Travel Overseas and the Government is Watching You

My doctor’s office has a file on me. So does the dentist, my employers, my credit card company, my bank, my health club and I’m sure a bunch more. I just found out that the file the U.S. government has on me might be bigger than I thought. Any American who has traveled outside the U.S. since 2002, whether they flew, drove, or took a cruise, has had their trips monitored.

The Automated Targeting System, part of Homeland Security, has been doing its monitoring thing since the 1990s, but in recent years the information that is gathered has grown. Because of technology and automation, info can be culled from places like commercial reservation systems.

The idea, of course, is to separate those who are simply traveling for whatever non-threatening reason from those who are doing illegal activity or who are possible threats. If you are pulled aside for more screening, your file could get bigger with more information. One guy, whose case is written about in this recent article, found out that his file listed Drugs and Your Rights, a book he was traveling with.

Here is the typical information in that can be found in people’s files. Currently, information is kept for 15 years.

  • names
  • addresses
  • credit card information
  • phone and email contacts
  • itineraries
  • hotel and car reservations

As you can imagine, there is a debate about this tracking system. Perhaps, though, it might come in handy. For example, let’s say you are trying to figure out the exact dates of that trip to Borneo that you took years ago. You’re finally putting together a trip scrapbook and the details you remember are fuzzy. If you contacted the folks watching over the Automated Targeting System, I wonder if they would let you know the dates of your trip and the name of that neat hotel you stayed in as well? By, the way, I’m kidding. I’m not sure what I think of this system. Governments like Singapore’s have kept track of their citizens for years.

Smile! You’ve Been Secretly Profiled!

The AP ran a piece revealing that the U.S. government has been secretly profiling international and domestic airline passengers for at least four years. In a small notice buried in the Federal Register (where the arcane minutia of government is published), the “Automated Targeting System” was announced last month (a companion to “Secure Flight,” the 2-plus-year-old domestic data-mining system).

It sounds like Total Information Awareness is alive and well.

Passengers are scored, based upon data about their motor vehicle records (often sold by states to all comers), past one-way travel, seating and meal preferences, method of payment, travel destination and origin, residence, phone numbers, e-mail addresses, frequent flyer information, and other data. The data will be kept on file for at least 40 years, under current plans.

You can’t find out or challenge your own score or data, but the government is happy to share the info with foreign governments (to prevent people from entering the country) and even private entities (to prevent people from getting hired, licensed or security-cleared for jobs). Privacy advocates are concerned.

Apparently, at least 45 people a day are refused entry based upon the scoring. It’s a pity they wouldn’t know why, and couldn’t correct any error.