Travel to the US and get a terrorist rating

All British travellers who have visited the United States over the past four years have been given a terrorist rating, according to a Daily Telegraph report.

This is one of the outcomes of the implementation of the Automated Targeting System (ATS), which the US government uses as part of its ‘war on terror‘:

[…] Personally identifiable information is collected to ensure that people and cargo entering or exiting the United States comply with all applicable U.S. laws. Relevant data, including personally identifiable information, is necessary for CBP [Customs and Border Protection] to assess effectively and efficiently the risk and/or threat posed by a person, a conveyance operated by person, or cargo handled by a person, entering or exiting the country. CBP’s ability to identify possible violations of U.S. law or other threats to national security would be critically impaired without access to this data. ATS permits all such information to be applied more efficiently and effectively to support both CBP’s law enforcement mission, while also facilitating legitimate travel, trade, commerce, and immigration.

The Telegraph report says that the US Department of Homeland Security is giving the public until December 29 to comment on the ATS, dubbed the “terror rating scheme,” after details of the programme were leaked.

And it’s not only British travellers – it’s everyone who has legally entered or left the United States during this period, including US citizens.

While many civil liberty groups and privacy advocates are quite alarmed by this programme, I think such surveillance activities by governments are an increasing inevitibility.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t have concerns about any government surveillance, whether ATS or any other scheme, especially when you know this:

[…] Travellers are not allowed to see or challenge the [ATS] risk assessments, which the US government intends to keep on file for 40 years. In some cases, the data can be shared with state, local and foreign governments.

The argument will no doubt go that if you’ve done nothing wrong, you have nothing to be concerrned about.

That’s a bullshit argument.

This is about personal privacy and your right to that privacy if you live in the US, UK or any other country that respects individual freedoms.

The argument might have some validity if you could see the risk assessments that the US government produces, and be able to provide corrections where those assessments are incorrect. But you can’t.

Talk about Big Brother watching you. No, not that onethis one.

Neville Hobson

Social Strategist, Communicator, Writer, and Podcaster with a curiosity for tech and how people use it. Believer in an Internet for everyone. Early adopter (and leaver) and experimenter with social media. Occasional test pilot of shiny new objects. Avid tea drinker.

  1. Dan Hill

    I agree that towing the do no wrong, do no worry argument is untenable . How much should you worry? Depends how much resistance you want to weigh against your government (You don’t think the US is the only one hatching such schemes?).

    The combination of a method, a market and cheap memory means that we have to expect that any tangible data our activities create can be recorded into a database of some kind. This situation is not going to improve but only become more apparent.

    With things the way they are the only argument I can put against the need to collect this data is the cost. The value of the data is in its asymmetric nature. Releasing it would turn it into a terrorist recruitment A-Z. It has to be kept under lock and key even if some of the records are wrong else it will be useless.

    So the meat of the issue isn’t that the data is held (the 21st Century is going to be mighty painful for those that can’t get over the fact that every action they make is a piece of data that could be recorded); it is who holds it, how secure it is and what they plan on doing with it. The issue is, in a word, trust. And folks have issues trusting the US government.

    The conundrum is that the US (and every other nation) has to protect itself with every peaceful, preventative means it has available and that has to be done by the nation’s government and, in turn, military. What be the alternative?

  2. neville

    No disagreement with you, Dan, on the broad picture you paint including the point re trust.

    I really have little issue with government surveillance – how would I? I live in the UK which must be the most ‘surveilled’ country on earth. What I do have issue with is where data is held about you and the government won’t let you see what that data says about you, such as this ATS scheme.

    This is about trust. It doesn’t bode well when you think of surveys this year on trust where trust in governments continues to be at the low end if not the bottom of the list of who do you trust.

  3. America’s Assault on Privacy at Finlay ON Governance

    […] Neville Hobson, a respected blogger and innovator in the changing field of social media raises some important points on the terrorist rating system to which travelers to the US are being subjected. “Can’t be rescinded, not even questioned,” as the line goes from the movie Casablanca, seems an apt description. There is no provision for amending an inaccurate terrorist rating. You can’t even see it. In a world war against fascism and a very long cold war against communism, America fought the encroachment of a big brother who kept track of everyone and accorded civil rights to no one. What has happened to this once gleaming pillar of civil rights so long an inspiration to freedom loving people? What has become of the spirit of Jefferson, Lincoln, Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King? […]

  4. J. Richard Finlay


    Thank you for adding your respected voice to this issue.

    No right think member of the civilized world wishes to see America, or any other country for that matter, vulnerable to attack at the hands of terrorists. But the war on terror must not be permitted to become a war on the privacy of law abiding people, otherwise the terrorists have won a victory of kind they never could have dreamed.

    I explore these points further at Finlay On Governance.

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