The federal government disclosed details yesterday of a border-security program to screen all people who enter and leave the United States, create a terrorism risk profile of each individual and retain that information for up to 40 years.
The details, released in a notice published yesterday in the Federal Register, open a new window on the government's broad and often controversial data-collection effort directed at American and foreign travelers, which was implemented after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
While long known to scrutinize air travelers, the Department of Homeland Security is seeking to apply new technology to perform similar checks on people who enter or leave the country "by automobile or on foot," the notice said.
The department intends to use a program called the Automated Targeting System, originally designed to screen shipping cargo, to store and analyze the data.
"We have been doing risk assessments of cargo and passengers coming into and out of the U.S.," DHS spokesman Jarrod Agen said. "We have the authority and the ability to do it for passengers coming by land and sea."
In practice, he said, the government has not conducted risk assessments on travelers at land crossings for logistical reasons.
"We gather, collect information that is needed to protect the borders," Agen said. "We store the information we see as pertinent to keeping Americans safe."
Civil libertarians expressed concern that risk profiling on such a scale would be intrusive and would not adequately protect citizens' privacy rights, issues similar to those that have surrounded systems profiling air passengers.
"They are assigning a suspicion level to millions of law-abiding citizens," said David Sobel, senior counsel of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "This is about as Kafkaesque as you can get."
DHS officials said that by publishing the notice, they are simply providing "expanded notice and transparency" about an existing program disclosed in October 2001, the Treasury Enforcement Communications System.
But others said Congress has been unaware of the potential of the Automated Targeting System to assess non-aviation travelers.
"ATS started as a tool to prevent the entry of drugs with cargo into the U.S.," said one aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. "We are not aware of Congress specifically legislating to make this expansion possible."
The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, chaired by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), yesterday asked Homeland Security to brief staff members on the program, Collins's spokeswoman, Jen Burita, said.
The notice comes as the department is tightening its ability to identify people at the borders. At the end of the year, for example, Homeland Security is expanding its Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology program, under which 32 million noncitizens entering the country annually are fingerprinted and photographed at 115 airports, 15 seaports and 154 land ports.
Stephen E. Flynn, senior fellow for national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, expressed doubts about the department's ability to conduct risk assessments of individuals on a wide scale.
He said customs investigators are so focused on finding drugs and weapons of mass destruction that it would be difficult to screen all individual border crossers, other than cargo-truck drivers and shipping crews.