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Context of 'December 21, 2006: Civil Rights Group Files Lawsuit against Department of Homeland Security over Terror Risk Scores'

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The US Department of Homeland Security (DHS)‘s Automated Targeting System begins assigning terrorism risk scores to American and foreign citizens crossing US borders. The scores, generated by government computers, are supposed to approximate the risk that the travelers are terrorists or criminals. They are reportedly based on analysis of travelers’ “travel records and other data, including items such as 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,” according to the Associated Press. The government plans to keep these scores on file for 40 years. Travelers are not permitted to challenge, or even see, their risk scores. DHS says the program is “one of the most advanced targeting systems in the world” and insists that without this data the nation’s ability to identify security threats “would be critically impaired.” [Associated Press, 11/30/2006; Associated Press, 12/1/2006] Critics of the initiative say the program violates the appropriations bill for the agency which prohibits “assigning risk to passengers whose names are not on government watch lists.” [Associated Press, 12/7/2006]

Entity Tags: US Department of Homeland Security, Automated Targeting System

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The Justice Department announces that it is invoking the “state secrets” clause to prevent a lawsuit by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) against AT&T from going forward (see March 9, 1953 and January 31, 2006). The EFF is suing AT&T for compromising its customers’ privacy by colluding with the National Security Agency (NSA) in that agency’s domestic surveillance program. The government alleges that the lawsuit would reveal “state secrets” critical to “national security” if it continues. The Justice Department makes its initial filing in mid-May (see May 13, 2006). [US District Court, Northern District of California, 4/28/2006 pdf file; Klein, 2009, pp. 71]

Entity Tags: Electronic Frontier Foundation, AT&T, National Security Agency, US Department of Justice

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The Justice Department files a brief with the US District Court of Northern California asking that the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF)‘s lawsuit against AT&T (see January 31, 2006) be dismissed on the grounds that it would breach “state secrets” vital to “national security.” The Justice Department publicly announced its intentions of asking that the lawsuit be dismissed on those grounds two weeks ago (see April 28, 2006). EFF is suing AT&T for compromising its customers’ privacy by colluding with the National Security Agency (NSA) in that agency’s domestic surveillance program. The lawsuit is Hepting, et al v. AT&T, often shortened in the media to Hepting v. AT&T. The government submits a number of secret documents to Judge Vaughn Walker as evidence, along with a heavily redacted document submitted for public perusal. Other documents include affidavits from the Director of National Intelligence, John Negroponte, and the head of the NSA, Lieutenant General Keith Alexander. Some observers believe that Walker, a conservative appointed to the bench by President George H.W. Bush, will quickly comply with the government’s request. However, as AT&T whistleblower Mark Klein (see December 15-31, 2005 and July 7, 2009), who is working with EFF on the lawsuit (see Early January 2006), will later write, Vaughn is independent-minded and possessed of a “strong libertarian bent,” and will not be so prone to do the government’s bidding as some believe. [Klein, 2009, pp. 72-73] Walker’s first hearing on the brief will be held four days later (see May 17, 2006).

Entity Tags: John Negroponte, AT&T, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Keith Alexander, Mark Klein, US Department of Justice, Vaughn Walker, National Security Agency

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The Electronic Frontier Foundation files a lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security in an effort to obtain more information about a secret program called the Automated Targeting System (ATS) (see 2002 and After). This program allows the government to assign terror risk numbers to American citizens who enter or leave the US. The suit demands an expedited response to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request it filed earlier in the month. Frontier Foundation Senior Counsel David Sobel says, “DHS needs to provide answers, and provide them quickly, to the millions of law-abiding citizens who are worried about this ‘risk assessment’ score that will follow them throughout their lives.” [Electronic Frontier Foundation, 12/19/2006]

Entity Tags: Electronic Frontier Foundation, US Department of Homeland Security

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, Civil Liberties

Two civil liberties organizations, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the Asian Law Caucus (ALC), file a joint lawsuit against the US Department of Homeland Security. The two organizations file under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), and demand that DHS make available its records on the questioning and searches of lawful travelers through US borders. The suit follows a large number of complaints by US citizens, immigrants, and visitors who have spoken out about what they term excessive and repeated screenings by US Customs and Border Protection agents (see 2007). ALC’s Shirin Sinnar says, “When the government searches your books, peers into your computer, and demands to know your political views, it sends the message that free expression and privacy disappear at our nation’s doorstep. The fact that so many people face these searches and questioning every time they return to the United States, not knowing why and unable to clear their names, violates basic notions of fairness and due process.” EFF’s Marcia Hofmann agrees, saying, “The public has the right to know what the government’s standards are for border searches. Laptops, phones, and other gadgets include vast amounts of personal information. When will agents read your email? When do they copy data, where is it stored, and for how long? How will this information follow you throughout your life? The secrecy surrounding border search policies means that DHS has no accountability to America’s travelers.” [Electronic Frontier Foundation, 2/7/2008; Electronic Frontier Foundation, 2/7/2008] The lawsuit demands the public release of DHS’s policies on border searches and interrogations. It also demands an explanation as to how far government agents can go in questioning and searching citizens who are not suspected of any crime. The question of whether federal agents have the right to search electronic devices at all without suspicion of a crime is already under review in the federal courts.
Racial or Religious Profiling? - Almost all of the complaints come from travelers of Muslim, Middle Eastern, or South Asian descent. Many of the complainants believe they were targeted because of racial or religious profiling. US Customs and Border Protection spokeswoman Lynn Hollinger denies the charge. It is not her agency’s “intent to subject travelers to unwarranted scrutiny,” she says, and adds that a laptop may be seized if it contains information possibly tied to terrorism, narcotics smuggling, child pornography or other criminal activity. However, a Customs officers training guide says that “it is permissible and indeed advisable to consider an individual’s connections to countries that are associated with significant terrorist activity.” Law professor David Cole asks, “What’s the difference between that and targeting people because they are Arab or Muslim?” [Washington Post, 2/7/2008]

Entity Tags: Electronic Frontier Foundation, US Customs and Border Protection, Association of Corporate Travel Executives, Asian Law Caucus, David D. Cole, Marcia Hofmann, US Department of Homeland Security, Shirin Sinnar

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

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