Archive for the ‘Freedom To Travel’ Category

“Travelers, say bon voyage to privacy”

Friday, October 17th, 2014

We talked at length with Watchdog investigative reporter Dave Lieber for his column in today’s Dallas Morning News: Travelers, say bon voyage to privacy.

Lieber hits the nail on the head by calling out how few travelers realize that the U.S. government is keeping a permanent file of complete mirror copies of their reservations:

Did you know that when you buy an airline ticket and make other travel reservations, the government keeps a record of the details?

If airlines don’t comply, they can’t fly in the U.S., explains Ed Hasbrouck, a privacy expert with the Identity Project who has studied the records for years and is considered the nation’s top expert.

Before each trip, the system creates a travel score for you…. Before an airline can issue you a boarding pass, the system must approve your passage, Hasbrouck explains….

The idea behind extensive use of PNRs [Passenger Name Records], he says, is not necessarily to watch known suspects but to find new ones.

Want to appeal? “It’s a secret administrative process based on the score you don’t know, based on files you haven’t seen,” Hasbrouck says….

Hasbrouck says: “You can’t keep files on everybody in case you want some dirt on them. That’s what J. Edgar Hoover did. We’ve been through this before in this country. Think of all the ways those files targeted innocent people and were misused. People’s lives were destroyed on the basis of unfounded allegations.

“Do we want to go back to that?”

For those whose curiosity has been piqued, here are links to more about this issue:

The FAQ, What’s in a Passenger Name Record (PNR)?, includes links to examples of PNR data, templates to request your travel history and PNR files from DHS, and information about our lawsuit against DHS to try to find out what files it has about us and how it has used and “shared” them.

Requirements for airlines to send passenger data to the government, and receive individualized (per-passenger, per-flight) permission from the government before issuing a boarding pass, are contained in two separate sets of DHS regulations: Secure Flight for domestic flights and the Advance Passenger Information System (APIS) for international flights. (More about the APIS regulations.)

The system of “pre-crime” profiling and assigning scores to all air travelers was discussed in recent government audit reports and at a Congressional hearing last month, and in a front-page story in the New York Times, in which we were quoted, last year.

There’s a good overview of the government’s travel surveillance and control process in a talk by Edward Hasbrouck of the Identity Project that was broadcast on C-SPAN</a> last year. The slides from that talk include diagrams of the system and examples of PNR data and other government files about travelers.

“Jetsetting Terrorist” confirms DHS use of NSA intercepts

Thursday, October 16th, 2014

We’ve been reading the Jetsetting Terrorist blog (highlighted last week by Boing Boing) to see what we can learn from the anonymous author’s chronicles of his experiences traveling on commercial airlines, within the U.S. and internationally, after being convicted of a nonviolent misdemeanor criminal offense the U.S. has since defined as “terrorism”:

Since 2009, I’ve been on the TSA’s “terrorist watch list” [because] years ago I was convicted of an activist-related property crime.  The government deemed it “terrorism.” My “weapon of mass destruction” was a small tool purchased at a hardware store for under $30. My crime resulted in a loss of profits to several businesses. No one was injured. And it wasn’t even a felony.

Some of what the Jetsetting Terrorist describes is unsurprising, such as the inconsistency and unpredictable of the TSA’s “There are no rules” operational practices (a/k/a, “We make up the rules as we go along”, or “The rules are whatever we say they are today”). Or the confusion of TSA and airport checkpoint contractor staff, accustomed to carrying out crude profiling on the basis of race, religion, and national origin, when they receive instructions to treat a white-skinned hipster techie U.S. native like the Jetsetting Terrorist as a second-class citizen.  We’ve heard many accounts like these from other travelers about the TSA’s real-world Standard Operating Procedures, as distinct from those contained in the secret written manuals for TSA staff and contractors.

Beyond that, several things stand out from our reading of the Jetsetting Terrorist blog:

  1. Anyone could be subjected to the same treatment as the “Jetsetting Terrorist”. Millions of people in the U.S. have been convicted, at some point in their lives, of some nonviolent property crime or other nonviolent misdemeanor.  There are no limits to what crimes the government can retroactively define as “terrorism”, and courts have enforced few constraints on what additional burdens, restrictions, and prohibitions can retroactively be imposed — by law or by extrajudicial administrative fiat — on anyone who has ever in their life been convicted of any crime.  Once someone has a criminal record, they are considered to “deserve” whatever they later get when additional administrative infirmities are later piled on to their long-ago-completed judicially-imposed sentence.  And it’s not just people convicted of crimes later defined as “terrorism”. Where will it end? “First they came for the terrorists.  Then they came for the drug dealers…. Then they came for you and me.”
  2. So-called “watchlists” are really blacklists. The word “watchlist” is an Orwellian euphemism which the government uses to minimize its infringement of the rights of people on these lists. Properly speaking, a “watchlist” implies a list used to target surveillance, and the consequences of being on a “watchlist” are limited to being watched, i.e. surveilled. A bad thing, but very difference from the consequences of being on a blacklist, on the basis of which the government actively interferes with one’s movements, lays hands on one’s body (calling genital groping by another minimizing euphemism, “patdown”), and rips open one’s luggage to paw through one’s possessions.
  3. DHS pre-crime profiling is not binary, and can lead to many levels of consequences. Most travelers  naively assume that unless you are “on the no-fly list”, there are only three levels of pre-crime “risk scores” and consequent levels of intrusiveness of DHS action against you at airports: the TSA Pre-Check line, the “normal” (in the post-9/11 sense of “normal”) screening line, and the “secondary screening” line for those “selectees” who get “SSSS” printed on their boarding passes. But as the experiences reported by the Jetsetting Terrorist remind us, not all “selecteees” are selected for like treatment.  As was made public in a government filing in the first no-fly trial last year, each entry on the “selectee” list is assigned a numeric “handling code”. The range of handling codes and their meanings remains secret, but while some “selectees” merely get the full monty (”enhanced patdown”), others like the Jetsetting Terrorist are prevented from proceeding through TSA checkpoints until the checkpoint staff phone the FBI to report their itinerary and get permission for them to travel. In the case of the Jetsetting Terrorist, everyone on the same plane is subjected to an additional guilt-by-proximity ID document check and luggage inspection at the gate, at the entrance to the jetway.
  4. DHS components are among the “customers” for NSA electronic surveillance. On a recent international trip, the Jetsetting Terrorist spent time, while he was abroad, with a friend from the US: “My friend went back one day before me. We didn’t arrive together. We didn’t leave together. We don’t live anywhere near each other. Separate itineraries, everything. But a few hours before I was to leave for the airport, I get an email. Customs got her. Details were sparse, but she said they’d detained her for over an hour, asked her a thousand questions, took her computer in the back room, and asked her about me. A lot about me.  What’s most interesting: Somehow, they knew we were traveling together. This could not be gleaned from airline records. In fact, it could only have been learned of from electronic surveillance.”  Assuming these facts are accurately reported, we agree. (The Jetsetting Terrorist blog is anonymous and unverifiable. But we have no reason to doubt its legitimacy.)  This isn’t the first report of DHS employees questioning a US citizen about information that could only have been obtained from surveillance of electronic communications: that’s part of the basis for an ongoing  lawsuit in federal court in Indiana.  We continue to believe, as we said when  we reported on that case earlier this year, that it’s more likely that the DHS is one of, and possibly the most frequent, “customer” and user of information obtained from the illegal NSA electronic communications dragnet than that the DHS is running its own parallel illegal surveillance scheme on the same scale.

The Jetsetting Terrorist is looking for help finding a way to film and/or record his interactions with the TSA, in spite of being separate from his belongings while he is being searched and interrogated.  Since he plans to distribute these recordings publicly, they would be protected from search (as would his other work product documents and data) by the federal Privacy Protection Act, 42 USC 2000aa.  Most journalists aren’t aware of this law.  But it has important implications at airports, and protects anyone with an intent to distribute information publicly — not just full-time professional journalists.

U.S. citizen sues the State Department for a passport

Tuesday, October 14th, 2014

A Yemeni-American U.S. citizen sued the U.S. State Department today, asking a federal court in Michigan, where he lives, to order the State Department to issue him a U.S. passport.

Ahmed Nagi was naturalized as a U.S. citizen twenty years ago.  In May of 2013, after his previous U.S. passport expired, Mr. Nagi applied to renew his passport. He went in person to the State Department’s Passport Office in Detroit, and paid the $60 extra fee for “expedited” passport renewal service.

Normally, a U.S. citizen who applies in person at a Passport Office on an expedited basis — especially if they have been issued a U.S. passport previously, and are applying for a renewal rather than a first-time passport — can pick up their new passport within a couple of days, even the same day if they have evidence of imminent planned international travel.

Mr. Nagi, however, is still waiting for a new passport, sixteen months after he submitted his application. In response to repeated inquiries, Mr. Nasgi and his lawyers have been told only that his passport application is still “pending”. The State Department has used the impossible-to-complete “long form” as a pretext to hold up processing of some disfavored passport applications, but hasn’t asked Mr. Nagi for any additional information or told him anything about why his application hasn’t been approved.

In the meantime, Mr. Nagi is legally prohibited from leaving the USA without a passport.

The U.S. government appears to have decided that there is no legitimate reason for any U.S. citizen to visit Yemen, whether as a tourist or to visit friends or relatives. In a blatant case of discrimination on the basis of national origin, all U.S. citizens of Yemeni birth or ancestry are being treated as presumptively terrorists and subject to de facto travel restrictions, even if they haven’t individually been placed on any U.S. government blacklists.  Hundreds of U.S. citizens are currently stranded in Yemen, unable to leave Yemen or return to the U.S., because the U.S. Embassy in Sana’a has been systematically seizing the passports of any Yemeni-Americans who go to the embassy to request consular services as U.S. citizens.

According to one of Mr. Nagi’s attorneys, Lena Masri of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, “The federal government has routinely delayed the processing of passport applications for Muslims of Yemeni origin for an indefinite period of time.”  By keeping passport applicants in indefinite limbo, the State Department hopes to exercise a “pocket veto” of passport issuance and international travel, without issuing formal decisions denying passport applications that would be subject to judicial review.  “This lawsuit will challenge the federal government’s unchecked practice of denying these individuals their constitutionally-protected right to travel without affording them their right to due process of law.”

11th Circuit Court of Appeals panel kowtows to TSA

Thursday, September 25th, 2014

By a vote of two judges to one, a panel of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals has declined to consider a petition by Jonathan Corbett for review of the TSA’s use of virtual strip search machines and “enhanced patdowns” (genital groping), and has opined that if the court were to consider Mr. Corbett’s petition, it would deny it.

If that sounds irregular, it should. Normally, once a court has found a reason it doesn’t need to decide a case on its “merits”, but can resolve it on procedural or jurisdictional grounds, judicial economy dictates that the court won’t issue any opinion on issues it doesn’t have to reach.

In this case, the two judges in the panel majority went out of their way to erect as many barriers as possible to future court challenges to TSA actions, in contravention of normal principles of appellate adjudication and over a cogent dissent, on exactly these grounds, by the third member of the panel.

The ruling on the “merits” of the petition, while bad, is not unprecedented: Every other petition for Court of Appeals review of the TSA’s virtual strip-search practices has already been dismissed.  That’s largely because Congress has directed the Courts of Appeals to limit their “review” of TSA orders to the “administrative record” supporting the TSA’s actions, as provided to the court by the TSA itself, and to treat any “findings of fact” by the TSA, “if supported by substantial evidence” (and even if controverted by more persuasive evidence) as “conclusive”.

Conclusory declarations by TSA employees, not subject to cross-examination and allegedly based on secrets not in the record (”if you knew the secrets we know but can’t reveal, you’d agree with us”) are almost always deemed sufficient to constitute “substantial” evidence for this purpose.

In other words, the TSA gets to tell the Court of Appeals which evidence to consider, and what factual conclusion to draw from it.  Given that the TSA is allowed to make up the facts to suit its own interests, and submit them to the court in secret, it’s scarcely surprising that the decisions made by the Courts of Appeal on the basis of those “conclusive” factual claims by the TSA are almost invariably in the TSA’s favor.

If you think that’s unjust, ask Congress to change this law and support those who argue to the courts, especially the Supreme Court, that this law is unconstitutional.

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TSA finalizes fine of “Naked American Hero”

Tuesday, September 23rd, 2014

The TSA has issued a final order assessing a $500 civil penalty (administrative fine) against John Brennan, the “Naked American Hero” who took off all his clothes at a TSA checkpoint at the Portland, Oregon airport.

The authority to make the TSA’s final decision in this weighty matter was delegated by the Administrator of the TSA to his second-in-command, Deputy Administrator Melvin Carraway.  Mr. Carraway agreed with lower-level TSA staff that Mr. Brennan’s nudity “interfered” with the ability of TSA staff to “screen” him.

Only now — after a kangaroo-court administrative hearing, a decision by a so-called Administrative Law Judge (not actually a judge), and an administrative appeal to the designated TSA decision-maker — is Mr. Brennan eligible to seek his day in court.

All of the proceedings to date have been purely administrative and internal to the TSA’s decision-making process.  TSA staff are not — at least according to TSA administrative rules — allowed to consider, in carrying out these administrative decision-making functions, whether the TSA rules and procedures they have been hired to carry out are unconstitutional or otherwise illegal.

In an effort to frustrate judicial review of TSA actions, Congress requires the victims of TSA orders to exhaust administrative remedies, as Mr. Brennan has now done, before they are eligible to seek review of the TSA’s final orders by judges who are allowed to consider the Constitutionality of the TSA’s actions.

Mr. Brennan has 60 days from the date of the TSA’s final order, September 19, 2014 (i.e. until November 18, 2014) to file a petition for review of the TSA’s decision in either, at Mr. Brennan’s choice, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals or the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals.

We’ve received no response to our May 2013 FOIA request for the TSA’s records of its administrative actions and proceedings against Mr. Brennan.   The most recent estimate provided by the TSA was that they didn’t expect to provide any response until February 2015.

Contributions toward Mr. Brennan’s legal expenses, or offers of pro bono legal assistance, can be made directly to Mr. Brennan at NakedAmericanHero.com.

GAO audit confirms TSA shift to pre-crime profiling of all air travelers

Monday, September 22nd, 2014

A Congressional hearing last week on the so-called “Secure Flight” system for “screening” domestic air travelers confirmed that the TSA has completed a shift from blacklist and whitelist matching to a comprehensive real-time pre-crime profiling system that assigns each air traveler a  “risk assessment” score on the four-step scale we’ve previously described and which is illustrated above in the latest GAO report.

Redacted versions of three audit reports on Secure Flight by the Government Accountability Office (1, 2, 3) were made public in conjunction with GAO testimony at the hearing.  According to one of those reports, “Secure Flight” started out as a blacklist and whitelist matching system:

Since implementation began in January 2009, the Secure Flight system has identified high-risk passengers by matching SFPD [against the No Fly List and the Selectee List, subsets of the Terrorist Screening Database (TSDB), the U.S. government’s consolidated watchlist of known or suspected terrorists maintained by the Terrorist Screening Center, a multiagency organization administered by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)…. To carry out this matching, the Secure Flight system conducts automated matching of passenger and watchlist data to identify a pool of passengers who are potential matches to the No Fly and Selectee Lists. Next, the system compares all potential matches against the TSA Cleared List, a list of individuals who have applied to, and been cleared through, the DHS redress process.

But that’s not how it works any more. According to the same GAO report:

Since January 2009, the Secure Flight program has changed from one that identifies high-risk passengers by matching them against the No Fly and Selectee Lists to one that assigns passengers a risk category: high risk, low risk, or unknown risk. Specifically, Secure Flight now identifies passengers as high risk if they are matched to watchlists of known or suspected terrorists or other lists developed using certain high-risk criteria, as low risk if they are deemed eligible for expedited screening through TSA Pre-Check — a 2011 initiative to preapprove passengers for expedited screening — or through the application of low-risk rules, and as unknown risk if they do not fall within the other two risk categories. To separate passengers into these risk categories, TSA utilizes lists in addition to the No Fly and Selectee Lists, and TSA has adapted the Secure Flight system to perform risk assessments, a new system functionality that is distinct from both watchlist matching and matching against lists of known travelers.

We’ve said from the start that Secure Flight would not be limited to “list matching” and would assign risk scores to all travelers. Now that’s been confirmed by GAO auditors.  When the TSA talks about “risk-based screening”, what they mean is “pre-crime profiling” of all air travelers — part of a larger pattern of “predictive” pre-crime policing through surveillance and profiling.

The diagram at the top of this article shows what the GAO says the current “Secure Flight” profiling process, and its consequences, look like. Note the references to “risk assessments” and “rules-based lists”, although in fact these are real-time scoring systems and there are no publicly-disclosed “rules”.

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Government asks for “do-overs” and delays in no-fly lawsuits

Tuesday, September 2nd, 2014

Faced with a series of Federal court rulings upholding challenges to “no-fly” orders, or allowing them to proceed toward trial, the US government agencies responsible for “no-fly” orders have responded by pretending that they don’t understand what the courts have ordered them to do.

Instead of complying with court orders, the responsible agencies are asking for months of additional time.

In one case, the request for delay is to get “clarification” of a straightforward court order — and to prepare and submit a different set of pleadings than the exhibits and summaries of testimony the court had demanded.

In another case, the government has asked the court — which has already found that the defendants’ secret no-fly decision-making process unconstitutionally denied the plaintiffs due process of law — to remand the case to the defendants themselves, and give them six months to devise and subject the plaintiffs to yet another extra-judicial “review” of the no-fly list by the defendants, before the court even considers whether that (yet to be devised) new-and-improved administrative no-fly listing and internal kangaroo-court “review” system would be Constitutional.

The first court ruling that the no-fly system or a specific no-fly decision was unconstitutional came in January 2014, following the trial last December in San Francisco in Ibrahim v. DHS.  But Dr. Rahinah Ibrahim is not a US citizen, the US government won’t give her a visa to return to the US, and under US law visa denials are generally not subject to judicial review.  So Judge William Alsup’s ruling in that case has had little practical effect either on Dr. Ibrahim or on no-fly listing and decision-making practices affecting other would-be travelers.

Two other pending cases, however, involve US citizens (and in one of the cases some permanent residents or  green-card holders as well) who would be able to travel freely if they weren’t on the no-fly list.

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Sai v. TSA: A case study in TSA secrecy

Tuesday, August 19th, 2014

Time and time again, the TSA has acted as though its middle name was “secrecy” rather than “security”.

Case in point: Sai v. TSA.

There’s a lot at issue in this case, but here are some of the problems with the TSA that it has exposed:

Sai poses no threat to aviation security. He has an unusual but recognized medical condition, attested to by documentation from his doctor that he carries when he travels, for which he needs ready access to liquids.  The TSA is required by law to accommodate such medical disabilities, as it easily could.  TSA press releases claim that travelers are allowed to bring medically necessary liquids through TSA checkponts in any quantity.

But TSA employees at airport checkpoints at Logan Airport in Boston and the TSA contractors who staff the checkpoints at San Francisco International Airport have, among other improper actions, seized Sai’s medical liquids, denied him access to his medical liquids while detaining him, and refused to allow him to pass through checkpoints or travel by air unless he abandoned his medical liquids.

While detaining Sai, TSA employees and contractors have conducted searches unrelated to weapons or explosives (but directly related to activities protected by the First Amendment), including reading through and copying documents Sai was carrying.

The TSA has never tried to claim that any of these actions were justified by “security” concerns. Instead, the TSA has responded to Sai’s requests for information, administrative complaints, and eventual federal lawsuit solely on the basis of secrecy, when it has responded at all, arguing that it isn’t required to divulge anything about what it has done, why, or whether it is justified.

The TSA claims to practice “layered security,” but Sai’s saga shows how the TSA actually practices “layered secrecy” to shield its activities from public and judicial accountability.

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Another brick in the (falling) REAL-ID wall

Wednesday, August 13th, 2014

July 21, 2014 marked “Phase 2″ of implementation of the REAL-ID Act.

What does this mean, and does it matter?

As of July 21, drivers’ licenses and other state ID credentials issued by US states or territories that haven’t been certified by the DHS to comply with the REAL-ID Act cannot be accepted by Federal agencies for access to ID-controlled “restricted” areas of Federal facitlties (”i.e., areas accessible by agency personnel, contractors, and their guests”).

Because Federal agencies typically issue their own ID credentials to their own employees and regular contractors, this will mostly affect occasional visitors to Federal facilities. NASA, for example, which has facilities in states that have not been certified by DHS as sufficiently compliant, has issued this advice to would-be visitors:

Effective July 21, 2014, the implementation of Phase II of the Real-ID Act (2005) restricts the use of state ID from non-compliant states (including New York) as an acceptable form of identification for federal facilities (including NASA GISS). If you are intending to visit GISS and only have a standard drivers license from a non-compliant state, please ensure that you have a second form of ID (passport, military ID, etc.) to avoid unnecessary complications.

It isn’t clear from this notice, or others we’ve seen, what these “unnecessary complications” will amount to. Visitors with ID credentials from non-compliant states will, presumably, be treated as visitors without “valid” state ID credentials, but that begs the questions of whether or on what basis they will be allowed entry after additional scrutiny or some form of alternate ID verification, allowed entry but only if escorted by staff and not allowed unescorted, or denied entry entirely.

In its eseence, the REAL-ID Act was intended to mandate the creation of a distributed national identity card system. The key “compliance” requirement for states and territories is participation in a linked, distributed database of ID-card and biometric information about all ID cardholders nationwide.

The intent of the Federal law is to force states to particpate in (and absorb the cost of) this scheme, sparing the Feds the costs and hassle of issuing national ID cards and providing (implausible) deniability as to whether it’s a “national ID” at all: “See, it’s not a ‘national’ ID card. It’s still issued by your state.”

But since the Feds probably don’t have jurisdiction over state issuance of drivers’ licenses or state ID cards, the REAL-ID Act relies on threats, rather than direct orders, to extort compliance by states resistant to registering their citizens and residents in a national ID database.

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One million people are on watchlists, but all travelers are being watched

Tuesday, August 5th, 2014

A million people around the world were listed in the US government’s “Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment” (TIDE) as of August 2013, of whom 680,000 were included in the “Terrorist Screening Database” (TSDB), according to a classified breakdown of watchlist entries and uses published today by The Intercept.

Two weeks ago, The Intercept made public the US government’s watchlisting/witchhunting manual. Now the same publication from the aptly named First Look Media has provided a first look at how many people are affected by “watchlisting” practices, and who these people are.

(Ironically, these revelations come at the same time that the National Counter-Terrorism Center (NCTC) is advertising “Watchlisting” jobs.)

The internal government documents published by The Intercept categorize TSDB entries by “group affiliation”, rather than by what (if any) threat these people are believed to pose. But 280,000 of the 680,000 people listed in the TSDB were described as having “no recognized terrorist group affiliation”.

Of the entries on the watchlists in the TSDB, 47,000 were on the no-fly list, and 16,000 were on the “selectee” list of people subjected to more intrusive “screening” whenever they fly.  Five thousand “US persons” (US citizens and permanent residents or green-card holders) were on watchlists, including 800 on the no-fly list and 1,200 on the “selectee” list.

As of August 2013, according to these documents, 240 new names were “nominated” to these lists each day, while only 60 entries were removed. That means the million-entry TIDE list was growing at the rate of 180 entries per day, or 65,000 entries per year.

But don’t be misled by the government’s Orwellian use of the term “watchlist” into thinking that “only” a million people are being “watched” by the government or treated as supected terrorists when they travel. US government surveillance of travelers is a dragnet that affects all travelers, not just those on watchlists.

All air travelers are “watched” and our movements and associations are recorded in secret, permanent government dossiers.  All travelers are profiled and assigned secret “risk assessment” scores each time we fly.  All travelers must obtain individualized, per-passenger per-flight government permission before any airline is allowed to issue a boarding pass.

The million people on US government watchlists (as of August 2013) are those who are subjected, on the basis of this blacklisting and dragnet surveillance, to even more intrusive surveillance and/or other restrictions on the exercise of fundamental rights, such as the rights to freedom of association and freedom of movement.