washington -- The U.S. government is collecting electronic records on the travel habits of millions of Americans who fly, drive or take cruises abroad, retaining data on the people with whom they travel or plan to stay, the personal items they carry during their journeys, and the books that travelers have carried, according to documents obtained by a group of civil liberties advocates and statements by government officials.
The personal travel records are meant to be stored for as long as 15 years, as part of the Department of Homeland Security's effort to assess the security threat posed by all travelers entering the country. Officials say the records, analyzed by the department's Automated Targeting System, help border officials distinguish potential terrorists from innocent people.
New details about the information being retained suggest that the government is monitoring the personal habits of travelers more closely than it has acknowledged before.
The details were discovered when a group of activists requested copies of official records on their own travel. Those records included a description of a book on marijuana that one of them carried and small flashlights bearing the symbol of a marijuana leaf.
The Automated Targeting System has been used to screen passengers since the mid-1990s, but its data collection has been greatly expanded and automated since 2002, according to former Homeland Security officials.
The millions of ordinary travelers whose records are kept by the government are generally unaware of what their records say, and the government has not created an effective mechanism for reviewing the data and correcting any errors, civil liberties activists say.
The activists allege that the data collection effort, as carried out now, violates the Privacy Act, which bars the gathering of data related to Americans' exercise of their 1st Amendment rights, such as their choice of reading material or people with whom they associate. Activists also express concern that such personal data could one day be used to impede people's right to travel.
"The federal government is trying to build a surveillance society," said John Gilmore, a civil liberties activist in San Francisco whose records were requested by the Identity Project, an ad-hoc group of privacy advocates in California and Alaska.
The government, he said, "may be doing it with the best or worst of intentions. . . . But the job of building a surveillance database and populating it with information about us is happening largely without our awareness and without our consent."
Gilmore's file, which he provided to the Washington Post, included a note from a Customs and Border Patrol officer that he carried the marijuana-related book "Drugs and Your Rights."
Homeland Security officials said this week that the government was not interested in passengers' reading habits and that the program was transparent and allowed redress for travelers inappropriately stymied. "We are completely uninterested in the latest Tom Clancy novel that the traveler may be reading," department spokesman Russ Knocke said.