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FBI holds huge cache of traveler data

The FBI holds records on millions of individual travelers who flew in the period leading up to the 9/11 attacks, a privacy group that is challenging the bureau has revealed.
/ Source: The Associated Press

If you’re among the millions of Americans who took airline flights in the months before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the FBI probably knows about it — and possibly where you stayed, whom you traveled with, what credit card you used and even whether you ordered a kosher meal.

The bureau is keeping 257.5 million records on people who flew on commercial airlines from June through September 2001 in its permanent investigative database, according to information obtained by a privacy group and made available to The Associated Press.

Privacy advocates say they’re troubled by the possibility that the FBI could be analyzing personal information about people without their knowledge or permission.

'Vast amount of information'
“The FBI collected a vast amount of information about millions of people with no indication that they had done anything unlawful,” said Marcia Hofmann, attorney with the Electronic Privacy Information Center, which learned about the data through a Freedom of Information Act request.

“The fact that they’re hanging on to the information is inexcusable,” Hofmann said Friday.

FBI spokesman Bill Carter said the bureau was required to retain its records.

“There are rules that have been set by the National Archives with regard to the retention of records by government agencies,” Carter said.

Hofmann, though, said the FBI still had a legal responsibility to tell people that it had obtained information about them and to let them have access to it.

As part of its investigation into the terrorist attacks, the FBI asked for, and got, the records from a number of airlines shortly after Sept. 11. The FBI also got one set of data through a federal grand jury subpoena.

The privacy center in May requested records of the FBI’s acquisition of the data. The bureau last week turned over 12 pages of information, much of it blanked out for security reasons.

The 12 pages do show that the bureau obtained 82.1 million passenger manifests, or lists of people who flew on planes, between January and September 2001, in addition to the 257.5 million passenger name records.

Investigation melds data
Citing privacy concerns, the FBI didn’t reveal which airlines turned over the information, which airline employees turned it over and which FBI special agents got it.

The data are called passenger name records, or PNR, and can include a variety of information such as credit card numbers, travel itineraries, addresses, telephone numbers and meal requests.

David Hardy, the FBI’s chief of the record/information dissemination section of the records management division, said in a legal document dated Jan. 5 that the data were being stored and combined with other information from the Sept. 11 investigation, dubbed PENTTBOMB.

“I have been advised that the Airline Data Sets have been entered by the Cyber Division into a ‘Data Warehouse’ and have been intertwined for analytical purposes with the information from several other PENTTBOMB Data Sets,” Hardy wrote in a statement to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, where the privacy center filed its suit.

Hofmann, the attorney for the privacy group, said the FBI had a legitimate reason for collecting information to get a better picture of the hijackers’ travel patterns and possible associates.

But, she said, “it wouldn’t seem that there’s any reason to keep that information now.”

Public 'left out of the loop'
The FBI’s Carter said he couldn’t comment on what may be happening to the data because the bureau is involved in a lawsuit by the privacy center.

Daniel Solove, a George Washington University Law School professor and author of a book on privacy, said not enough is known about what the FBI is doing with the data to determine if there is a problem.

“Data just sits around, and who knows what people are doing with it?” Solove said. “The public is left completely out of the loop, not told what this data is for. The agency is basically saying, ‘Trust us.”’

Solove suggested there was irony in Congress’ last year ordering the FBI to more quickly purge information obtained in background checks of gun buyers. That, he said, can be useful in tracking down criminals.

“Congress wants to protect guns at great cost, but when it comes to privacy and civil liberties generally, it doesn’t register on the same level,” Solove said.