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Opinion: Why the DHS's automated target system makes sense

Fix the flaws and ensure that customs agents have the best data to weed out terrorists

By Ira Winkler
December 19, 2006 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - There's been a lot of criticism about the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Automated Targeting System, a terrorist-ranking system for airline passengers, but I don't see anything wrong with it in principle.

The ATS, as it is known, supposedly takes the Passenger Name Records (PNR), basically a flight reservation record, of international travelers, and gives each passenger a score on the likelihood that he or she could be a terrorist. Fundamentally, I don't see a problem with this.

I should make a few disclaimers, though. If there are laws being violated, or if the activity requires a law to allow for it, then the program should be immediately halted. This means that the program is illegal, and the appropriate investigations should be performed.

Likewise, I think the ATS needs to be studied to determine whether too many people are irrationally singled out as potential terrorists. This doesn't mean the program should be abandoned. It just means that the weaknesses in the program should be identified and fixed. I also believe the 40-year retention of records is a major waste of resources.

I recently got back from a trip to Europe, and after hearing the worst about ATS, I have to admit that I came to appreciate it. I probably score very low on the terrorist scale, so for me, the system creates a fast path through customs and immigration, just like it apparently did for many individuals who were also racing through international arrivals.

I would have to assume that the factors in my favor include a high-level status in frequent-flier programs, paying for tickets with established credit cards, and ironically, making frequent international trips. The only time I had a problem going through customs and immigration, since the ATS was implemented, was when an overly suspicious immigrations agent had a hard time believing that I traveled to Amsterdam for less than a day and wasn't bringing drugs back into the country.

Frankly, this is the way it should be. You don't want government employees having to make a lot of their own evaluations of people on the spot, especially when they have the reality of hundreds, maybe thousands, of passengers going through the system every hour. A system that looks at the available facts and automates the thought processes of experienced agents can help agents of all experience levels. Even the best agents cannot consistently deliver quality evaluations. The ATS, in principle, just makes a lot of sense.

Many people may remember that I was highly critical of the U.S. National Security Agency's domestic spying activities. Let's compare the two programs, so you can see what the major differences are, with the ATS being infinitely more legitimate than the NSA's "program."

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