Saturday, September 22, 2007

Overseas US Travelers "Under Watch"

The Bush administration is compiling electronic records on the travel habits of million of Americans travelling overseas.

The Bush administration is compiling electronic records on the travel habits of million of Americans travelling overseas, retaining data on whom they associate or plan to stay with, the personal items they carry and even the books they read, reported the Washington Post on Saturday, September 22, citing documents obtained by civil liberties advocates.

The Post said that the travel records are being collected through border points, airlines and commercial reservation systems.

The records, which are analyzed by the Department of Homeland Security's Automated Targeting System, include information and notes taken during secondary screenings of travelers.

They include "passenger name record" (PNR), which are provided to airlines and other companies when reservations are made.

The PNR includes names, addresses and credit-card information, telephone and e-mail contact details, itineraries, hotel and rental car reservations, and even the type of bed requested in a hotel.

The personal travel records are stored for as long as 15 years, said the American daily.

Former DHS officials told the Post said that the data retention has been greatly expanded and automated since 2002.

Officials claim that the records are part of efforts to help border officials to track down potential terrorists.

Details of the data retention surfaced after civil liberties activists requested copies of official records on their own travel.

The records included a description of a book on marijuana that one of the advocates carried and small flashlights bearing the symbol of a marijuana leaf.

Ever since 9/11, the Bush administration has been spying on Americans and tapping into the country's main communication networks without court warrants.


Civil liberties advocates blasted the Bush administration for intruding into the lives of ordinary people.

"The federal government is trying to build a surveillance society," said John Gilmore, a civil liberties activist in San Francisco.

Gilmore said the Bush administration "may be doing it with the best or worst of intentions".

". . . But the job of building a surveillance database and populating it with information about us is happening largely without our awareness and without our consent."

Gilmore's travel records included a note from a Customs and Border Patrol officer that he carried the marijuana-related book during a trip abroad.

"My first reaction was I kind of expected it," he said. "My second reaction was, that's illegal."

Civil liberties activists say that the data retention violates the Privacy Act, which bars the gathering of data related to Americans' exercise of their First Amendment rights, such as their choice of reading material or persons with whom to associate, according to the report.


Edward Hasbrouck, a civil liberties activist, said his file contained coding that reflected his plan to fly with another individual.

Though Hasbrouck did not fly with that person, the other passenger's name remained in the record.

"The Automated Targeting System is the largest system of government dossiers of individual Americans' personal activities that the government has ever created," said Hasbrouck, who was a travel agent for more than 15 years.

He said that travel records are among the most potentially invasive of records because they can suggest links.

"If you sat next to someone once, that's a coincidence. If you sat next to them twice, that's a relationship," he said.

Ann Harrison, the communications director for a technology firm in Silicon Valley, was among those that their personal files were obtained by US authorities.

"It was surprising that they were gathering so much information without my knowledge on my travel activities,'' said Harrison, whose record included data on her race and on a European flight that did not begin or end in the US or connect to a US-bound flight.

"It was distressing to me that this information was being gathered in violation of the law."

The records of Harrison's brother, James, included information about another sister's phone number in Tokyo as an emergency contact.

"So my sister's phone number ends up being in a government database," said James, director of the Identity Project.

"This is a lot more than just saying who you are, your date of birth."

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