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News • June 27 2004

FBI may have its bugs on Malta’s arrivals and departures

Matthew Vella

The information on travellers collected by the Personal Identification Secure Comparison and Evaluation System (PISCES), donated to Malta by the United States, is liable to be shared with the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s database and other intelligence agencies, according to a report by the US Congressional Research Service seen by MaltaToday.
PISCES, a $1.5 million (Lm700,000) software package which forms part of the US Department of State’s Terrorist Interdiction Programme, is designed to monitor and restrict the movement of terrorists and other criminals across borders by making real-time comparisons of photographs and other personal details with the FBI database, and analyse traveller information to identify and intercept terrorist suspects.
Malta is in fact the only EU Member State to have allowed the installation of PISCES at all its transit points, namely Malta International Airport, the Sea Passenger Terminal, Ta’ Xbiex Marina and the Gozo ferry terminal.
Elsewhere in the EU, various consumer groups and civil liberties organisations are rallying against US and EU efforts to disclose data of passengers on flights from the EU to the US, through Computer Assisted Passenger Pre-Screening (CAPPS II).
Groups such as the Trans-Atlantic Consumer Dialogue claim this will affect travellers’ privacy rights by sharing passenger records from airline carriers and travel agencies to US law enforcement authorities and commercial entities, as governments compile dossiers on passengers’ movements, associations, and patterns of behaviour.
The ‘war on terrorism’ that ensued after September 11 has prompted an emergence of software producers which have specialised in the national security field, many of them under active encouragement of the US government.
Firms such as Virginia-based BoozAllenHamilton, which created PISCES for the Central Intelligence Agency, are at the forefront of software companies to have been bankrolled by the US to develop systems with wider scope, especially the recognition of biometric features such as height, skin colour, fingerprints and eye colour, instantly turning the human face into a barcode.
The escalating scenario is now fast achieving Orwellian proportions. PISCES is able to match passengers inbound for the United States against facial images, fingerprints and biographical information at airports. A high-speed data network permits US authorities to be informed of problems with inbound passengers.
Ironically, although PISCES was operational in the months prior to September 11, it apparently failed to detect any of the terrorists involved in the attack, according to a report by Wayne Madsen, senior fellow at the Electronic Privacy Information Centre, in Washington DC.
The installation of the PISCES software was the source of outrage in Pakistan, today a key US ally in the fight against terrorism, where lawyers claimed PISCES was an infringement on the privacy of a citizen’s life, according to Pakistan’s English-language newspaper Dawn.
Asked for his comments to reports appearing in l-orizzont on information being passed on to the CIA through PISCES, Home Affairs Minister Tonio Borg told MaltaToday it will be the government to decide with whom to share information in its possession, although there were no specified recipients of this information.
“The PISCES equipment belongs to the Government of Malta and will be used to ensure more security for our country… the same policy was adopted during the former Labour administration when, between 1996 and 1998, the US government donated customs monitoring equipment to Malta. Malta will honour its obligations ratified in UN and EU treaties in the fight against organised crime and terrorism,” Borg said, who has not denied reports linking PISCES with the CIA or the FBI.
The US Embassy has denied any sharing of information with the US government from the PISCES system. This newspaper specifically asked whether this information was being passed on to the CIA or the US Department of State.
“PISCES systems are not interconnected. Each is a standalone system in the country where it has been installed to add to that nation’s capacity to protect its national security… Monitoring of PISCES data is carried out by the Government of Malta… None of this data has been shared with the USG,” an embassy spokesperson said.
The embassy also refused to provide a list of the “willing nations” which have installed PISCES, saying that unless participating countries specifically requested to make their acquisition of PISCES public, it was against the bilateral agreement made with the countries to provide that information.
According to a US Congress report seen by MaltaToday on Pakistan-US Anti-Terrorism Co-operation, PISCES can make “real-time comparisons of photographs and other personal details with the FBI database in order to track the movements of Islamic militants”, as well as containing data on worldwide bomb explosions.






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