Tuesday, 24 March 2009
Stasi HQ UK... where details of all your journeys are secretly logged and kept for a decade
By Jason Lewis
First published 21st March 2009
This anonymous office building on a business park near Heathrow Airport is where the Government has begun monitoring millions of British holidaymakers using its controversial new 'terrorist detector' database.
The top-secret computer system - tied into the airlines' ticketing network - makes judgments about travel habits and passengers' friends and family to decide if they are a security risk.
Like something from a science-fiction film, the Home Office has designed it to spot a 'criminal' or terrorist before they have done anything wrong.
Status Park 4
Snoop centre: The 'Status Park 4' building near Heathrow monitors travellers
The building's address is, some might say sinisterly, called Status Park 4.
But the intrusiveness of the system at the heart of Government's so-called 'e-Borders' scheme has provoked such fury among civil liberties campaigners that some consider it akin to a modern-day Stasi headquarters.
All the information passengers give to travel agents, including home addresses, telephone numbers, email addresses, passport details and the names of family members, is shared with an unknown number of Government agencies for 'analysis' and stored for up to ten years.
But even as the 'profiling' system goes live, its reliability is being called into question.
An internal Home Office document obtained by The Mail on Sunday reveals that during testing one 'potential suspect' turned out to be an airline passenger with a spinal injury flying into Britain with his nurse.
'Suspect' requests likely to cause innocent holidaymakers to get 'red flags' as potential terrorists include ordering a vegetarian meal, asking for an over-wing seat and travelling with a foreign-born husband or wife.
The system will also 'red flag' passengers buying a one-way ticket and making a last-minute reservation and those with a history of booking tickets and not showing up for the flights.
A previous history of travel to the Middle East, Pakistan, Afghanistan or Iran will also trigger an alarm, as will those with a record of sponsoring an immigrant from any of these countries.
Starting during the Easter holiday rush, millions of people will be checked by the new National Border Targeting Centre (NBTC).
By the end of the year the NBTC, which is recruiting 250 staff, will have been relocated to another office near Manchester Airport and will be analysing the movements of 120million UK travellers.
Initially it will target airlines but will be expanded to check passengers on ferries and trains, including some journeys within the UK.
At the heart of the system is a highly classified computer algorithm designed to pick out people to be searched, questioned by security staff or barred from flying.
An internal Home Office Border and Immigration Agency document explains how Britain's new system will work.
Written by Tim Rymer, head of the Joint Border Operations Centre, the forerunner to the new NBTC, it explains how it will use 'Passenger Name Record' (PNR) information given when travellers buy a ticket.
The document, written in March last year after a trial examining 30million passengers, reveals: 'PNR is checked against profiles of behavioural patterns which indicate risk activity.
Status Park 4 sign
Not welcome: The sign at the entrance to the HQ
'Profiles are run to identify behaviour, not to identify individuals, and are based on evidence and intelligence.'
Mr Rymer revealed that the information secured from the airlines for e-Borders would then also be available to other unnamed Government departments and held for up to ten years.
He wrote: 'E-Borders acts as a single window for carriers to provide data to Government.'
The system is bound to cause concerns about the handling of confidential personal data.
But Mr Rymer reported that he was 'confident our use of PNR data is proportionate and complies with robust data-protection safeguards'.
Intending to show how his team double-checked the computerised suspect reports, Mr Rymer admitted: 'Profiling identified a potential suspect; however further examination of his booking details revealed that the passenger was suffering from a spinal injury and was being escorted by a nurse.
'In this way the PNR information enabled the passenger to be eliminated from the profile match.'
Others flagged up then eliminated as suspects included travellers with comments on their bookings including: 'Please treat passenger with sensitivity - death in the family' or 'Wheelchair requested - broken leg'.
The system was originally designed to identify suspect freight shipments.
Until now international no-fly lists have been based on painstaking intelligence and people's criminal records.
But the Border and Immigration Agency's new 'rule-based targeting' system works by building up a complete picture of passengers' travel history and the detailed information they give to airlines and travel agencies when booking a flight.
It compares these answers and requests to other government databases and also shares the information with other countries around the world. The computer then makes value judgments about whether peculiar decisions and requests fit its secret terrorist or criminal profiles.
In the United States, where the Department of Homeland Security has been running a similar system for several years, people with a poor driving record have been subjected to further checks.
The American system has also been criticised for awarding so-called 'terrorism points' to passengers depending on their level of 'suspicious' travel activity.
The Home Office argues the e-Borders system will 'transform our border control to ensure greater security, effectiveness and efficiency'.
'To do so,' the department says, 'we will make full use of the latest technology to provide a way of collecting and analysing information on everyone who travels to or from the United Kingdom.'
But the UK system, and others across Europe that all share their passenger data, are facing increasing criticism.
The EU's Home Affairs Committee is currently carrying out an inquiry examining whether the use of profiling, particularly when it focuses on particular ethnic groups, is illegal.
In searching for terrorists, and flagging people who have travelled to the Middle East or Pakistan, the system is likely to pick out a high proportion of Muslims.
In its initial report the EU committee says using this data is against EU regulations and the practice is leading to a lack of trust in law enforcement and the fear of discrimination.
It adds that it is 'concerned [the] system providing for the collection of personal data of passengers travelling to the EU could provide a basis for profiling...on the basis of race or ethnicity'.
And the EU report continues: 'Repeated concerns raised by the [European] Parliament in connection with racial, ethnic and behavioural profiling in the context of data protection, law-enforcement co-operation, exchange of data and intelligence, aviation and transport security, immigration and border management and anti-discrimination measures have not so far been adequately addressed.'