Public Disclosure Request From Customs And Border Protection Reveals Huge Data Collection By U.S. Government For Airline Travelers Via Airlines

Submitted by Darren Smith, Weekend Contributor

Customs and Border Protection Shoulder PatchCyrus Farivar, the senior business editor of Ars Technica, wrote of his experience of having made a Freedom of Information Act request for data held regarding his Passenger Name Records (PNR) provided to the government by airlines, travel agents, and online booking services in order to review what is being tracked in his prior international travels. According to Cyrus, the government initially only included basic information going back to 1994 but after he appealed the request and the government then returned a seventy six page document of data revealing extensive data collected from 2005 to 2013.

He discovered that airlines and these various companies routinely hand over extensive passenger information during each transaction with the customer, including: phone number; address; e-mail address; meal preference (could be used to determine religion); accommodation requests; (can reveal health conditions); changes of seating; credit card numbers; whether the passenger is travelling with others and who; IP address; language used; notes from call center workers and other data not readily apparent to a reader.

The documents reveal a window into what privacy advocates believe is a disturbing trend of the U.S. Government to collect all things on all persons. And, this will likely have other repercussions.

According to The Department of Homeland Security, Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the goal is “to enable CBP to make accurate, comprehensive decisions about which passengers require additional inspection at the port of entry based on law enforcement and other information.” And, that the data is only kept readily available for five years and then “dormant, non-operational status.” But Cyrus states the CBP data from his PNR data went back to 20005.

In his article Cyrus writes:

“No wonder the government can’t find needles in the haystack—it keeps storing irrelevant hay,” [Fred] Cate, [a law professor at Indiana University] told me “Even if the data were fresh and properly secured, how is collecting all of this aiding in the fight against terrorism? This is a really important issue because it exposes a basic and common fallacy in the government’s thinking: that more data equates with better security. But that wasn’t true on 9/11, and it still isn’t true today. This suggests that US transportation security officials are inefficient, incompetent, on using the data for other, undisclosed purposes. None of those are very encouraging options.”

“No wonder they didn’t want you to know what they had about you,” he added.”

Cyrus Farivar
Cyrus Farivar

Cyrus’ article describes quite well the complete cooperation and transmittal of citizens’ data with government agencies for the purpose of data warehousing. Originally the intent seemed to be given to the public that the information was only retained on international flights and passengers but it seems that the scope of monitoring by Customs and Border protection goes beyond the traditional expectations of Border Security but now it includes domestic flights as well, as revealed in Cyrus’ FOIA Request and appeal.

So much for President Obama’s pledge that it is only meta-data being collected and benign, actually it is far more revealing than “your phone calls will not be recorded” such as in your telephone conversation with your travel agent.

By Darren Smith


Ars Technica

The views expressed in this posting are the author’s alone and not those of the blog, the host, or other weekend bloggers. As an open forum, weekend bloggers post independently without pre-approval or review. Content and any displays or art are solely their decision and responsibility.

29 thoughts on “Public Disclosure Request From Customs And Border Protection Reveals Huge Data Collection By U.S. Government For Airline Travelers Via Airlines”

  1. How can anyone believe a word that is being said by the disgusting government of ours? Simply outrageous.

    1. Max-1 – No, just a form note that they did it. However I have a friend who works in China and he gets a little note from TSA with every trip.

  2. For the first time traveling I got a little note in my luggage saying that TSA had been there. The least they could have done is leave a little candy or something for the bother.
    I think what bothers me the most is that the airlines are ‘giving’ them this information without a warrant. So this is a warrantless search of our private lives.

  3. Darren Smith:

    Thanks for bringing this to our attention.

    Feeling that old sense of outrage – familiar story repeated over and over again.

    I am as energetic as any citizen – writing/calling my representatives, voting, and speaking out in public. Nothing changes.

    Those two pernicious concepts: “No reasonable expectation”, and “No standing” have been used repeatedly to erode our Fourth Amendment rights with the acquiescence of the judiciary.

    Bottom line, outrage and $3.00 will get me a cup of coffee.

    But the government will continue to seize my records and personal information.

  4. You can bet that those airport full-rez naked body scans are stored somewhere, too.

  5. Okay, it’s not a surprize; we know the NSA does this, Customs too & probably sharing. These days flying is an ordeal with no privacy and little comfort. Maybe the early space flights of the future will be more like flying and long train trips used to be. Wish someone here would do a good blog on the Malasia airline shootdown.

  6. I have come to the conclusion that our Government sees the human species as nothing but an exoskeleton of data ripe for harvesting and profit sharing with corporations…

  7. Good article Darren. We did not know about this aspect of our privacy information being tracked and collected. Next time I get on a plane I will speak Spanish, act like I am traveling with the chick next to me, give the Mayor’s phone number, and eat nothing dished out because god only knows what is in the food.

  8. Obama promised “the most transparent WH.” He didn’t say his goal was more transparent than North Korea.

  9. The insurmountable problem NSA and the rest face is storing data which arrives in hundreds of thousands of incompatible formats (which are subject to change at a moment’s notice) then being able to retrieve it reliably based on a few snippets of information. Fugetaboutit. It can’t be done quickly, if at all, and certainly not done accurately. This is probably a good thing for the rest of us.

    Here’s an example. NSA get a whisper an evildoer named Bob Morris is plotting something nefarious. How many Bob Morris’ are there in the US? Thousands. Are they sure the Bob Morris is question isn’t using an alias or spoofing an identity? I get about 50 emails a month that were clearly meant for another Bob Morris. The probability of false positives is high when trying to make sense of data stored in a zillion different formats. Storing massive amounts of data is relatively simple compared to make sense of it.

  10. Gathering such information has one potential useful purpose. When someone runs for political office, all of his/her recorded communications/travel/etc. should be disclosed to voters to help them in making voting decisions, and clearly all the communications and travel of incumbent political office holders should be available to the public. They are our representatives. We pay them to do their job. They are supposed to be advocating for our interests. The public has a right to know everything about them. Everyone else deserves privacy.

  11. Here’s an idea: divert the billions of dollars used for surveillance and spend it on the school systems around the country. You take all the unemployed surveillance clowns, make them start teaching school. Even better: stop funding the government. How much more evidence is needed before blockheads finally realize you can’t just give money to people who never grew up, never did anything real, never sacrificed, never suffered, or never learned.

  12. There are a bunch of us, and our numbers are growing, who believe that our government is slowly growing out of control (*). Connecting the dots is not hard. While it is not the case that there is a government employee assigned to know everything about each of us, it is certainly the case that there are hundreds of government employees assigned to gather as much information about each of us as they can: TSA, NSA, IRS, HHS, FBI, etc. Government apologists will explain that this is all for our benefit: security, safety, demographic studies, economic trending, on and on and on.

    Now, let’s insert the “imperial presidency”. And the no-consequences under-oath lying to Congress of the leaders of the security organizations. And the unending delays of government in responding to subpoenas and in fulfilling FOIA requests. The limits of government authority steadily expand; the transparency of government decreases.

    Going back to the (*) in the first sentence. Control of the government by the people erodes each day. But control of the people by the government increases each day.

    How long before government stops working for us so that it can focus on working for itself?

    There are a bunch of us, and our numbers are growing, who believe that it’s already happened.

  13. wow all this info on citizens but illegal youth from who knows where, here to do who knows what just need an easily copied form from the border they just crossed illegally to fly all over the country. makes you proud of living in a place where the rule of law is so well followed eh? by the way make sure you check your scalp when you leave that airplane. you may have uninvited guests going home with you.

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