Homeland Security to broaden sharing of visitor data

The Homeland Security Department on Wednesday announced broad changes for using a database that collects and stores information on foreign travelers to the United States.

In one of the biggest changes, the department plans to regularly share information with U.S. intelligence agencies, department officials said in an interview Thursday. "This is a first step to make it clear that we do have the authority to conduct this type of sharing and to make the public know that we do plan to do so in the future," one official said on condition of anonymity.

The database, called the arrival-and-departure information system, contains information collected at U.S. ports of entry and departure on all foreigners who enter, travel within or leave the United States. It was created in 2003 as part of the US-VISIT foreigner-tracking program and does not contain information on U.S. citizens.

Until now, department officials said, information in the database has been primarily shared only within Homeland Security. But that is expected to change in the future. "We're expanding our portfolio of agencies we are working with," a department spokeswoman said.

The U.S. intelligence community increasingly is viewed as a key player within the nation's border security and immigration programs, the Homeland Security official said.

The official said the department expects intelligence agencies to contact it more often for information on foreigners that are under investigation. The database could provide critical information during investigations, especially concerning whether a foreign subject is inside the United States, the official said.

The official added, however, that new protocols for information-sharing and privacy protection still must be resolved in order for Homeland Security to regularly share contents of the database with intelligence agencies.

The department announced the changes in a Federal Register notice. In a related notice, the department also said it is exempting portions of the database from the Privacy Act to protect information on investigatory and enforcement activities from disclosure to subjects or others related to the activities. Public comments on the proposed changes are due by Sept. 21.

According to the notice, information in the database may be shared with "federal, state, local, tribal, foreign or international government intelligence or counterterrorism agencies; or components where DHS becomes aware of an indication of a threat or potential threat to national or international security; or where such use is to assist in anti-terrorism efforts and disclosure is appropriate to the proper performance of the official duties of the person making the disclosures."

The department also stated that information in the database can come from foreign governments. Such information could confirm, for example, that a foreigner has left the United States, the Homeland Security official said. According to the notice, information "may be derived from records related to entry or exit data of foreign countries collected by foreign governments."

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