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Passengers board a Washington, D.C.-bound Amtrak train in Richmond, Virginia on July 20, 2010. (Photo: Virginia Department of Transportation/Flickr/cc)

'A Non-Starter': Critics Slam Amtrak Request for DHS Watchlist Screening of Passengers

One digital rights advocate called the expanded surveillance a "terrifying" development that could lead to people "facing some really negative outcomes."

Brett Wilkins

Civil liberties defenders sounded the alarm Wednesday after Amtrak asked the Transportation Safety Administration to start screening passengers against the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's federal master terrorism watchlist.

"From our decades of work on the watchlisting system, we know it's a due process nightmare and prone to error."

Hearst Television reports the train service's request is part of the Amtrak Rail Passenger Threat Assessment, by which the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) reviews a targeted individual's "personally identifiable information" against the federal Terrorist Screening Database, commonly called the watchlist.

Personally identifiable information includes but is not limited to Social Security, Alien Registration, and driver's license numbers; financial or medical documents; biometrics; and criminal records. DHS may also collect and review targeted travelers' publicly available social media information.

"This request raises significant civil liberties and rights concerns," ACLU National Security Project director Hina Shamsi said in a statement. "From our decades of work on the watchlisting system, we know it's a due process nightmare and prone to error."

"The standards the government uses to place people on its massive master watchlist are vague, overbroad, and based on secret evidence," she added. "People on the watchlist are disproportionately people of color or immigrants, and can be wrongly stigmatized as terrorism suspects with no notice of their placement on the list or a meaningful opportunity to challenge it. Amtrak's request should be a non-starter and it needs to reverse course."

In an interview with Hearst Television, Saira Hussain, a staff attorney at the digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation, called the expanded watchlist surveillance a "terrifying" development that could lead to people "facing some really negative outcomes when it comes to a contact with law enforcement should they be stopped for, you know, for like a broken tail light or something like that."

ACLU senior policy analyst Jay Stanley said that "it's a classic example of mission creep."

"Pretty soon we're going to have people walking through, you know, body scanners to go to a Little League game," he told Hearst Television. "We don't want to turn America into an airport."

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