ACLU Demands Shutdown of Unlawful Passenger-Tracking System

September 5, 2007 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON – In formal comments filed today with the Department of Homeland Security, the American Civil Liberties Union demanded that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) shut down its illegal Automated Targeting System (ATS) program. The program, which violates a congressional mandate barring DHS from assigning risk levels to ordinary Americans, uses secret criteria and computer algorithms to calculate the security risks of ordinary Americans.

“Congress has banned this type of program with good reason: It rates the potential for terrorism of every traveler and violates every American’s right to privacy,” said Barry Steinhardt, director of the ACLU Technology and Liberty Program. “The judgments about Americans calculated by ATS will be stored for years, and we have no idea how they may be used in the future. The benefit to the government is extremely questionable, but the consequences for Americans are simply dangerous.”

The ACLU has urged the Department of Homeland Security to end the program since its existence was revealed last November. As part of the last three DHS appropriations acts, legislators have forbidden DHS from developing or testing any program that uses algorithms to calculate the security risks of ordinary Americans whose names are not on watch lists. ATS ranks citizens using unknown but inevitably imprecise algorithms and draws from databases with known errors. Even security officials, including the Secure Flight Working Group, have said they cannot determine who will be a threat from the characteristics ATS uses.

“No government has the right to say to law abiding citizens: ‘Sorry, we can’t let you travel freely, but we can’t tell you why because it’s secret’ – especially in America,” said ACLU Senior Legislative Counsel Tim Sparapani. “ATS isn’t just a flawed program – it’s an illegal one. Secret algorithms and bureaucratic black magic are not the answer to national security problems.”

The program was approved without public or congressional consideration, despite Congress’s ban on these types of tracking systems used for people. The government tracked cargo using a similar system, but it has never been given congressional approval to track people as cargo has been tracked. The ACLU filed its formal comments on ATS in response to a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking published on August 6 in the Federal Register.

“In spite of broad public outcry, the substance and most of the details of the program remain the same – including its most objectionable elements,” said the ACLU in its comments to DHS. “The Department of Homeland Security must curb the excesses of ATS and end its continuing and illegal efforts to categorize innocent travelers as security risks based on computer analysis. If DHS is unwilling to act Congress should take further action to end ATS and protect the privacy of travelers.”

The full version of the ACLU’s comments to the Department of Homeland Security about ATS can be found at:

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