Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Securing the Homeland

Up until recently, a person received some kind of American scrutiny upon entering the US, but none upon leaving. I have often entered the US without showing ID of any kind, just the assertion that I was a Canadian citizen resident in Canada. And I have returned to Canada on the same assertion. Now passports are usually requested, but I'm not sure they are always scanned and recorded. I have crossed the US-Canada border on foot, by bicycle, car, boat, private airplane, as an airline passenger, as a commercial pilot, on the bus and probably more ways I'm forgetting. I think I have never swum across nor crossed on horseback, but I wish to preserve my right to do so in the future. I have always reported to the proper authority at the border, and I suppose it is possible that there is an international agreement that the Canadians and Mexicans tell the Americans who has entered their country from the US, so that it can be verified that someone who entered also left, but with an airplane I can leave the US for a country that doesn't even maintain diplomatic relations with the US, let alone freely give them a list of immigrants. The Americans now wish to maintain better knowledge of who is leaving as well as entering. Enter eAPIS.

eAPIS stands for Electronic Advance Passenger Information System, and while the first word under the page title and agency names is "Welcome," the text appearing under that is possibly more characteristic of the feeling one has encountering this thing.

Security Notification:


You are about to access a Department of Homeland Security computer system. This computer system and data therein are property of the U.S. Government and provided for official U.S. Government information and use. There is no expectation of privacy when you use this computer system. The use of a password or any other security measure does not establish an expectation of privacy. By using this system, you consent to the terms set forth in this notice. You may not process classified national security information on this computer system. Access to this system is restricted to authorized users only. Unauthorized access, use, or modification of this system or of data contained herein, or in transit to/from this system, may constitute a violation of section 1030 of title 18 of the U.S. Code and other criminal laws. Anyone who accesses a Federal computer system without authorization or exceeds access authority, or obtains, alters, damages, destroys, or discloses information, or prevents authorized use of information on the computer system, may be subject to penalties, fines or imprisonment. This computer system and any related equipment is subject to monitoring for administrative oversight, law enforcement, criminal investigative purposes, inquiries into alleged wrongdoing or misuse, and to ensure proper performance of applicable security features and procedures. DHS may conduct monitoring activities without further notice.

If I disappear suddenly, you may suppose I've been taken away in a black helicopter for disclosing information gleaned from the system.

My first task is to create a username and password, so I can enroll myself in the program. I have an automatic password generator, but its output doesn't meet the criteria.

ERROR: Your password must be between eight and twelve characters in length and must begin with a numeric character and contain one of the following special characters: "~", "!", "@", "#", "$", "%", "^", "&", "*", "(", ")", "-", "_", "+", "=", "{", "}", "[", "]", "", "|", ";", ":", "/", "?", ".". Your sender id can not be part of the password, and no character can be repeated consecutively more than two times.

I then go through the e-mailed activation key routine common to most websites these days, and then I have to fill out the forms. It wants to know the middle name of my flight follower. What is this American obsession with middle names or middle initials? They even made a president who didn't have a middle name make up a middle initial. What if you have two middle names? Are you supposed to pick one or put them both in the space?

Using this website, I'm supposed to notify the US every time I enter or leave the country in an airplane. I'm not sure they'll know I've left if I park the airplane and ride a horse home, especially as the Canadians who admit me and my horse might not record my middle initial. Nor the horse's.

I'm not quite sure how long eAPIS has been in force, I have been blissfully unaware of it because the customs broker has been doing it on my behalf. I do remember his e-mail when he wanted to know a bunch more information about us, so that must have been him registering us for the system. This has now added internet access and a good level of internet literacy to the requirements for international air travel. A Q&A on a Mexico aviation site notes:

Q: What if I need to file eAPIS and there is no Internet access available at my departing airport.

A: DHS indicates that you must go to another airport that has Internet Access

If any legitimate operation is going to break this system, it will be ours, where airplanes might stay in the US for months at a time, with several changes of pilots. I don't look forward to discovering what they do when the computer loses track of where we've said we are and declares me in violation of something. When that happens, I hope I am facing a customs officer as friendly as the one who gave me the link.

25 comments:

dpierce said...

What if you have two middle names? ...

You will not be allowed into the country. Although Texas may have different rules ...

jk said...

I think eapis (many U.S. pilots have now coined another acronym for it, which removes the 'a' and adds an 'sed') has been required for use since spring/early summer this year.

As I recall there was a NPRM (notice of proposed rule making) issued about a year ago. Several thousand U.S. pilots, myself included, wrote in to express our opposition in general terms, and to point out specific areas where the regulation just would not work effectively (internet or phone access from somewhere in rural Canada or Mexico). It sounds like they have only partially, at best, solved these problems per your last excerpt on the internet access requirements.

One other interesting item was that pilots were supposed to validate the identity documents of passengers prior to departure, or return into the country. No problem with family and friends aboard, but if you're carrying passengers for hire (or some other sort of operation where passengers aren't known to the pilot personally), my impression was that it made pilots into de-facto experts at validating legitimate identity documents, something I know nothing about. Of course, on entering the U.S. and clearing customs, the customs agent usually does this task anyway.

Overall, it makes me a lot less proud to be an American with such a system, and the conditions that require its use. For example, to be granted 'permission' to depart the country.

I myself have not conduced an international flight (as pilot) since it came on-line but would like to head back down to Mexico perhaps this winter. I guess I'll see just how bad it is.

Sarah said...

@dpierce ... that is HILARIOUS.

Aviatrix - I apologize for our border security hassles.

Welcome to The United States -- Frank Zappa

amulbunny said...

When I access my email for the agency that is technically the same agency you have to deal with eapis, I get the exact same message. I apologize for the people who wrote this crap and cause everyone such confusion. At least when you get in your airplane your shoes aren't checked and your toiletries aren't measured by the 100ml.

Aviatrix said...

It's okay. The warning message and the security hurdles both represent the fact that they're scared. It's like a cat hissing or a dog barking. I convince them that I'm not going to hurt them, and then they'll let me go by. I just need middle names instead of dog biscuits.

Wayne Farmer said...

Here is the Wikipedia link about eAPIS, with a link to Fltplan.com: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Advance_Passenger_Information_System

As long as the US Homeland Security Advisory System is at level Orange for airline travel, there is an official "High risk of terrorist attacks". I interpret that to mean that the airlines must consider that there is a high risk of each pilot and passenger being a terrorist, and so I sigh and resign myself to being treated as such whenever I travel as a passenger.

Jeremy said...

I'm not sure there is a process at land border crossings like from San Ysidro, CA to Tijuana, Mexico, for keeping track of those *leaving* the US. Unless they've changed this in the past few months (very possible), a pedestrian simply passes through a turnstyle that allows one-way traffic out. There weren't really even any obvious signs that said you were entering Mexico at this point and that you'd better have your papers to come back.

On re-entering on foot, my US passport was scrutinized, but not scanned through any system (that I noticed) nor stamped. It does have a chip so it's possible it was scanned covertly via the chip, but normally they hold the chip up to a reader and look at the output on a computer while doing this. In this case the agent never glanced at a computer while admitting me.

I don't know what the procedure is like for entry by car, but it does seem like things are a bit inconsistent. I suppose they figure the risks of pedestrians are small, since I couldn't be carrying *that* much contraband on me.

Aviatrix said...

That's my suspicion, too, Jeremy. I think they have made the assumption that people will enter and leave by the same mode, and that there will be problems when I repeatedly fail to do that.

Grant said...

I'm imaging the fun I could have if I owned that latest version of the flying car, landing just north of the border. Driving across. Then taking off again at the next airport along the way.... Then flying back out of the country.

Would it beat the homeland security computer into submission trying to figure how a Canadian registered aircraft left the country but never entered?

Aviatrix said...

That, Grant, is another reason why I want my flying car.

zb said...

Thanks for pointing out these Orwellian nightmares while keeping a fun attitude. Stuff like this causes my head to hurt.

The thing about the middle name makes me think that the person who invented the rules hasn't taken it too seriously her-/himself and wanted to firetruck with the entire thing. Heck, my given name has nine characters and my family name has ten, which often busts the type of forms that has little boxes for the letters you fill in. I have no middle name, though. It would be too funny if the system would allow names up to eight characters only but mandate a middle name.

Anonymous said...

I think you will like KMCI, if you fly back home from there.

John Lennerton said...

dpierce said: "You will not be allowed into the country. Although Texas may have different rules ..."

Indeed. In Texas, by law, you must have 2 FIRST names, such as Billy Bob or Bobby Sue. They don't have middle names in Texas.

Aviatrix, did you have to remove your shoes while filling out the form?

And as for the warning on the web site, it must be that overzealous government lawyers feel they have a good handle on how best to scare potential terroists...

I love the idea of a flying car. I just don't love the idea of being taken to Gitmo after driving one way, and flying back.

SwL_Wildcat said...

"Indeed. In Texas, by law, you must have 2 FIRST names, such as Billy Bob or Bobby Sue. They don't have middle names in Texas."

It's also mandatory to carry a handgun when going to the local grocery store, or gas station. And for some reason nobody can figure out why Texas has the lowest rate of car jackings, and home invasions... Go Figure. I remember years ago when it was mandatory to carry a firearm on board your aircraft when you were bush flying, just like the POH. Sadly times have changed.

dpierce said...

But we're going to make things better with the Travel Promotion Act. It encourages foreigners to visit the US by taxing them $10 ...

http://travel-industry.uptake.com/blog/2009/09/09/travel-promotion-act-us-senate/

Ed said...

If not having a middle name is scary then Wookey will freak them out completely:

Aviatrix said...

The comment on that link indicates that the bill was scuttled by the Senate, but it doesn't say why.

The wording of the article suggests that the US has never advertised for tourists before. I'm trying to think of seeing any. I've seen ads for many US businesses, and I think for some US states, but no overarching "Visit America: We Probably Won't Deport You to Syria" campaign.

And yeah, charging people $10 to come into your country is a disincentive. Were they going to collect it at the border like a toll booth?

Chad said...

Ahh the great US of A. Finding new reasons daily NOT to go there.

Anonymous said...

Aviatrix, Arnold from California is always advertising for us Albertans to come down as tourists!

zb said...

Over here in Germany, it sounds like they collect the $10 at the border when they stamp your passport. As far as I know, $10 are collected for those who travel on the Visa Waiver Program. This program is intended for many countries (like most of Europe). You don't need the actual visa from a U.S. embassy, you just fill out a green immigration form and a white customs form while you are on the plane (or vessel). The Visa Waiver Program is good if you stay for as long as 90 days at most (if memory doesn't fail me) and are a tourist or business traveller.

Back in the mid-nineties, it was just the green form and the white form and you were good to go.

With the so-called post-September-11-security-regulations, it was the green form and the white form and fingerprints and a digital photograph at the immigraion booth.

Since recently, it was the green form and the white form and fingerprints and a digital photograph at the immigration booth and advance information about your credit card, your meal preferences and your first address after entering the U.S., all the latter filed with the airline you traveled on into the US.

Now, it is the green form and the white form and fingerprints and a digital photograph at the immigration booth and advance information about your credit card, your meal preferences and your first address after entering the U.S., all the latter filed with the airline you traveled on into the US and ten 'ollars.

As I am German and don't belong to the brainless minority in my country that claims the Third Reich has never happened, I am very sensitive to words like "Homeland Security" and don't really see why they don't just use a branch of the Department of the Interior.

zb said...

Oh, sorry, episode three of the above history should have started with

Until recenty, ...

instead of Sicnce recently, ...

Anonymous said...

The U.S. just paid for this by not being chosen to host the olympics in 2016.

Aviatrix said...

zb, I like your account of the increasing information collected.

There are Americans who have come from regimes all over the world where governments have taken too much power. The concept of not trading freedom for perceived safety is part of their national heritage, with sayings like "Give me Liberty or give me Death," (Patrick Henry) and "They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety," (Benjamin Franklin).

It's curious that more of the population is not rebelling against so many restrictive measures. There has been more resistance to health care and rising gas prices than to increased powers of surveillance and restrictions on expression.

The American restrictions force Canada to be more restrictive: for example, as the Americans are not letting people in without a passport, now Canada has to enforce that rule, so as not to have colonies of passportless Americans camping just inside our borders.

dpierce said...

... is part of their national heritage ...

Yes, but it's a heritage that's seldom taught and passed down to young Americans. Some parents pass these values on; schools usually do not.

The US also have a large immigrant population motivated by a search for work (rather than a search for freedom), who may be unexposed to this heritage.

Overall, I'd say it's a strongly held sentiment, but may be diminishing over time. And the vocal percentage that weighs security over freedoms gets high media coverage under the "squeaky wheel" theory.

Some conservative minded people also pick their battles carefully, being somewhat amused to watch the travel and airline industry sink into a kind of farcical state; with an assumption that when it gets to be too much of a mess it will right itself.

Personally, I think most Americans fall into the "fat and happy" concept. That is, as long as HD cable TV, high speed Internet, food, cars, and highways are cheap and plentiful, complaints from the voting public will be generally low. Tamper with one of the "fat and happy" 'freedoms', such as McDonald's, and you'll have trouble from the voter.

zb said...

Well, I strongly oppose many novelties introduced during the Bush years and truly hope that the undo button will be hit on many of these decisions, and I am sure it will take the people's right to speak up loudly, but before this turns into a bash against US-American citizens, I feel the desire to point out that even from my point of view in Europe, most of the folks I know who are against such achievements towards a questionable security are indeed US-Americans and, maybe more importantly, that the "fat and happy" concept is not a US-American thing:

The last time newspapers in my hometown of Munich (Bavaria, GER) were full of words like "revolution" was some years ago when there were plans to close beer gardens not at 11pm but at 10:30pm because residents around the beer gardens had complained about noise and folks peeing into their backyards at late hours. (Sorry, this source is available in German only).