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Monday, September 24, 2007


We knew the government was spying on innocent Americans, and had been for years, perpetrating the façade of a Big Brother that seems to have taken on a life of its own recently. But we keep being reminded of just how prevalent this is, and how threatening it is to our privacy. This latest incident involves US citizens who fly, drive, or take cruises abroad, according to an article in the Washington Post. That would be 63.6 million American consumers each year, and here’s the data they retain on you: people with whom you travel and stay; personal items carried; and books you take on the trip. Additional information is collected from border points and the airlines’ Galileo and Sabre reservations systems. This includes passenger name record (PNR) data consisting of name/address, credit card information, telephone, e-mail, itineraries, hotel and car rental reservations, even the type of hotel bed requested. All these records come under scrutiny in the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Automated Targeting System (ATS). This has been going on since the mid-1990s, so you can’t blame it all on Bush. However, it was significantly expanded in 2002, in connection with a host of other surveillance techniques, compliments of this administration. DHS spokesman, Russ Knocke, said the agency is “completely uninterested” in what the traveler is reading, referring to the terrorist novels of Tom Clancy. So why bother retaining the titles of these books in the system? Even though the book in question was about marijuana, this kind of data collection violates the Privacy Act, according to privacy advocates. The Identity Project, another advocacy group, claims that the data held by ATS is more detailed than what is in Galileo or Sabre, indicating another personal data provider, perhaps? Edward Hasbrouck, a civil liberties activist, recounted a situation where he was recorded as traveling with someone, but didn’t, and the record was left in the system, uncorrected. Hasbrouck’s comment was: “If you sit next to someone once, that’s a coincidence. If you sat next to them twice, that’s a relationship." The latter would include a large majority of the business traveling public. I have traveled out of the country by plane and cruise ship, and when you combine that with this blog’s criticism of this administration’s Big Brother tactics, I am probably at the top of the ATS list.

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