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European Lawmaker Sues U.S. Agencies to Obtain Travel-Related and Other Personal Information

PRESS RELEASE
July 1, 2008
Lawsuit Tests U.S. Assurances of Access Rights for EU Citizens

Washington, D.C. - The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) filed suit on behalf of a member of the European Parliament today, demanding that the U.S. government release records about her "risk assessment" score and other information gathered about her during her international travels. The lawsuit comes just days after the disclosure that the U.S. and the European Union may soon finalize an agreement authorizing the transatlantic exchange of large amounts of personal data.

Sophia In 't Veld represents the Netherlands in the European Parliament and serves on the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice, and Home Affairs. She has been actively engaged in developing policies concerning the exchange of travelers' data between the U.S. and the European Union (EU).

During the ongoing and contentious debates between the U.S. and the EU over travelers' records and the privacy rights of EU citizens, the U.S. government has repeatedly claimed that any person can obtain her records through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. To test those assurances, In 't Veld filed FOIA requests with the Homeland Security, Justice, and State Departments, asking for any information about her that is included in the various U.S. programs and systems used to track international travelers. However, the agencies have failed to comply with the requests as required by federal law.

"The question of redress is the sticking point in the current discussions about data exchanges between the United States and the EU," said In 't Veld. "That dispute underscores the importance of this case; it shows that gaining access to personal data held by U.S. agencies is very difficult, if not impossible."

Among other records, In 't Veld specifically requested data about herself that is included in the Automated Targeting System (ATS) -- a Department of Homeland Security project that creates and assigns "risk assessment" scores to travelers as they enter and leave the U.S. Once the assessment is made, there is no way to challenge it, and the government will retain the information for many years -- as well as make it available to federal, state, local, and foreign agencies in addition to contractors, grantees, consultants, and others.

"Ms. In 't Veld's experience shows the inaccuracy of U.S. assurances that EU citizens can gain easy access to personal information held in agency databases," said EFF Senior Counsel David Sobel. "The truth is that it is virtually impossible for any individuals --even U.S. citizens -- to access information about themselves that is collected and maintained by American security agencies. It's important that EU officials and citizens understand the reality of the situation before moving forward with a sweeping agreement on the exchange of sensitive personal data."

This FOIA lawsuit is part of EFF's ongoing work to protect travelers from privacy-invasive programs at the U.S. border. EFF has also filed suit against DHS for denying access to public records on the questioning and searches of travelers at U.S. borders and called on Congress to investigate the random, suspicionless searches of laptops and electronic devices.

For the full complaint:
http://www.eff.org/files/int_veld_complaint.pdf

For more on the U.S./EU data sharing agreement:
http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/28/washington/28privacy.html

For more on travel screening:
http://www.eff.org/issues/travel-screening

For more on FOIA:
http://www.eff.org/issues/foia

Contacts:

David Sobel
Senior Counsel
Electronic Frontier Foundation
sobel@eff.org

Marcia Hofmann
Staff Attorney
Electronic Frontier Foundation
marcia@eff.org

Rebecca Jeschke
Media Coordinator
Electronic Frontier Foundation
press@eff.org

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