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Introduction: Governing by risk in the war on terror


In December 2006, a new computer-based screening program called Automated Targeting System (ATS), deployed by the US to screen international travelers at all air, land and sea borders, became the subject of public discussion. ATS was developed for the specific purpose of screening cargo and container shipments into US ports, assigning a risk score to all imports in advance of their arrival at the border. As the Department of Homeland Security’s Privacy Impact Assessment for ATS states, the risk assessments enable the ‘‘identification of previously unknown areas of note, concern or pattern’’ (2006: 9). The system for identifying ‘‘unknown’’ threats in mobile goods and objects has now been exported in full to the risk management of mobile people at US borders. ATS analyzes a variety of passenger data – including address, financial records, ‘‘no show’’ history, how tickets were purchased, motor vehicle records, past one-way travel and seating preference – in order to assign a risk score to individual travelers. The score is used to determine whether passengers or border crossers are placed on a ‘‘selectee list’’ for further attention, stopped and questioned at the border or, indeed, denied entry. The risk assessment calculation in ATS is classified, and the results can be kept on file for up to forty years (Sniffen 2006). Civil liberties groups voiced objection to the program. According to

Barry Steinhardt of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), ATS casts suspicion on millions of innocent travelers, while seriously threatening privacy and constitutional liberties. While the system explicitly seeks to

make visible an unknown person who would not otherwise be seen, assigning a risk value to every recoverable life transaction, the risk calculation itself is never made visible. Because the system screens the entire population of travelers in the search for the ‘‘unknown terrorist,’’ people can never meaningfully access, challenge or correct their risk category. One of Steinhardt’s concerns is the absence of limits to the data authorities may want to access for security screening. ‘‘Does the government get to scrutinize every address at which you’ve ever lived?’’ wonders Steinhardt (2007), ‘‘Quiz you about the fact that you once went for 12 months without a job? About your web surfing, your online book purchases, your school transcripts . . . your associations?’’ However, Stewart Baker (2006) of the Department of Homeland Security

asserts that ATS has been successful in turning back individuals who pose a high security risk while offering ‘‘faster service for most travelers.’’ Baker reveals that the most important feature of ATS is its ability to do ‘‘a quick link analysis’’ that checks travelers against terrorism watch lists, so being able to identify, for example, ‘‘travelers who gave the airline a phone number that’s also used by a known terrorist.’’ Baker concludes by emphasizing the need to connect the dots of available data, suggesting that data analysis may have prevented 9/11:

This is a lesson we learned from September 11. After-the-fact reviews of the hijackers’ travel reservations showed that we might have been able to uncover the plot if we’d had better computer systems and better access to travel data . . . We didn’t connect those dots before 9/11, but we should have. We learned that lesson, and now ATS allows us to look for these links.