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The Tally Ho

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Speaking of Privacy and Fear

I woke up this morning to read this article about airlines turning over passenger data to TSA.
A previous plan was met with an overwhelmingly negative response. The proposed system, which cost $103 million, would have assigned a risk level to all airline passengers based on comparisons of their names with commercial databases. That plan was scrapped because of privacy concerns and technological issues.

Now, the Transportation Security Administration hopes to learn from its experience. The agency is pledging to protect passengers' privacy and taking steps to make sure the system is technologically feasible.

Privacy advocates and the airlines are skeptical.

"There are many people who are still going to find themselves in no-fly hell," said Barry Steinhardt, director of the technology and liberty program at the American Civil Liberties Union.

The TSA plans to order air carriers to turn over the information in November. Passenger names will be checked against watch lists maintained by the Terrorist Screening Center, which is administered by the FBI, as part of a new screening system called "Secure Flight."

Everytime I read articles about "security", I am reminded of the essay Milksop Nation by Jack Gordon, which one the Economist/Shell Writing Prize in 2002. You should read the whole essay, but here are a few pieces:
Twelve hours hadn’t passed since the first airliner struck the World Trade Centre on September 11th 2001 before the talking heads on CNN turned their attention to the subject of how much freedom Americans would be willing to give up in order to feel more secure. I evidently missed the explanation of how they came to see this as the first and most obvious question written in the flames still rising from the rubble in lower Manhattan. As suddenly as the planes that had slammed into the twin towers that morning, the issue simply materialized in the vestments of the story’s anointed spin.

At the time, it seemed bizarre. I had spent most of the day watching the footage of those same flames, and not once had it occurred to me that a logical response to the horror might be to sacrifice my freedom.

Sure enough, though, the newsies had it right. It was as if the USA Patriot Act signed into law by President Bush six weeks later (and denounced by the American Civil Liberties Union as “based on the faulty assumption that safety must come at the expense of civil liberties”) were already drafted and ready on the morning of September 11th, awaiting only one final push from the lobbyists at al Qaeda.


It hardly takes an international cabal of murderous fanatics to frighten us into making the trade. This is a country in which millions of working people submit routinely to random inspections of their own urine. Why? So that someone, somewhere, can feel falsely assured that no insurance claim is processed and no forklift in the nation is driven down a warehouse aisle by a weekend marijuana smoker. The act of contributing the sample must be observed by monitors to prevent the wondrous crime of urine fraud—a transgression unimaginable before the 1980s, when we obliged Ronald and Nancy Reagan by opening our bladders to public scrutiny in the name of workplace safety.

Anyway, I like Mr. Gordon's piece.


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