(CNSNews.com) - While many Americans believe the federal government's post-9/11 anti-terrorism measures have compromised their privacy rights, a senior official at the Department of Homeland Security is hailing one of his agency's passenger and cargo screening programs as the "best tool we have" in combating terrorism
The Automated Targeting System (ATS) collects and analyzes information (names, addresses, credit card numbers, destinations and other personal and business information) to identify potential terrorists and prevent them from bringing weapons of mass destruction into the United States.
The screening method assigns every inbound and outbound traveler and cargo container a "risk assessment score," and the records are kept for 40 years.
Conceding that ATS is "suddenly controversial" because people view it as an "invasion of privacy," Stewart Baker, assistant secretary for policy at the Department of Homeland Security, said the program simply helps security officials decide which passengers "need a second look."
Baker, speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, called ATS "a good program that protects Americans," but privacy advocates disagree.
The program, which has been in existence for several years, generated complaints last month when the federal government -- in the interests of "transparency" -- published new details on the Automated Targeting System in the Federal Register on Nov. 2.
The public notice opened the program to public comment -- and the comments poured in. In fact, the government has extended the public comment period to Dec. 29.
Privacy advocates complain that the federal government plans to keep the records it collects on passengers for 40 years -- and they object to the fact that passengers cannot challenge the information that is placed in their records because they are not allowed to see what's in those records. They worry that innocent people will be "blacklisted."
But Baker said the program uses the same "standard record keeping" used in any law enforcement investigation.
Jim Harper, director of Information Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, said programs using pattern-based data mining (information gathering) "needlessly infringe on privacy and civil liberties." Harper also participated in the discussion at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"Though data mining [gathering personal information on Americans from a variety of sources] has many valuable uses, it is not well suited to the terrorist discovery problem," Harper said. He argued that data mining is ineffective 90 percent of the time it's used to zero in on certain types of people.
Harper also criticized what he called the "unfair" practice of assigning risk scores to passengers.
"We're pushing for security programs that work and [want] to avoid ones that are premised on mass surveillance of Americans, denial of due process, and things that...are pretty basic to what this country is all about," Harper said.
Baker defended the use of data mining in the ATS program. "I don't think that we're scoring human beings, and we're certainly not keeping score on them," he said. "If we can, we look at patterns that establish reasons to ask questions."
Baker noted that security officials can't question every passenger entering or leaving the United States -- and ATS helps them narrow the field.
"The real value is the information we've gathered in advance," Baker said. "This is a lesson we actually learned from 9/11."
He noted that most of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers could have been stopped if ATS had been used prior to Sept. 11, 2001. "Now we can connect those dots through the ATS."
Baker said Congress was careful to protect individual privacy when it approved the law that established the Automated Targeting System. "It knew exactly what it was enacting and what they were appropriating," Baker said. "It's hard to find a program that stands on firmer legal ground.
But the American Civil Liberties Union is demanding that Congress abolish the Automated Targeting System.
"This program represents a monumental change that will have profound effects on Americans' privacy," the ACLU said on its website.
According to the ACLU, the ATC will take the "unprecedented step of putting the government into the business of creating 'security ratings' for millions of its own citizens, and everyone else who crosses the U.S. border."
The ACLU also said the program will rely on government databases that are "riddled with errors." It will leave individuals without the "vital rights" to review, correct or challenge security ratings; and it will keep files on "innocent people not suspected of a crime."
But in a dangerous world, the government must be proactive, Baker indicated
"There [are] a limited number of tools that we have when we're dealing with the threat of terrorism," Baker said. "This is by far our best, most sensitive tool in making decisions that are not discriminatory and that are based on actual data, rather than guesses about people's behavior."
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