A prominent privacy advocate has withdrawn its lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security after the federal agency provided thousands of pages of documents about the government’s system to track the location of boats across the nation.
But the group still isn’t happy with the government’s plan for a federal database containing the information.
The Electronic Privacy Information Center said this week it settled its Freedom of Information Act lawsuit with DHS over the “Nationwide Automatic Identification Systems,” which tracks and locates boaters.
But the organization said that according to documents it obtained, the DHS believes boaters have “no expectation of privacy with regard to any information transmitted” about the location of their boats.
“The documents also reveal that the agency fuses tracking data with other government data to develop detailed profiles on boaters, EPIC did not object to the use of NAIS for marine safety; the concern is government surveillance. EPIC has also opposed a DHS plan to collect and maintain records on sea travelers,” the group said.
The government documents reveal the feds formally declared it will shared the boater information with “both governmental and non-governmental entities.”
WND previously reported EPIC was challenging the program on the grounds that it “exceeds the stated purpose of marine safety and constitutes an ongoing risk to the privacy and civil liberties of boaters across the United States.”
The focus is the Nationwide Automatic Identification System, which is set up to “collect, integrate and analyze information concerning vessels operating on or bound for waters subject [to] United States jurisdiction.”
“We respect the important work of the Coast Guard and also understand the value of AIS for collision avoidance, but the program goes far beyond marine safety,” explained EPIC President Marc Rotenberg at the time.
The data about boaters, the organization claims, would be transferred by the DHS to other federal agencies, state agencies and even foreign governments. Much of it could even be made public.
EPIC said the Boat U.S. Foundation, a large coalition of recreational boaters, warned the program “raises an array of confidentiality concerns with regard to the recreational boating public.”
Few boaters, they noted, would be aware that their detailed location information would be handed over to a variety of parties in addition to other boaters and the Coast Guard.
Rotenberg said: “The collection and disclosure of personal information by a federal agency raises significant questions about compliance with federal privacy law. The Coast Guard failed to fulfill its obligations under the federal Privacy Act and also never undertook a required Privacy Impact Assessment.”
There are an estimated 12 million registered boats in the U.S., used by an estimated 70 million people.
“A sailor’s Good Samaritan effort to share location data will automatically enroll them in a data bank that tracks all of their movements,” said Ralph Naranjo, former Vanderstar Chair at the U.S. Naval Academy.
The government plan cites different levels of information sharing, including “public requests.”
It also provides that the data will be turned over for “fusion” and be distributed “as appropriate.”
EPIC started looking into the government’s plans last year and reported that transceivers are located near 58 U.S. ports and 11 U.S. coastal areas to gather information from vessels equipped with a collision avoidance system.
Vessels 65 feet or longer are required to have the system, and “owners of smaller craft can also opt to use it.”
Currently, some 12,700 vessels are monitored thousands of times each day.
The organization said NAIS is advertised as a tool to “improve[e] maritime security, marine and navigational safety, search and rescue, and environmental protection services.”
However, the system also poses a significant threat to privacy, EPIC said.
“The USCG has said, for example, that information collected through NAIS is ‘combined with other government intelligence and surveillance information to form a holistic, over-arching view of maritime traffic,'” the organization said.
EPIC said its opposition is to “government databases of personal data that fail to comply with federal privacy laws.”
“The Privacy Act of 1974 requires all federal agencies that maintain a system of records to publish the details of such record systems in the Federal Register. The publication must describe the intended uses of the system, the policies and practices governing the records, and the procedures agencies must follow to give individuals access to their records,” EPIC said.
“The E-Government Act of 2002 requires agencies to perform Privacy Impact Assessments (‘PIA’). PIAs are required when ‘developing or procuring information technology that collects, maintains, or disseminates information that is in an identifiable form’ or ‘initiating a new collection of information’ that contains identifiable information.”
EPIC said it has a “particular interest in the impact of new surveillance technologies that have the capacity to enable warrantless, pervasive mass surveillance of the public by law enforcement agents.”
“Justice Sonia Sotomayor addressed pervasive government surveillance of the sort performed with NAIS in a concurring opinion in U.S. v. Jones. Justice Sotomayor agreed with Justice Alito’s conclusion that at the very least, ‘longer term GPS monitoring in investigations of most offenses impinges on expectations of privacy.’
“Sotomayor went even further, noting that ‘cases involving even short-term monitoring … require particular attention’ because the ‘Government can store such records and efficiently mine them for information years into the future …. GPS monitoring is cheap … proceeds surreptitiously, [and] it evades the ordinary checks that constrain abusive law enforcement practices: limited police resources and community hostility,'” the group said.