CBP Considers Collecting More Cruise Passenger Data

US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) currently screens passenger manifests of cruise ships but it could start requesting more detail to boost its ability to identify terrorist threats.
A report by HSToday.us last week summarized a report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) that recommended CBP under take a study on the benefits of acquiring passenger name record (PNR) data from cruise carriers but did not distinguish PNR data from the advance passenger information system (APIS) data currently collected by CBP for screening cruise passengers.
CBP agreed to undertake a study of collecting PNR data, as recommended by the GAO report, Maritime Security: Varied Actions Taken to Enhance Cruise Ship Security, but Some Concerns Remain. But it already conducts some screening under a rule finalized in 2007, CBP spokesperson Kelly Ivahnenko told HSToday.us.
"CBP by law currently gets advanced passenger manifest information for cruise ships as well as airlines. That’s been in effect for a while. So any indication that we are not currently screening cruise ship passengers is false," Ivahnenko explained.
"We don’t necessarily have mandated access to passenger name record data. The difference between the advance passenger information that we get and PNR is that PNR is the record created in the reservation system of the carrier when someone books a ticket. PNR data includes information in addition to their name, date of birth, and passport number. That includes where they bought the ticket, how they bought it, how they paid, and that sort of thing," she added.
CBP receives APIS data 96 hours in advance for incoming US-bound cruises from the US Coast Guard, who also runs checks on the data. CBP also receives APIS data on outgoing cruises at least 60 minutes before departure from a US port.
The GAO report warned that cruise ships provide attractive terrorist targets as they can have thousands of passengers onboard. Damaging cruise ships also could hurt the tourism industry, the report added.
While Ivahnenko acknowledged those concerns, she downplayed the idea that suspected terrorists or known criminals would readily use cruise ships as a means of travel or escape.
"The travel environment on a cruiseline isn’t necessarily useful to nefarious or criminal elements. If you are trying to evade law enforcement or escape the country, you probably are going to use means of conveyance other than a cruise ship," she said. "It’s not unusual to find folks who have an outstanding warrant going on cruises. It’s not that they are trying to escape; they don’t know we are getting their manifest information when they are going on a cruise."
However, PNR data would add value to CBP’s efforts to identify high-risk individuals or uncover suspicious activities and trends, Ivahnenko offered.
Low priority
A retired CBP tracking specialist, speaking on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of CBP security procedures, charged the agency hasn’t been giving cruise ship screening enough attention to date.
"On any given day, a CBP targeting unit has maybe four people," the specialist told HSToday.us. "But cruiselines have 36,000 people moving back and forth in one day.
"What do you do? Do you look at the inbound passengers because of the potential of them carrying narcotics?" the specialist lamented. "There isn’t enough manpower to screen everyone adequately."
Moreover, cruise ships commonly have at least one passenger with an outstanding warrant, thespecialist said. The targeting unit loses a person while that officer goes to take the passenger into custody, further diminishing its manpower.
"CBP is understaffed; we always have been," the specialist declared.
Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) has pushed for greater cruise ship security with a bill (S. 588) to require cruise lines to increase their security resources and to report criminal allegations to the US Coast Guard and the FBI when outside of US territorial waters.
The specialist explained that many cruise ships are foreign-flagged vessels, many of them flagged out of Panama. They must follow US law when in the United States but they don’t necessarily face such requirements when outside of the country.
The specialist advocated that the cruise lines spend money to train their own security personnel to protect passengers.
"Every cruise ship that leaves dock now should have a specialized team onboard–not one made up of federal authorities but instead cruise ship personnel that have extra training," the specialist said.
"There was not a day that there wasn’t an incident that we had to take care of," the specialist stated. "But the cruise ship industry is in business to make money and it doesn’t want to spend money on security or risk scaring passengers. These laws need to get passed and their training needs to become transparent."
CBP’s own training on customs threats also could improve, the specialist charged. Whereas training to become a Customs officer once required 16 weeks of specialized training, the equivalent training for Customs officers at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC) now involves only one week of equivalent classes.
CBP’s Ivahnenko said CBP does the best it can to address concerns such as cruise ship security with the resources that it has.
"Since 9/11 and our agency’s creation in 2003, we are constantly improving and constantly finding new and innovative ways of screening travelers, identifying high-risk travelers, and building our intelligence partnerships," Ivahnenko said. "Those things are very fluid. We are a very large agency with challenges on the borders and challenges in the sheer volume of trade and travel that impact our economic livelihood. So we are always looking for new and better ways to do business."

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