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ATS-Inbound became operational in 1997, and is part of the Automated Targeting System (ATS). ATS-Inbound assists CBP officers in identifying inbound cargo shipments that pose a high risk of containing weapons of mass effect, illegal narcotics, or other contraband, and in selecting that cargo for intensive examination. ATS-Inbound is available to CBP officers at all major ports (i.e., air, land, sea, and rail) throughout the United States, and also assists CBP personnel in the Container Security Initiative (CSI) and Secure Freight Initiative (SFI) decision-making processes.

ATS-Inbound looks at data related to cargo in real time and engage in data mining to provide decision support analysis for targeting of cargo for suspicious activity. The cargo analysis provided by ATS is intended to add automated anomaly detection to CBP’s existing targeting capabilities, to enhance screening of cargo prior to its entry into the United States.

Technology and methodology[]

ATS-Inbound does not collect information directly from individuals. The data used in the development, testing, and operation of the ATS-Inbound screening technology is taken from bills of lading and shipping manifest data provided by vendors to CBP as part of the existing cargo screening process. The results of queries, searches, and analyses conducted in the ATS-Inbound system are used to identify anomalous business behavior, data inconsistencies, abnormal business patterns, and suspicious business activity generally. No decisions about individuals are made solely on the basis of these results.

The Security and Accountability for Every Port Act of 2006 (SAFE Port Act) requires the ATS to use or investigate the use of advanced algorithms in support of its mission.[1] To that end, ATS has established an Advanced Targeting Initiative, which includes plans for development of data mining, machine learning, and other analytic techniques during the period from FY09 to FY12, for use in ATS-Inbound and ATS-Outbound. Development will take place in iterative phases; the various iterations will be deployed to a select user population, which will test the new functionality. The Advanced Targeting Initiative is being undertaken in tandem with ATS’ maintenance and operation of the ATS-Inbound and ATS-Outbound systems. The design and tool-selection processes for data mining, pattern recognition, and machine learning techniques in development in the Advanced Targeting Initiative are under consideration and have yet to be finalized.

Data Sources[]

As noted above, ATS-Inbound does not collect information directly from individuals. The information maintained in ATS is either collected from private entities providing data in accordance with U.S. legal requirements (e.g., sea, rail and air manifests) or is created by ATS as part of its risk assessments and associated rules.

ATS-Inbound uses the information in ATS source databases to gather information about importers and exporters, cargo, and conveyances used to facilitate the importation of cargo into and the exportation of cargo out of the United States. This information includes PII concerning individuals associated with imported and exported cargo (e.g., brokers, carriers, shippers, buyers, sellers, exporters, freight forwarders, and crew). ATS-Inbound receives data pertaining to entries and manifests from ACS and the Automated Commercial Environment (ACE), and processes it against a variety of rules to make a rapid, automated assessment of the risk of each import.

CBP uses commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) software tools to graphically present entity-related information that may represent terrorist or criminal activity, to discover non-obvious relationships across cargo data, to retrieve information from ATS source systems to expose unknown or anomalous activity, and to conduct statistical modeling of cargo-related activities as another approach to detecting anomalous behavior. CBP also uses custom-designed software to resolve ambiguities in trade entity identification related to inbound and outbound cargo.


Based upon the results of testing and operations in the field, ATS-Inbound has proved to be effective means of identifying suspicious cargo that requires further investigation by CBP officers. The results of ATS-Inbound analyses identifying cargo as suspicious have been regularly corroborated by physical searches of the identified cargo.

The goal of the Advanced Targeting Initiative is to enhance CBP officers’ ability to identify entities such as organizations, cargo, vehicles, and conveyances with a possible association to terrorism. By their very nature, the results produced by technologies used in the Advanced Targeting Initiative may be only speculative or inferential; they may only provide leads for further investigation rather than a definitive statement. The program finds it valuable to be able to very quickly produce useful leads gleaned from masses of information. Leads resulting in a positive, factual determination obtained through further investigation and physical inspections of cargo demonstrate the efficacy of these technologies.

Laws and regulations[]

There are numerous customs and immigration authorities authorizing the collection of data regarding the import of cargo as well as the entry and exit of conveyances. Additionally, ATS-Inbound supports functions mandated by Title VII of Public Law 104-208 (1996 Omnibus Consolidated Appropriations Act for FY 1997), which provides funding for counter-terrorism and drug law enforcement. The risk assessments for cargo are also mandated under Section 203 of the SAFE Port Act.


  1. Pub. L. No. 109-347 (2006).