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At Justice, NSEERS Spells Data Chaos

By Jane Black I'm holding in my hands documents that don't exist, according to a Justice Dept. spokesman. The forms -- 21 pages worth -- are from 7 of the 76 regional bureaus of the Immigration & Naturalization Service, a bureaucracy formerly part of Justice that moved to the new Homeland Security Dept. on Mar. 1. These forms list anywhere from a dozen to three dozen questions presented to 130,000 males last winter, mostly Muslim immigrants required to "special register" with the INS so that the government could keep better tabs on foreign nationals.

Each form is different. All ask for basic descriptive information such as eye color, height, weight, and family history. But others go much further. In Arlington, Va., INS forms asked for personal bank-account and credit-card information. The Cleveland form asked immigrants on student visas to report any affiliations with campus social, religious, or political groups.

When I asked Justice spokesman Jorge Martinez about the documents I obtained from the American Immigration Law Foundation (AILF), an immigrant rights advocacy group, he declared: "Do not tell me you have forms. You do not. If you have something, it's something that Homeland Security created. As far as I'm concerned, those never existed."

QUESTIONS OF LEGALITY. Sorry, Mr. Martinez. You may not want to acknowledge the forms' existence, but immigration attorneys -- who accompanied clients to the INS in December and January -- made copies. Though INS officials were supposed to enter all information directly into a computer, attorneys reported that clients were often asked to fill out the government forms in the waiting room, according to the AILF. In some cases, immigrants were given the forms as a guide to questioning. Some forms have the INS logo at the top, others are untitled.

Why would Justice want to distance itself from all this? Special registration was just one part of the National Security Entry Exit Registration System (NSEERS), a Justice initiative that has now come under criticism for its chaotic implementation -- so chaotic that immigrant lawyer groups are now raising questions about its legality.

In December, immigrants who heeded orders to register in Los Angeles were inexplicably detained, some for up to three days (see BW Online, 1/23/03, "The INS Hurts Uncle Sam Most of All"). In New York, Tampa, and Atlanta, registrants reported that they were denied legal counsel if problems were discovered. Some fearful, confused immigrants refused to register at all. But Justice treated refusal to register as a criminal violation, under penalty of deportation.

"NO CONSISTENCY." Given this catch-22, personal privacy was probably the last thing on any immigrant's mind when this was going on. But the willy-nilly collection of data -- and subsequent denials by Justice that it required anything -- raises questions about whether federal law enforcement truly thought through data-management and privacy issues.

"There has been no consistency," says Traci Hong, an attorney at the AILF. "With all this personal information being collected, it's incumbent on [the government] to tell us what they're going to do with it -- in very specific terms. How will it be managed? How will they extract anything useful from all this information?"

The Homeland Security Dept. is loath to discuss continuing information-gathering, citing national-security concerns. A Homeland Security spokeswoman, however, who also expressed surprise at the forms being handed out by the INS when it was part Justice, confirmed that the information collected from special registrations like those carried out last winter will be stored in secure government databases along with arrival and departure information, and visitors' fingerprints and photos. The prints will be matched against those of known criminals as well as against a bank of so-called latent, or unidentified, fingerprints that have been collected by the U.S. government in al Qaeda safe houses, training camps, and in suspicious locations overseas.

EXTRA ID. Other information will be cross-checked with intelligence from 26 federal agencies that collect information on U.S. visitors. The data will be stored indefinitely, the spokesperson added. "I can't imagine that we would ever delete information. The goal is to create an individual record of everyone's travel to the U.S. so we can determine if someone overstays." Violators are subject to a 3- to 10-year ban from the U.S.

Controlling immigration is one thing. But why were INS officials in Baltimore, Memphis, and Arlington collecting bank-account and credit-card numbers? When asked whether they were used to track the flow of terrorist money, Justice spokesman Martinez said it was "probably" just used as a secondary form of ID, the same way a department store asks for a credit card and driver's license before accepting a personal check.

When asked why a secondary form of ID was necessary when fingerprints and photos were also being collected, his answer was "no comment."

WHY BOTHER? It's also unclear what will become of the very personal information collected in Cleveland: What will be done with data about students' political and religious activities? Will the names of their roommates end up on a Transportation Safety Administration no-fly list? (see BW Online, 4/17/03, "The System That Doesn't Safeguard Travel"). What could Homeland Security possibly want with information about how far workers lived from their places of employment, and what mode of transportation they used to get to and from work? Why would it even ask such questions?

Justice is proud that more than 800 criminal suspects and deportable convicts have been identified using NSEERS. But the outcry over its implementation has put its inheritor, Homeland Security, on the defensive. On Apr. 29, Secretary Thomas Ridge said he's dropping the acronym. No more NSEERS. From now on, the program will be called the U.S. Visitor & Immigration Status Indication Technology System, or US VISIT. The new system would monitor only immigrant entry and exit. And it would end the controversial domestic special registrations.

That's a good first step. But rebranding a chaotic, invasive system won't put the government's data house in order. Since December, it has collected reams of personal info on foreign students, visitors, workers, and people who want to live in the U.S. To date, the public has no clear idea about how the information will be used, who will have access to it, and what will happen to it when it's no longer needed. The government owes everyone an answer. Black covers privacy issues for BusinessWeek Online in her twice-monthly Privacy Matters column

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