Without notifying the public, federal agents for the past four years have assigned millions of international travelers, including Americans, computer-generated scores rating the risk they pose of being terrorists or criminals.
The travelers are not allowed to see or challenge the assessments, which the government intends to keep on file for 40 years.
The scores are assigned to people entering and leaving the United States after computers assess their travel records.
The program's existence was disclosed in November when the government put an announcement detailing the Automated Targeting System, or ATS, for the first time in the Federal Register, a fine-print compendium of federal rules. Privacy and civil liberties lawyers, congressional aides and even law enforcement officers said they thought this system had been applied only to cargo.
The Homeland Security Department notice called its program "one of the most advanced targeting systems in the world." The department said the nation's ability to point out criminals and other security threats "would be critically impaired without access to this data."
Some activists said they view ATS with alarm.
"It's probably the most invasive system the government has yet deployed in terms of the number of people affected," said David Sobel, a lawyer at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties group.
Jayson P. Ahern, an assistant commissioner of Homeland Security's Customs and Border Protection agency, said the ATS ratings simply allow agents at the border to pick out people not previously identified by law enforcement as potential terrorists or criminals and send them for additional searches and interviews.
"It does not replace the judgments of officers," Ahern said Thursday. He said agents focus on arrivals because resources are limited.
"If this catches one potential terrorist, this is a success," Ahern said.
Are you a high-risk traveler?
Here are some records and information weighed by the government's Automated Targeting System in assessing international travelers' potential as terrorist or criminal risks:
- Passenger manifests
- Immigration control records
- Property seizure records
- Visa data
- FBI National Criminal Information Center data
- Treasury enforcement actions involving people and businesses
- Dates of flight reservation and travel
- Passenger name
- Passenger seat information
- Passenger address
- Form of travel payment
- Billing address
- Travel itinerary
- History of one-way travel
- History of not showing up for flights
- Number of bags