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The Sky-High Surveillance of Global Entry and TSA
Beneath the Surface of Convenience: Unveiling the Extent of Monitoring and Data Use
The attraction of skipping lengthy security lines has turned the Transportation Security Administration's (TSA) Global Entry program into a sought-after privilege for international travelers. However, as enrollment numbers surge, concerns about data privacy and civil liberties are growing more prominent.
Established in 2008, the Global Entry program provides expedited customs processing to travelers deemed low-risk upon their return to the United States. The prospect of breezing through winding queues after a long international journey is undeniably enticing.
Nevertheless, the very systems designed for efficiency have become subjects of debate.
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To qualify for Global Entry, applicants undergo comprehensive background checks and in-person interviews. The TSA and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) collect extensive personal information, including biometrics such as fingerprints, and retain this data for future comparisons and potential law enforcement purposes.
While this data collection is presented as a necessary measure for national security, privacy advocates caution against the very real risks it carries. The scope of information gathering is extensive and unprecedented, lacking robust oversight and clear limitations, making it susceptible to misuse.
Additional concerns stem from the program's discretionary disqualification process. While the TSA specifies reasons for disqualification, such as criminal convictions, it also mentions the potential consideration of other factors. Civil rights advocates fear that this discretion could open the door to discrimination based on various criteria.
Furthermore, once your information is within the TSA's system, its onward journey becomes uncertain. The concern is that, in the absence of rigorous safeguards, this data could be shared with other government agencies, local law enforcement, or even foreign governments.
This issue extends beyond Global Entry; it symbolizes broader societal questions. How much privacy are we willing to sacrifice for the sake of convenience? And how can we ensure that technological advancements, often praised for their efficiency, do not trample on individual rights?
These questions are growing more urgent as our world becomes increasingly interconnected and data-driven, offering more opportunities for the use—and potential misuse—of personal information.
While the advantages of programs like Global Entry are undeniable, the associated trade-offs are significant. For many, the allure of saving time during travel overshadows concerns about potential data misuse. Nevertheless, as travelers, it is crucial to understand the implications of our consent.
For agencies like the TSA, the challenge lies in striking a balance between the imperative of security and the protection of individual privacy and rights. Increased transparency, well-defined data usage policies, and robust oversight can help build trust and ensure that convenience does not come at the expense of civil liberties.
The swiftness and convenience offered by Global Entry are undoubtedly tempting. However, they serve as a reminder that in this digital era, we must always weigh the benefits of convenience against the potential repercussions of diminished privacy.
The finer details in the annual report of the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) have revealed the substantial cost of convenience when provided to travelers by a federal agency.
Specifically, individuals holding the Global Entry pass are subject to government monitoring on a daily basis, even when their activities have no relation to travel. Interestingly, this practice is officially referred to as “constant review,” and the details can be found within the DHS document, which includes the phrase “consent is implied.”
Becoming a Global Entry member involves undergoing biometric scans, a vetting process, and a $100 fee for the privilege. Subsequently, individuals are subjected to “checks” every 24 hours, regardless of whether they are currently flying or have any travel plans in the works.
This revelation may come as an unwelcome surprise to those who believed that providing their biometric data was solely for the sake of airport convenience and assumed that once outside of airports and aircraft, they would no longer be under DHS surveillance. In reality, this is not the case whatsoever.
There's not much in the way of truly surprising revelations here, as the nature of these programs has been fairly evident for some time now. However, the sheer magnitude of these operations may leave some baffled.
For air travelers, it presents a predicament - they are under surveillance if they are not enrolled in the Global Pass or TSA PreCheck programs. Yet, if they are part of these programs, this particular "feature" becomes more prominent and extends beyond their travel-related activities.
This monitoring applies to both international and domestic flights, impacting tens of millions of Americans.
According to the DHS report, Global Entry has both admitted and removed a significant number of individuals from the program, which currently oversees the “checking” of over seven million travelers. When combined with the TSA PreEntry program, this figure rises to approximately 31 million.
These programs have gained substantial popularity, with over 10 million hopeful members waiting for their applications to be approved in fiscal year 2022. This surge in applications can be attributed, in part, to the restrictive measures and heightened fear campaigns during the pandemic.
One notable result of this trend is that the number of new applicants in 2022 exceeded that of the pre-pandemic year 2019 by a staggering 3 million.
The so-called “perk” for passengers deemed “trusted” by authorities, aside from the convenience of “expedited travel,” ironically reveals that they are not truly considered trusted individuals.
The report highlights that in the year leading up to October 2022, approximately 12,000 members of the Global Entry program were removed from it. The Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency within the DHS indicated that the majority of these cases were linked to individuals undergoing investigations, flagging, or changes in their status as detected by DHS computers, whether at the federal, state, or local law enforcement levels.
Furthermore, it has been disclosed that significant law enforcement databases are reviewed daily for any updates, but only if you are a Global Entry customer. DHS appears to adopt an “open-book” approach, believing it has “nothing to hide.” The report asserts that this measure showcases the effectiveness of the GE trusted traveler program in promptly incorporating changes in a traveler's risk status.
Meanwhile, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), another agency under the DHS umbrella, handles domestic travel within the United States. This encompasses roughly two million individuals daily who undergo not only screening for terrorist watchlists and no-fly lists but also checks against TSA's internal watchlist, identifying individuals who “may” pose a threat to either transportation or national security.
But that's not all – the TSA hasn't overlooked train passengers either. According to the DHS report, both the TSA and Amtrak are actively working on “strategies for vetting rail passengers.”
It's no surprise that these policies and their implementation have garnered numerous critics. In the United States, there have been congressional efforts to halt the use of biometrics in this context, at least until the security of collected data can be guaranteed.
However, the TSA remains resolute in its stance, refusing to pause the use of facial recognition. It supports its position by referencing public opinion polls that suggest travelers themselves are proponents of surveillance.
This was the case before these recent revelations, and it's likely to continue being so.
The true power to shape this world has always lain in your hands. Choose well!
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