Just days before the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said his department and others were intensifying efforts to "identify unknown terrorist threats."
In a speech at Georgetown University, Chertoff said two programs which identify individuals who may be linked to terrorist activity through analyzing travel records as well as fingerprints which have been recovered at terrorist facilities, safehouses and on bomb fragments around the world, would be expanded.
Chertoff said that U.S. officials would be pushing European allies to provide greater amounts of airline passenger data in efforts to screen for potential terrorists who may not be on various watchlists maintained by U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies.
The information the U.S. is seeking from airlines and European countries has been a sticking point in anti-terrorism information sharing between the U.S. and European allies because of privacy concerns over passenger name record (PNR) data.
PNR data includes information in 30 over different fields, including reservation information, who booked the flight, payment methods and telephone information provided as part of the reservation booking.
PNR data is more complete than flight manifests, which DHS officials use to check against terrorism watchlists. Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, Congress passed a law which required air carriers to turn over PNR information to the government.
In his speech, Chertoff said PNRs are a powerful tool.
"We could determine if an individual has ever traveled with a known terrorist," he said, "if a person's ticket was purchased with funds connected to a suspected terrorist account or if an individual's phone number has been used to call a known or suspected terrorist."
Jim Dempsey of the Center for Democracy and Technology, an advocacy group for technology issues, thinks the government may be going too far with how it wants to use the data.
"DHS refuses to stop at the matching of the watchlist," Dempsey said. "They want to do more profiling to identify individuals."
However, last May, a European Union court struck down parts of an information-sharing program because it included PNR data. The court said the data exchanges had no legal basis and violated E.U. laws on data protection.
David Sobel, chief counsel for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights advocacy group, expressed some concern about the wide scope of the information sought by DHS officials. "This indicates there is a massive collection of information ... a cross-check of personal data," he said.
DHS officials say they are limited in what they can do with information they obtain from the airlines. The records must be destroyed after three years and they cannot be shared with other government agencies such as the FBI or CIA. Homeland Security officials would like to receive PNR data on a more timely basis and be able to share it with U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies.
U.S. to Visitors: Give Us Ten Fingers Instead of Two
Chertoff also announced that the U.S. would be seeking to obtain more fingerprint information from people who visit the United States for the first time.
"What we are going to do starting this fall for those who want to come to the United States is, at least on their first visit, collect ten fingerprints, not just two," Chertoff said Since the beginning of 2004, only two fingerprints have been required of visitors for entry to the United States.
"Every single terrorist who has ever been in a safe house or a training camp or built a bomb is going to have to ask...'Have I ever left a fingerprint anywhere in the world that's been captured?" Chertoff said.
Despite the government efforts to gather more intricate information on potential terrorist suspects, some privacy advocates believe not enough is being done to address conventional threats such as explosive detection methods.
"There has been too much focus on data collection and not enough on bomb detection," said Mark Rotenberg, executive director for the Electronic Privacy Information Center.