Automated Targeting System


The Automated Targeting System, part of the Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection, was originally established to assess cargo that may pose a threat to the United States. Now the Department of Homeland Security proposes to use the system to establish a secret terrorism risk profile for millions of people, most of whom will be U.S. citizens. Simultaneously, it is seeking to remove Privacy Act safeguards for the database.

The Department of Homeland Security recently published a “Notice of Privacy Act system of records” for the Automated Targeting System (“ATS”), which it says “performs screening of both inbound and outbound cargo, travelers, and conveyances.” ATS is associated with the Treasury Enforcement Communications System (“TECS”), a database containing “every possible type of information from a variety of Federal, state and local source.”] The new description of the database differs significantly from an earlier one. As recently as March, ATS was described as “a computerized model that [Customs and Border Protection] officers use as a decision support tool to help them target oceangoing cargo containers for inspection.” It is unknown when ATS expanded from merely screening shipping cargo to scrutinizing land and sea travelers. On the same day as the Homeland Security notice about the proposal to use ATS to target individuals, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee asked the department for a briefing about ATS.

According to the Department of Homeland Security, ATS assigns a “risk assessment,” which is essentially a terrorist risk rating, to all people “seeking to enter or exit the United States,” “engag[ing] in any form of trade or other commercial transaction related to the importation or exportation of merchandise,” “employed in any capacity related to the transit of merchandise intended to cross the United States border,” and “serv[ing] as operators, crew, or passengers on any vessel, vehicle, aircraft, or train who enters or exits the United States.” This numbers in the hundreds of millions. In Fiscal Year 2005, Customs and Border Protection “processed 431 million pedestrians and passengers, 121 million privately owned vehicles, and processed and cleared 25.3 million sea, rail, and truck containers.”

The Automated Targeting System’s terrorist risk profiles will be secret, unreviewable, and maintained by the government for 40 years. The profiles will determine whether individuals will be subject to invasive searches of their persons or belongings, and whether U.S. citizens will be permitted to enter or exit the country. Individuals will not have judicially enforceable rights to access information about them contained in the system, nor to request correction of information that is inaccurate, irrelevant, untimely or incomplete.

The Automated Targeting System was created to screen shipping cargo, but it has many problems even completing that mission. An August 2006 report from the Democratic Staff of the House Committee on Homeland Security gave both port and border security low marks. For port security, the department’s grade is a C-/D+. “There are many gaps remaining in our port security. As some experts have noted, the current port security regime is a ‘house of cards,’ in which containers are often not inspected and the government does not truly know which containers are ‘high risk.'” More resources are needed. “Current staffing shortages at foreign seaports participating in CSI are resulting in thirty-five percent of ‘high risk’ containers not being inspected before they are shipped to the U.S.” In fact, 75 percent “of our ports do not have the ability to screen a container for dirty bombs or nuclear weapons,” according to the report.

EPIC has highlighted the problems inherent in passenger profiling systems in previous testimony and comments. In testimony before the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (more commonly known as “the 9/11 Commission”), EPIC President Marc Rotenberg explained, “there are specific problems with information technologies for monitoring, tracking, and profiling. The techniques are imprecise, they are subject to abuse, and they are invariably applied to purposes other than those originally intended.”

The Automated Targeting System mines a vast amount of data to create a “risk assessment” on hundreds of millions of people per year, a label that will follow them for the rest of their lives, as the data will be retained for 40 years. Yet the system is deeply flawed, and the funds spent turning ATS into a citizen profiling program would be better spent in perfecting its cargo screening process, so that port security can be stronger than a “house of cards.”

News Items


Comments Filed on the Automated Targeting System

  • EPIC, In Response to August 2007 Rulemaking (PDF) (Sept. 5, 2007)
  • Miss. Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, Chairman-Designate of the U.S. House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee (PDF) (Dec. 29, 2006)
  • EPIC, 29 organizations and 16 privacy and technology experts (PDF) (Dec. 4, 2006)
  • Identity Project (PDF) (Dec. 4, 2006), supplemental comments (PDF) (Dec. 29, 2006)
  • ACLU (HTML) (Dec. 1, 2006)
  • Electronic Frontier Foundation (PDF) (Nov. 30, 2006)