Just a few days before the November elections, the Department of Homeland Security made an announcement carefully crafted to be read by almost nobody. It slipped a notice in The Federal Register, the government’s daily publication, about an ongoing program that was tracking almost everyone, Americans and foreign visitor alike, who crossed one of the country’s borders.
The Automated Targeting System (ATS), launched in 2002, is a vast database that records who is traveling, gives them risk assessments, and adds them to a database for at least four years. The results of the assessment remain under wraps. If anyone has been removed from the ATS, he hasn’t been informed.
Congress never officially approved the program. When the Associated Press asked if it was illegal, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff reached for a loophole. In 2003 Congress passed a ban on funding for data mining. But “the statute,” Chertoff argued, “doesn’t bar the use of funds for the purpose of analyzing the risks for people entering the country.”
“These risk assessments can be accessed by people who make decisions about who they’re letting into the workplace,” says Marcia Hofmann, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “They could lead to someone not getting a job. This is pretty extensive information accessible to a lot of people, but not accessible to the people it’s about.”