System, with an eye toward ensuring they arent casually violating citizens human rights.

To read more about government efforts to access Web search records, click here.

Such oversight is long overdue. The national trauma of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks has given the government the sense that citizens will pay any price and sacrifice long-defended privacy rights in the name of national security. We must reassert those rights and set boundaries for how and when the government gathers information about our personal travels and associations.

While data mining systems can be of great potential value in identifying potential threats, citizens have a right to know and to question the information that the government is gathering about them.

Its time we moved beyond the shock and paranoia engendered by the 9/11 attacks and balance our desire to defend ourselves from international terrorism with the equally essential need to protect our rights at home.

Check out eWEEK.coms Security Center for the latest security news, reviews and analysis. And for insights on security coverage around the Web, take a look at Ryan Naraines eWEEK Security Watch blog.

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