This targeting system goes beyond traditional watch lists, Ahern said. Border agents compare arrival names with watch lists separately from the ATS analysis.
In a privacy impact assessment posted on its Web site this week, Homeland Security said ATS is aimed at discovering high-risk individuals who "may not have been previously associated with a law enforcement action or otherwise be noted as a person of concern to law enforcement."
Ahern said ATS does this by applying rules derived from the government's knowledge of terrorists and criminals to the passenger's travel records.
Ahern declined to disclose any of the rules, but a Homeland Security document on data-mining gave this innocuous example of a risk assessment rule: "If an individual sponsors more than one fiancee for immigration at the same time, there is likelihood of immigration fraud."
Ahern said ATS was first used to rate the risk posed by travelers in the late 1990s, using personal information about them voluntarily supplied by air and cruise lines.
A post-9/11 law vastly expanded the program, he said. It required airline and cruise companies to begin in 2002 sending the government electronic data in advance on all passengers and crew bound into or out of the country. All these names are put through ATS analysis, Ahern said. In addition, at land border crossings, agents enter license plates and the names of vehicle drivers and passengers, and Amtrak voluntarily supplies passenger data on its trains to and from Canada, he said.
In the Federal Register, the department exempted ATS from many provisions of the Privacy Act designed to protect people from secret, possibly inaccurate government dossiers. As a result, it said travelers cannot learn whether the system has assessed them. Nor can they see the records "for the purpose of contesting the content."
Toby Levin, senior adviser in Homeland Security's Privacy Office, noted that the department pledged to review the exemptions over the next 90 days based on the public comment received. As of Thursday, all 15 public comments received opposed the system outright or criticized its redress procedures.
The Homeland Security privacy impact statement added that "an individual might not be aware of the reason additional scrutiny is taking place, nor should he or she" because that might compromise the ATS' methods.
Nevertheless, Ahern said any traveler who objected to additional searches or interviews could ask to speak to a supervisor to complain. Homeland Security's privacy impact statement said that if asked, border agents would hand complaining passengers a one-page document that describes some, but not all, of the records that agents check and refers complaints to Custom and Border Protection's Customer Satisfaction Unit.
Homeland Security's statement said travelers can use this office to obtain corrections to the underlying data sources that the risk assessment is based on, but not to the risk assessment itself. The risk assessment changes automatically if the source data changes, the statement explained.
"I don't buy that at all," said Jim Malmberg, executive director of American Consumer Credit Education Support Services, a private credit education group. Malmberg said it has been hard for citizens, including members of Congress and even infants, to stop being misidentified as terrorists because their names match those on anti-terrorism watch lists. He noted that while the government plans to keep the risk assessments for 40 years, it doesn't intend to keep all the underlying data they are based on for that long.
Homeland Security, however, is nearing an announcement of a new effort to improve redress programs and the public's awareness of them, according to a department privacy official, who requested anonymity because the formal announcement has not been made.
The department says that 87 million people a year enter the country by air and 309 million enter by land or sea.
On the Net:
DHS privacy impact statement: http://www.dhs.gov/xlibrary/assets/privacy/privacy_pia_cbp_ats.pdf
Associated Press writer Leslie Miller contributed to this report.