DHS collects -- and keeps -- large amount of information on U.S. citizens traveling abroad

Published 14 September 2009

Are you an American citizen frequently traveling abroad? You may be surprised by how much of your personal information DHS collects — and stores; now you have a way of finding out

How frequently do you travel internationally? If so, you may be surprised to discover what information DHS collects and stores when you travel abroad. According to the blog Philosecurity, DHS’s Customs and Border Protection (CBP) stores a surprising amount of personal information on international travelers underneath its Automated Targeting System (ATS).

International travelers flying into or out of the United States can expect this information to be collected and stored by DHS, reports the blog:

  • Credit card number and expiration
  • IP address used to make web travel reservations
  • Hotel information and itinerary
  • Full name, birth date, and passport number
  • Full airline itinerary, including flight numbers and seat numbers
  • Cruise ship itinerary
  • Phone numbers, including business, home, and cell
  • Every frequent flyer and hotel number associated with the subject, even ones not used for the specific reservation

Matthew Harwood reports that Philosecurity posted this information after a reader sent in his passenger name record (PNR) in the ATS database after filing a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for his/her records (you can view the full travel record, here. Portions of it have been redacted by DHS as well as the recipient to protect sensitive information).

According to a DHS Privacy Impact Assessment from 2006, CBP collects such personally identifiable information because it enhances the agency’s “ability to identify possible violations of U.S. law or other threats to national security would be critically impaired without access to this data.” 

The program also collects and stores information regarding land border crossings as well as people involved with the import and export of cargo.

Nearly two years ago, the Washington Post reported that the ATS database held much more information than previously revealed by the federal government, including what travelers brought to read during their trip. Retention of such data has brought civil liberty concerns.

The Automated Targeting System has been used to screen passengers since the mid-1990s, but the collection of data for it has been greatly expanded and automated since 2002, according to former DHS officials.

Officials yesterday defended the retention of highly personal data on travelers not involved in or linked to any violations of the law. But civil liberties advocates have alleged that the type of information preserved by the department raises alarms about the government’s ability to intrude into the lives of ordinary people. The millions of travelers whose records are kept by the government are generally unaware of what their records say, and the government has not created an effective mechanism for reviewing the data and correcting any errors, activists said.

The activists alleged that the data collection effort, as carried out now, violates the Privacy Act, which bars the gathering of data related to Americans’ exercise of their First Amendment rights, such as their choice of reading material or persons with whom to associate. They also expressed concern that such personal data could one day be used to impede their right to travel.

The Post also told of an individual, Zakariya Reed, who has been stopped at the border at least seven times in approximately one year’s time. During two of those stops, the CBP officers questioned Reed about “politically charged” op-eds he wrote for his local paper that were critical of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. Once, during a secondary screening interview, officers “had them printed out on the table in front of me.”

For anyone interested in requesting their travel records from the CBP’s ATS database, Edward Hasbrouck, a.k.a The Practical Nomad, has prepared a privacy request form with a bit of advice on how to send it.