WASHINGTON (CN) - U.S. Customs and Border Protection refuses to explain the analytical methods it uses to catch illegal aliens and contraband crossing the border, according to a government watchdog that claims the process could infringe on civil liberties.
The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) sued Customs and Border Protection - an arm of the Department of Homeland Security - in Federal Court on July 18, for failing to respond to its Freedom of Information Act request.
EPIC claims the federal government released its "Analytical Framework for Intelligence," or AFI, in 2012.
"According to the DHS, the AFI allows CBP to identify individuals, associations, relationships, and cargo 'that may pose a potential law enforcement or security risk'; to prevent 'the illegal entry of people and goods'; to conduct 'additional research on persons and/or cargo' for patterns that indicate law enforcement or security risks; and to share final intelligence projects within DHS," the complaint states.
Concerned about the various sources from which Customs is pulling its intelligence, EPIC submitted a request for records on AFI in April, and filed its lawsuit after the agency kept quiet long past the 20 days it had to respond.
EPIC says the agency has awarded $178.2 million in contracts related to AFI, which cost $51.5 million to develop.
According to the complaint, AFI is composed of a bevy of personally identifiable information, giving the agency's analysts source data to "conduct link analysis, anomaly detection, change detection analysis, temporal analysis, pattern analysis, and predictive modeling."
The complaint adds: "Substantial concerns have been raised about the development of AFI, including sourcing data created within other CBP systems, data sharing, and privacy issues."
EPIC claims that privacy impact assessments on the project reveal the program's ability to tap into other sources, such as news media and the Internet.
"Individuals have strong expressive interests in their online activity," EPIC says. "If expressive activity is used as the basis for increased scrutiny at the border, serious First Amendment concerns may be implicated. The public should be informed about what types of information are being uploaded, from what sources, and how such information is being used."
The group says that CBP could use this information to assess risk, providing its officers with information that could tip them off to potential contraband or illegal aliens crossing the border.
"Individuals having information within ATS are not notified of their risk assessment because DHS has exempted ATS from the 'notification, access, amendment, and certain accounting procedures of the Privacy Act[.]'
CBP should make public the basis of the Automated Targeting System 'risk assessments' within the Analytical Framework for Intelligence," the group says.
EPIC wants the court to order the government to address its request, and pay it attorney fees.
EPIC is represented by in-house attorney Ginger McCall.