Your Terrorist Risk Score

passport1.jpgEver see those credit report advertisements, the ones for freecreditreports.com (which aren’t free by the way)? According to the guy in the ad, everybody should know their credit score. And not only do you have a credit score, but you also might have a terrorist risk score. This score, called the Automated Targeting System (ATS), measures how likely you are to be a terrorist. From the AP:

Without notifying the public, federal agents for the past four years have assigned millions of international travelers, including Americans, computer-generated scores rating the risk they pose of being terrorists or criminals.

The travelers are not allowed to see or directly challenge these risk assessments, which the government intends to keep on file for 40 years.

The scores are assigned to people entering and leaving the United States after computers assess their travel records, including where they are from, how they paid for tickets, their motor vehicle records, past one-way travel, seating preference and what kind of meal they ordered.

The program’s existence was quietly disclosed earlier in November when the government put an announcement detailing the Automated Targeting System, or ATS, for the first time in the Federal Register, a fine-print compendium of federal rules. Privacy and civil liberties lawyers, congressional aides and even law enforcement officers said they thought this system had been applied only to cargo.

A high credit score is a good thing. It means you get approved for loans and receive low interest rates. A high ATS score means you get singled out for an extra-friendly encounter with airline screeners. Unlike your credit score, which you can find out, you’ll never know your ATS score. And that’s part of the problem. The system applies to American citizens, yet there doesn’t seem to be much of a process for oversight. Nor does there seem to be much of a way for allowing people to challenge erroneous scores. According to the article:

Nevertheless, Ahern said any traveler who objected to additional searches or interviews could ask to speak to a supervisor to complain. Homeland Security’s privacy impact statement said that if asked, border agents would hand complaining passengers a one-page document that describes some, but not all, of the records that agents check and refers complaints to Custom and Border Protection’s Customer Satisfaction Unit.

Homeland Security’s statement said travelers can use this office to obtain corrections to the underlying data sources that the risk assessment is based on. “There is no procedure to correct the risk assessment and associated rules stored in ATS as the assessment … will change when the data from the source system(s) is amended.”

But what if the risk assessment is wrong and you’re not a criminal or terrorist? So long as the data is right, it’s up to the computer to decide what you are. Even Franz Kafka would grant more due process. So if you find yourself getting extra screeing when returning from your trip abroad or winning a free vacation to Guantanamo, your ATS score is probably a bit high.

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3 Responses

  1. John Armstrong says:

    a one-page document that describes some, but not all, of the records that agents check

    Who wants to bet the undisclosed records include charitable donations? That check to the ACLU or the EFF means aid and comfort, my friend. Next up, party affiliation, browser cache…

    You see, these may be the fevered dreams of a modren paranoiac, or they may not. It doesn’t matter, because they don’t have to tell you what they’re looking at.

    Like Homer sez, “that’s not even Mexico”.

  2. Matt says:

    “…and what kind of meal they ordered.” Well, at least we don’t have to worry about this on domestic flights anymore. But it does make me wonder, are terrorists more likely to get the chicken or the beef? (We all know that the vegitarian meal is objectively pro-terrorist, but surely even the terrorists know that by now and so avoid it, too.)

  3. Adam says:

    I blogged last night about the difficulties a friend had in even commenting on the system. After reading about it on CNN, he spent 30 minutes trying to find how to submit comments. It seems the wrong docket number somehow made it into the Federal Register.

    Dear TSA, How Do We Contact Thee?