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Won't this information only be used to combat terrorism?

Once data resides in the U.S. it is open to use by any number of systems and programmes designed to mine such information. According to the General Accounting Office, there are 199 data mining programs currently in place within the various departments of the U.S. Government. 122 of these use personal information, 54 of these use private-sector information such as credit card information and credit reports. The primary purposes of these systems include detecting fraud, waste, and abuse; detecting criminal activities or patterns; analyzing intelligence and detecting terrorist activities; and increasing tax compliance.1

The GAO also assessed the US-VISIT system in March 2004 and declared that it is "inherently risky because it is to perform a critical, multifaceted mission, its scope is large and complex, it must meet a demanding implementation schedule, and its potential cost is enormous." Pointing to other data collection and mining initiatives, the GAO warned that the project is ‘increasingly risky’.

The focus of every system deployed by the U.S. Government since September 2001 has moved well beyond countering terrorism. Passenger data transfers from the EU were originally intended for national security and aviation security purposes, but this quickly spread to prevention and detection of crime. CAPPS II, the now (relatively) defunct passenger profiling system was to be used to process all people for all crimes. It is therefore a tool to enforce immigration laws, among any number of other purposes, not to identify terrorists.

In 1996 Congress called on the Attorney General to develop an automated entry and exit monitoring system for foreigners. This was expanded significantly by the USA-PATRIOT Act that suggested the use of biometrics. The Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act (EBSVERA, the less sexily named law that took the USA-PATRIOT Act even further) called for the integration of VISIT with other databases.

This system is to be used for a plethora of purposes. These include national security, law enforcement, immigration control, and "other mission-related functions and to provide associated management reporting, planning and analysis." It will assist in:

    "identifying, investigating, apprehending, and/or removing aliens unlawfully entering or present in the United States; preventing the entry of inadmissible aliens into the United States; facilitating the legal entry of individuals into the United States; recording the departure of individuals leaving the United States; maintaining immigration control; preventing aliens from obtaining benefits to which they are not entitled; analyzing information gathered for the purpose of this and other DHS programs; or identifying, investigating, apprehending and prosecuting, or imposing sanctions, fines or civil penalties against individuals or entities who are in violation of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), or other governing orders, treaties or regulations and assisting other Federal agencies to protect national security and carry out other Federal missions."

This is not about terrorism; it is a sophisticated system of immigrant monitoring, amongst other things.

This information will be shared with other government departments and used in other programs of surveillance. This includes:

    • "to the appropriate agency/organization/task force, regardless of whether it is Federal, State, local, foreign, or tribal, charged with the enforcement (e.g., investigation and prosecution) of a law (criminal or civil), regulation, or treaty, of any record contained in this system of records which indicates either on its face, or in conjunction with other information, a violation or potential violation of that law, regulation, or treaty,"
    • "to other Federal, State, tribal, and local government law enforcement and regulatory agencies and foreign governments, and individuals and organizations"
    • during the course of an investigation or the processing of a matter, or during a proceeding within the purview of the immigration and nationality laws, to elicit information required by DHS to carry out its functions and statutory mandates
    • "in response to its request, in connection with the hiring or retention by such an agency of an employee, the issuance of a security clearance, the reporting of an investigation of such an employee, the letting a contract, or the issuance of a license, grant, loan, or other benefit by the requesting agency, to the extent that the information is relevant and necessary to the requesting agency’s decision in the matter."
    • "to assist such agencies in collecting the repayment or recovery of loans, benefits, grants, fines, bonds, civil penalties, judgments or other debts owed to them or to the United States Government, and/or to obtain information that may assist DHS in collecting debts owed to the United States government."

    amongst many other recipients.2

The U.S. Government has already made Visa information available to law enforcement officials across the country, including photographs of 20 million visa applicants. This 'sensitive' information will be shared with 100,000 investigators across the country who will have access to seven terabytes of data on foreigners.3 Access to this data is not merely intended to combat terrorism, but as stated above, to ensure that foreigners are in the U.S. legally. This process can be likened to a mass deployment of checkpoints across the country.

The integrity of these checks is questionable. The watchlists are numerous, and plagued with errors. Soldiers, ministers, and members of Congress (and anyone else with the name "T Kennedy") have been found to be on these lists, sometimes resulting in invasive searches and often resulting in deplaning or a refusal to permit boarding. The media stories and court cases to date have mostly focussed on U.S. citizens who have access to U.S. courts and who have standing in law; this is not the case for someone flying in to the U.S. who is sent back home after being wrongly identified. There are unclear procedures for placing someone's name on these lists, and even less clear procedures for removing names from these lists. Could we even imagine a process of oversight over these numerous lists?

With extensive profiling and data-mining the problem only gets worse. Consider the Multi- state Anti-TeRrorism Information eXchange (MATRIX) programme. This system combines information from government databases and private-sector data companies about individuals, and makes that data available for search by government officials. Officials can then comb through billions of files in a search for "anomalies" that may be indicative of terrorist or other criminal activity.4 The quality of the various information sources is demonstrably unsafe; but this information is combined nonetheless, including data from the FBI, and DHS, names and address record, driver license photos, links to associates, and even ethnicity. It was used in the months after September 11 to identify suspected terrorists residing in the U.S. Using a 'terrorist quotient' it identified 120,000 individuals who fit the 'characteristics' of a terrorist. Because of subsequent privacy concerns, two thirds of U.S. states that were originally part of the MATRIX programme have pulled out. Now US-VISIT, amongst other data mining programmes, threatens to supersede the discredited system.

None of these programmes are limited to combating terrorism, nor were many of them created with terrorism in mind. They are intended to increase surveillance for all purposes and reasons, while reducing oversight and accountability.


  • 1. GAO. 2004. Data Mining: Federal Efforts Cover a Wide Range of uses, GAO-04-548, May.
  • 2. Federal Register. 2003. DEPARTMENT OF HOMELAND SECURITY[DHS/ICE–CBP–CIS–001] Privacy
    Act of 1974; System of Records, Federal Register, Volume 68 Number 239. December 12.
  • 3. Lee, Jennifer 8. 2003. State Department Link Will Open Visa Database to Police Officers. The New York
    Times, January 31.
  • 4. Steinhardt, Barry. 2004. Privacy and The Matrix. Washington Post, May 27.