US passenger screening breaks the rules, say opponents

A US government programme which rates travellers by their risk to US security may break Congress-imposed rules banning the use of government money for automatic risk assessment programmes.

The Automated Targeting System (ATS) has been in operation since 2002 but has only just come to light. It uses airline and government databases to compile a profile of air passengers and assign them a risk assessment.

Following a past controversy about passenger screening technology, though, the House of Representatives specifically barred the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)'s use of public funds for automatic risk assessment programmes. No funds from the appropriations bill could be used to develop systems "assigning risk to passengers whose names are not on government watch lists", the AP news wire reported.

"We went through many years of debate over this notion of probing into the background of every passenger and assigning them a threat rating," said Barry Steinhardt, director of the America Civil Liberty Union's Technology and Liberty Project. "Congress enacted a specific prohibition on rating innocent travellers and instructed DHS to focus only on those who were on a government watch list. So it is unconscionable for the government to then create this kind of a system in violation of that ban, and without proper notice to Congress or the public."

"There is growing concern in Congress that this program invites abuse, and that the administration is ploughing ahead with it in apparent violation of the law,'' Patrick Leahy told AP. Leahy is a Democrat senator and the incoming chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The Secretary for Homeland Security Michael Chertoff said that he believes that the programme is legal. "I don't think it can be read as applying to this program. The statute doesn't bar the use of funds for the purpose of analyzing the risks for people entering the country," Chertoff told AP.

The controversial system maintains records on passengers for up to 40 years and is designed to analyse their movements over time to detect movements similar to those of terrorists or criminals. Citizens will not have the right to view or amend the records held on them.

This is just the latest controversy to hit the US's increasing monitoring of personal data. Europe and the US have been in dispute for some time over the transfer of flight information on European passengers to US authorities.

A number of European data protection bodies have found that a deal cut between the European Commission and the US broke European data protection rules. One of those rules is that data can only be transferred to countries with as good or better data protection than Europe.