Do You Know Your Terror Threat Score?

Opinion: The Department of Homeland Security is using massive databases and data mining software to assign terror "risk assessment" scores to every person who crosses the United States' borders. But travelers have no way of finding out

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.

/zimages/5/28571.gifClick 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.

/zimages/5/28571.gifClick 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.

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John Pallatto

John Pallatto

John Pallatto has been editor in chief of QuinStreet Inc.'s since October 2012. He has more than 40 years of experience as a professional journalist working at a daily newspaper and...