August 20, 2008
The federal government has been using its system of border checkpoints to greatly expand a database on travelers entering the country by collecting information on all U.S. citizens crossing by land, compiling data that will be stored for 15 years and may be used in criminal and intelligence investigations.
Officials say the Border Crossing Information system, disclosed last month by the Department of Homeland Security in a Federal Register notice, is part of a broader effort to guard against terrorist threats. It also reflects the growing number of government systems containing personal information on Americans that can be shared for a broad range of law enforcement and intelligence purposes, some of which are exempt from some Privacy Act protections.
While international air passenger data has long been captured this way, Customs and Border Protection agents only this year began to log the arrivals of all U.S. citizens across land borders, through which about three-quarters of border entries occur.
The volume of people entering the country by land prevented compiling such a database until recently. But the advent of machine-readable identification documents, which the government mandates eventually for everyone crossing the border, has made gathering the information more feasible. By June, all travelers crossing land borders will need to present a machine-readable document, such as a passport or a driver’s license with a radio frequency identification chip.
In January, border agents began manually entering into the database the personal information of travelers who did not have such documents.
The disclosure of the database is among a series of notices, officials say, to make DHS’s data gathering more transparent. Critics say the moves exemplify efforts by the Bush administration in its final months to cement an unprecedented expansion of data gathering for national security and intelligence purposes.
The data could be used beyond determining whether a person may enter the United States. For instance, information may be shared with foreign agencies when relevant to their hiring or contracting decisions.
Public comments are being taken until Monday, when the “new system of records will be effective,” the notice states.
“People expect to be checked when they enter the country and for the government to determine if they’re admissible or not,” said Greg Nojeim, senior counsel at the Center for Democracy & Technology. “What they don’t expect is for the government to keep a record for 15 years of their comings into the country.”
But DHS spokesman Russ Knocke said the retention period is justified.
“History has shown, whether you are talking about criminal or terrorist activity, that plotting, planning or even relationships among conspirators can go on for years,” he said. “Basic travel records can, quite literally, help frontline officers to connect the dots.”
The government states in its notice that the system was authorized by post-Sept. 11 laws, including the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Reform Act of 2002, the Aviation and Transportation Security Act of 2001, and the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004.
Nojeim said that though the statutes authorize the government to issue travel documents and check immigration status, he does not believe they explicitly authorize creation of the database.
“This database is, in a sense, worse than a watch list,” he said. “At least in the watch-list scenario, there’s some reason why the name got on the list. Here, the only thing a person does to come to the attention of DHS is to lawfully cross the border. The theory of this data collection is: Track everyone — just in case.”
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