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Travel surveillance: USA calls for global PNR standard and seeks to export profiling software
10.12.18
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The USA is pushing for the adoption of an international standard on Passenger Name Record (PNR) data in order to "enhance the global security community’s ability to identify risks, detect and deter terrorism," while the country's Department of Homeland Security is promoting free passenger screening software that should “make real-time prediction[s] with a reasonable response time” of less than a second.

Global PNR standard

In a working paper presented to the ICAO's 'Second High-Level Conference on Aviation Security' held in Montreal at the end of November, the United States' delegation said that "more work must
be done to ensure widespread use of PNR to help identify high-risk and potential terrorist travel prior to arrival on our collective shores."

The paper invited the conference to "acknowledge the need for ICAO to establish a Standard(s) regarding the collection, use and analysis of PNR data" and called for its development to be prioritised.

See: PNR Standard(s) (Presented by the United States) (pdf)

According to a brief report published by Politico on 3 December:

"The topic of passenger name record data collection dominated discussions at the ICAO high-level conference for aviation security, which came to a close on Friday. The United States pressed for a global standard for gathering passenger data – a position supported by at least eight other nations but that had others worried about how they might protect the information..."

See: 'Final despatch from ICAO' in Federal advisory committee meetings galore (Politico, link)

The United States states along with seven other states and the International Air Transport Association (IATA) also put forward a position at the conference on "elevating aviation security and facilitation within ICAO," calling for "ICAO to re-evaluate the priority of aviation security and to elevate the portfolio accordingly."

See: Elevating aviation security and facilitation within ICAO (Presented by the United States, Australia, Brazil, Canada, New Zealand, Qatar, South Africa, United Arab Emirates and the International Air Transport Association) (pdf)

Further documentation from the ICAO meeting is available here (ICAO, link).

Exporting profiling software

At the same time, the USA Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is working in partnership with a Virginia-based software company to develop an automated profiling system that it hopes to integrate into the "Global Travel Assessment System, or GTAS, a toolchain that has been released as open source software and which is designed to make it easy for other countries to quickly implement no-fly lists like those used by the U.S.," according to a report in The Intercept.

The article states:

The new DHS program will give foreign airports around the world free software that teaches itself who the bad guys are, continuing society’s relentless swapping of human judgment for machine learning. DataRobot, a northern Virginia-based automated machine learning firm, won a contract from the department to develop “predictive models to enhance identification of high risk passengers” in software that should “make real-time prediction[s] with a reasonable response time” of less than one second, according to a technical overview that was written for potential contractors and reviewed by The Intercept. The contract assumes the software will produce false positives and requires that the terrorist-predicting algorithm’s accuracy should increase when confronted with such mistakes. DataRobot is currently testing the software, according to a DHS news release.

It also notes:

Verrico’s assurance — that the watchlist software is an outward-aiming tool provided to foreign governments, not a means of domestic surveillance — is an interesting feint given that Americans fly through non-American airports in great numbers every single day. But it obscures ambitions much larger than GTAS itself: The export of opaque, American-style homeland security to the rest of the world and the hope of bringing every destination in every country under a single, uniform, interconnected surveillance framework. Why go through the trouble of sifting through the innumerable bodies entering the United States in search of “risky” ones when you can move the whole haystack to another country entirely? A global network of terrorist-scanning predictive robots at every airport would spare the U.S. a lot of heavy, politically ugly lifting.

See: Homeland Security Will Let Computers Predict Who Might Be a Terrorist on Your Plane — Just Don’t Ask How It Works (The Intercept, link)

This would appear to tie in neatly with the plan to introduce an international PNR standard.

In the EU, any such standard would supplement the work already done to implement the 2016 PNR Directive, which introduces the mandatory surveillance and profiling of almost all passengers flying into, out of and within the EU.

In July this year the European Commission announced the launch of infringement proceedings against Member States that had failed to implement the legislation by the May 2018 deadline.

Further reading

Travel surveillance: Commission demands PNR Directive implementation by 14 Member States as 'Informal Working Group' settles in (23 July 2018)

Travel surveillance: 13 Member States have implemented the PNR Directive so far, 10 will apply it to intra-EU flights (13 June 2018)

PNR Directive: Member States want to go beyond EU rules and share "additional information" (5 October 2017)

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