International Privacy and Travel
Brittany Burgess and Krista Fox
Since the start of humanity, people have embraced the idea of travel. Whether to fulfill physiological needs, such as food or shelter from enemies, to engage in trade, or to arrange technical business deals in the 21st century, travel has remained a commonly accepted and often unavoidable activity. Since medieval times, people have been required to carry travel documents with them containing personal identification information. This identification, known today as a passport, began as a list of cities through which the user could pass and has now become a much more personalized document (Marrus).
With the growth of globalization, international travel has become almost as frequent as travel within one’s own country. Each day hundreds of thousands of travelers pass through international airports, cross through national border checks, or enter a foreign country in another way. In the U.S. alone, Customs and Border Protection processed the information of an estimated 430 million travelers (Our Travelers). Each person must provide a government-issued document such as a passport in order to identify themselves, their nationality, and the purpose of their visit.
Travelers will give a foreign government access to this personal information without question because it is considered a routine and necessary process. But can these governments be trusted with this information or does international travel put travelers’ privacy at risk? How much information is really available when the passport is scanned? Who receives this information and how accessible is it to those who are interested in collecting this information? Which countries are the riskiest for the travelers’ most private information to be released? Analyzing these issues and attempting to give new insight into the privacy risks involved with international travel will provide answers to some of these questions.
International Travel, Security, and Privacy Overview
The rules of international travel differ greatly between countries. Today, a passport is generally required to get into most countries. There may also be health requirements, such as vaccines, and avoiding being on lists of people who pose a high risk to the country and are not allowed across the border. A common practice now is that a visitor must show proof of an outbound ticket or roundtrip itinerary proving they have plans to exit the country. Some countries, like North Korea, do not allow citizens to leave the country and prohibit many visitors from coming in. Although a visa is required to enter North Korea, since 2004, the government has refused to issue visas to U.S. citizens. Surprisingly, some smaller countries have the toughest travel requirements because of political rules, such as restrictions between the U.S. and Cuba, and environmental concerns. Some countries, especially Middle Eastern ones, even change travel policies depending on the citizenship of the traveler and the location he or she is entering the country from.
For travelers who wish to visit a foreign country for a longer period of time, usually over 90 days, visas are usually required. Different types of visas are available, such as a travel visa, student visa, and work or business visa. The following list is a collection of the information commonly requested on visa applications:
- Current Name
- Name at Birth
- Name(s) of Parent(s)
- Marital Status
- Name of Spouse
- Date and Place of Birth
- Citizenship/ Nationality at Birth
- Passport Number
- Date and Place of Issue of Passport
- Home Address
- Name/Address of Employer
- Previously Visited Countries
- Dates of Visit
- Was a Visa Application Previously Rejected?
- Names of Relatives/ Friends to Visit
- Purpose of Visit
- Desired Duration of Visit
- Desired Number of Entries
- Intended Date of Arrival
- Intended Place of Entry/ Exit
- Places to Visit
- Local Sponsor (Hasbrouck)
This extensive list is then filled out and sent to the foreign consulate in the U.S., where it is processed and eventually sent to foreign authorities. If deemed acceptable, the applicant will have the visa attached to their passport and mailed back to them.
The U.S. Department of State publishes a list of countries, travel to which is not recommended. It has been suggested that when a person engages in foreign travel, she should register with the State Department, so the government is aware of their location and plans, but how far does this information go? Is it possible for the government to track travelers using this information without their knowledge (Clear)?
International Identification – Passports
A passport is a nationally-issued travel document requesting that the identified person be allowed to enter a foreign country for a period of three months or less (Lansky 2006). Based on world-wide standards created by the League of Nations and later the International Civil Aviation Organization, the passport now has a standard format that includes a cover and title page identifying the issuing country and personal information about the holder. This information includes the holder’s name, date of birth, signature, and photograph, as well as blank pages for official stamps and a serial number assigned by the issuing government (Hasbrouck).
In order to obtain a passport, citizens must go to a passport acceptance facility, fill out an application, and provide specific documentation. There are over 8,000 such facilities in the U.S., including post offices, courthouses, municipal offices, and even public libraries. Along with giving personal information on the application itself, all applicants are required to submit proof of U.S. citizenship, current proof of identity, a social security number, two photos, and an application fee. This information is reviewed by the person accepting the application and then sent to the State Department for further review. Once information has been reviewed, verified, and accepted, the passport is printed and mailed back to the applicant’s unsecured mailbox (Foreign).
The following graph shows the increase in passport applications and issuances over the past 30 years.
While the U.S. government processes over seven million applications every year, less than 20% of Americans currently hold a passport. International travel is not very popular in the U.S., probably because other countries are not as easily physically accessible as they are in Europe. However, the numbers are increasing about 10% per year (Foreign). The application process is not difficult, but the information required for the application passes through many hands before the passport is received. Not only that, but it remains in many databases indefinitely. With the growing numbers of passports being issued, the risk of losing privacy grows as well.
The most commonly used passport today is the machine-readable passport. Contained in this document is textual data as well as strings of alphanumeric information that is read via an optical character recognition (OCR) machine (Machine). What this means is that each passport has a unique combination of numbers and letters that, when passed in front of the proper technology, will retrieve and display all the correlating information stored in government databases. All countries requiring passports upon entry are capable of processing information in this format, either manually or electronically.
The area of largest concern when it comes to machine-readable passports is their ability to be copied and recreated. Governments around the world are constantly trying to suppress the use of fraudulent passports and other identification materials. The U.S. is one of the most dangerous places for criminals using fraudulent identification, because agents have extensive training and access to cutting-edge technology in detecting fraudulent materials (CBP).
Many governments are beginning to look at the possibility of using biometric technology to add information to passports. New passports will contain Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) chips, on which data can be digitally stored and remotely retrieved. The chip will contain an identification number and digital signature, and once printed, the chip cannot be altered. Current identification methods linked with biometrics are facial recognition, fingerprint analysis, and retina scanning (Our Travelers). The personal information provided will be stored in central government databases and accessed through the two numbers assigned to the chip. Many governments are moving toward this form of passport because identification methods such as those listed above are nearly impossible to duplicate and levels of fraud will be drastically decreased. This new technology will also allow for even faster confirmation of identification and more timely security clearance at travel ports.
A primary concern with adding RFID chips to passports is that the chips can be read from a distance. While government officials have said that the chips are readable only within “close proximity,” experts in RFID field say they can be accessed from 30 to 65 feet away. Although state officials are going to take precautionary measures to help protect travelers, the risk of having the transmitted personal information intercepted obviously leads to the fear of identity theft (Passport).
As international travelers embark on their journeys, they are required to pass through customs. Using the U.S. as an example, when a traveler prepares to board a flight entering the U.S., the information found on their passport is sent via the Advanced Passenger Information System to the National Targeting Center, a data analysis center operated by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) units. This system is used to screen passengers prior to their arrival to the U.S. and gives CBP more time to process and review traveler information. Once at the airport, the traveler has to pass through American customs. Their passport is scanned for a second time; this time border control and the Transportation Security Administration access the information that had been previously received by the CBP. The person is either identified as a “low-risk traveler” and allowed entry, or they are suspected of criminal activity and pulled aside for further investigation (Keeping it Real).
Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System, which is directly linked to an individual’s biometrics, is the future of passport technology, which law enforcement officials use to access criminal and immigration databases. “This system, housed by the FBI, is the largest biometric library in the world and contains the fingerprints and corresponding criminal history information for more than 47 million subjects” (Our Travelers). Once a traveler is flagged for suspicious activity, the information found on their passport is matched with the data from this system to verify the individual’s identity. It takes customs officials less than 30 minutes to find and receive original passport applications, photos, and signatures via photo-phones (Keeping it Real). In this way, the U.S. government is using personal information contained on passports to seize criminals and try to prevent terrorism. However, if there is an error in this methodology, it could very well affect unsuspecting and innocent travelers as well.
National Identification – Citizen Cards
Government agencies can also track individuals internally through national identification cards. National ID cards are rapidly becoming a hot topic within the U.S. because of the implementation of Biometric Passports. The cards are already in place in many regions of the world, including the United Kingdom. With ID cards’ popularity growing, the following questions must be asked: do they allow more personal access to citizens, do they impede on civil liberties, and are they yet another tracking device? Some fear that the government or corrupt individuals are slowly moving in on personal privacy and each program must be assessed in order to decide what is acceptable for the good of the population.
The countries that have adopted the national ID card systems have generally made the cards obligatory. Most developed countries currently have some sort of personal identification card, such as the social security card issued in the U.S., but most do not require the card be carried at all times. Soon, it may be required to always have the identification card, in case an authority figure requests to see it. The information provided on national identification cards varies, but most cards state the name, gender, and date of birth of the individual. Some have signatures, pictures and expiration dates.
Although there are many advantages to the National ID card system, there are also many disadvantages. Some advantages include improved safety, the ability to move quickly through places such as public transportation, and reduction of fake ID use. Disadvantages include invasion of privacy, increased opportunity for identity theft, and unknown users having the ability to track people without their knowledge. The privacy issues are endless with these sorts of cards; for this reason, many countries have already rejected the idea (Foreign). On the other hand, an increasing number of countries have adopted and mandated them. The countries include the UK, Poland, and Russia. The U.S. has not yet implemented them, but there is a strong possibility that the cards could be required for citizens as early as 2008.
Registered Traveler (RT) Program
Increased travel risks after September 11, 2001 have changed air travel dramatically. Airport security is heightened, but along with increased safety comes longer wait time and frustration. To combat some of these new issues, the U.S. government agency, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), and a private company, have created a new program.
The Registered Traveler (RT) program allows for an expedited security screening in airports by providing people who volunteer their biometric and biographic information prior to travel with a card that allows them to pass through a different and shorter security line. Once their information is analyzed, their security threat is assessed, and they are deemed non-threatening, they pay the fee and receive a card. The fee is $99.95 for the first year, which includes the $28 TSA portion. Once the new security lanes are established throughout the country, the airport security process for registered travelers will be much more efficient (Our Travelers).
The program sounds straight forward although it does require individuals to provide extensive personal information that individuals must provide in order to receive the card is rigorously studied and therefore, the card is not easily attainable. The requirements include, but are not limited to:
- Other Names Used
- Social Security Number
- Citizenship Status
- Alien Registration Number
- Current Home Address
- Primary and Secondary Telephone Numbers
- Current E-mail Address
- Date of Birth
- Place of Birth
- Previous Home Addresses
- Employer Name
- Employer Address
- Driver’s License Number
This information is kept on the system’s computers and is used to correctly identify individuals and eliminate possible misuses. It can also be used to communicate with people when suspicious behavior is recognized. The system is now being called “Clear” and is available in five major cities including: Cincinnati, Indianapolis, New York, Orlando, and San Jose. Once in one of the equipped airports and in the “clear lane,” a government issued ID must be presented, like a driver’s license, the biometric card is read, and then the individual’s fingerprint or iris is read. After all of these have made a positive match, the boarding pass is marked and the person is allowed to proceed through X-ray and metal detector machines. The advantage of the “Clear” line is that it is much less crowded and moves quickly.
To keep the system accurate and as secure as possible, every registered member’s information gets screened on a regular basis. If they are no longer deemed suitable to use the “Clear” card, they receive an e-mail notification and are reimbursed for the unused portion of the fee. Although there are always risks to these types of systems, third party audits have been conducted and have shown the system to be safe. Members are guaranteed that their information remains private. The private issuing company even provides users with an Identity Theft Warranty. While this program is being implemented as a safety measure, it is possible that it allows possible terrorists the luxury of finding out if the government recognizes them as a threat. If they are not recognized as a security threat, they are able to travel more easily and are subject to less security. If identified, they can pass the job on to a colleague.
The U.S. State Department issues Travel Warnings about countries to which it is recommended that Americans not travel, accompanied by the actual posted warning is a Consular Information Sheet. This document is available for every country, but for countries that have been added to the Travel Warning list, the information sheet gives detailed explanation as to why. This serves as a general public announcement to inform citizens of travel dangers, such as terrorist threats or sudden disease outbreaks.
Being added to the Travel Warning list occurs most often in lesser-developed countries with unstable governments. Often, warnings are posted about anniversary dates of previous terrorist attacks or sudden coups. The Consular Information Sheet provides information about embassy locations, unusual regulations, crime, drug penalties, or any condition that is considered potentially harmful. However, not all unstable countries are on the warning list, just ones that at the time pose a specific danger or threat.
The following is an example of a country that has been added to the list of Travel Warnings, with an example of its Consular Information sheet:
- Côte d'Ivoire (11/28/2006)
- 12/18/2006 Travel Warning
- Avian Flu Fact Sheet
- International Financial Scams
- Intercountry Adoption Cote d'Ivoire
Within each of the sheets, a traveler can view details into the occurances for each country, in this case, Cote d’Ivoire (Foreign).
International Travel Entry Requirements Data
In order to determine which countries are the least accessible to international travelers and riskiest to give their personal information to, primary data was collected comparing approximately 200 countries of the world.
First, a list of entry requirements was collected from the U.S. Department of State website (http://www.travel.state.gov). This list includes the following 18 requirements: passport, visa, proof of travel itinerary, sufficient funds, birth certificate, vaccination records, daily tariff, departure tax, entrance fee, health insurance, HIV test, letter of consent for minors, letter of invitation, letter of purpose, limited entry points, personal interview, police registration, and travel insurance. Then, for requirements that applied to each country, the country received a score of one and for requirements that did not apply, the country received a zero. Finally, the totals were calculated out of 18 and the countries were sorted in order from the countries requiring the most items off of the list to the countries requiring the least. Based on the data collected, the most difficult countries to enter are Angola, Eritrea, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan. Countries that are easier for international travelers to visit include places like the United Kingdom, Gibraltar, Switzerland, and Morocco.
Another calculation was done based on each entry requirement to determine the percentage of countries addressing that specific requirement. Results show that 98% of all countries require international visitors to have a passport. 53% of these countries also ask for proof of an outbound flight or roundtrip tickets to ensure that the visitors will not be residing permanently. The next most prevalent requirements from countries are visas and entrance fees. As stated earlier, there are multiple types of visas and entrance fees are included in the visa application fee and paid to the foreign governments. Bhutan, one of the more difficult countries to visit, is the only country to require a daily tariff from visitors, so the percentage is less than one percent. Also at a frequency of less than 1%, upon entering China, a traveler may be stopped for a personal interview.
As international travel becomes ever more accessible, more privacy risks present themselves. In the process leading up to, and in experiencing the journey of a lifetime, the traveler must give up certain personal information to a multitude of governmental and non-governmental agencies. Postal workers, government employees, foreign government members, customs agents both foreign and domestic, and essentially anyone else who has the tools to hack into the databases that this information is stored in are able to review it. There is an obvious difference in risk level between a country like the U.S., where security of personal information is a top priority, and a Middle Eastern country where even legally crossing borders can be risky. The truth is it is ultimately up to the traveler to decide who can be trusted.
“CBP Travel Spotlight.” US Government and Border Protection. http://cbp.gov. 22 Mar 2007
“Clear’s Commitment to Privacy.” Fly Clear Company. http://www.flyclear.com/privacy.html 22 Mar 2007
“Foreign Entry Requirements.” US Department of State. http://travel.state.gov. 22 Mar 2007
Hasbrouck, Edward. The Practical Nomad: How to Travel Around the World. California: Avalon Travel Publishing, 2004.
“Keeping it Real.” US CustomsToday. March 2002 Vol. 38 No. 3
Lansky, Doug. First Time Around the World. New York: Rough Guides, 2006.
“Machine Readable Travel Documents (MRTD).” ICAO. Retrieved on 22 Mar 2007
Marrus, Michael. The Unwanted: European Refugees in the Twentieth Century. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985. p. 92.
“Our Travelers.” Transportation Security Administration. http://www.tsa.gov/what_we_do/layers/rt/index.shtm. 22 Mar 2007
"Passport." Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. http://wikipedia.org. 22 Mar 2007
Pelton, Robert Young. The World's Most Dangerous Places. New York: HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 2003.
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