Lauren at Feministe already covered how I feel about this (that the government is become more and more creepily intrusive), so I won't go into that. The article did make me wonder about how the civil liberties advocates got their information. They must have used the Freedom of Information Act (that link is the actual text, please see here where the Department of Justice [DOJ] breaks down how to actually use the act).
The DOJ says,
The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which can be found in Title 5 of the United States Code, section 552, was enacted in 1966 and generally provides that any person has the right to request access to federal agency records or information. All agencies of the Executive Branch of the United States Government are required to disclose records upon receiving a written request for them, except for those records (or portions of them) that are protected from disclosure by the nine exemptions and three exclusions of the FOIA. This right of access is enforceable in court, and it is supported at the administrative agency level by the "citizen-centered and results-oriented approach" of a presidential executive order (see below).
The FOIA does not, however, provide access to records held by Congress or the federal courts, by state or local government agencies, or by private businesses or individuals. All states have their own statutes governing public access to state and local government records; state agencies should be consulted for further information about them.
Here are the nine exemptions referred to above. (I wonder how much case law there is around these exemptions, because they seem like they could be invoked pretty broadly by the government and completely take the teeth out of the FOIA).
It seems pretty straight forward; requests must be in writing, you should try to send it to the correct component (and make sure what you're looking for isn't already public record), and it might cost you up to $25 (for copying). The FOIA doesn't require the government to interpret data or create new reports to answer your question.
The most interesting part to me was that you can request information about yourself or about someone else (provided they give their permission or you can prove that they are dead). It looks like that's how the civil liberties groups got their information about the extensiveness of the DHS record collecting in this case, by requesting the records on specific travelers. Maybe it had to be done that way to get around one of the exemptions, namely, exception number 7 (see link to the exemptions above).
Now that I know how it works, I really want to take advantage of this act. But I have no idea what records I would like to be released. What would you ask about?
See here for more info about how to use the FOIA.
UPDATE: See this article (via Majikthise) about a federal agent using DHS records to cyber-stalk his ex-girlfriend for just one reason I don't want the government to be collecting detailed records about me.