Saturday, September 22, 2007

Government Collection of Traveler Data a Violation of the 4th Amendment?

An article published in the Washington Post today reveals that the Department of Homeland Security has been collecting more data on travelers than previously thought. Through the use of something called the Automated Targeting System, the data on travelers has been collected since the mid 1990s to "assess the security threat posed by all passengers entering the U.S."

However, recent dossiers obtained from the Department of Homeland Security's ATS suggest that the information gathered goes above and beyond what is required to check for a "security risk" as the government has data on "the travel habits of millions of Americans who fly, drive or take cruises abroad, retaining data on the persons with whom they travel or plan to stay, the personal items they carry during their journeys, and even the books that travelers have carried."

Apparently, those critical of the system say that information could be used to make correlations and create relationships that may not actually be valid. The Washington Post reports:

"Edward Hasbrouck, a civil liberties activist who was a travel agent for more than 15 years, said that his file contained coding that reflected his plan to fly with another individual. In fact, Hasbrouck wound up not flying with that person, but the record, which can be linked to the other passenger's name, remained in the system. "The Automated Targeting System," Hasbrouck alleged, "is the largest system of government dossiers of individual Americans' personal activities that the government has ever created."

He said that travel records are among the most potentially invasive of records because they can suggest links: They show who a traveler sat next to, where they stayed, when they left. "It's that lifetime log of everywhere you go that can be correlated with other people's movements that's most dangerous," he said. "If you sat next to someone once, that's a coincidence. If you sat next to them twice, that's a relationship.'"

If the ATS does ever reach a court dispute over whether or not it violates the Privacy Act of 1974, which prohibits, among other things "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," the question could ultimately come down to whether these searches and seizures are reasonable under the 4th Amendment's prohibition of unreasonable searches and seizures.

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