net.wars: Spot the terrorist

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 07 October 2005

If you haven't flown (or sailed) into or out of the US in the last 72 hours, you may not know this: Tuesday was the day that the new travel data requirements came into force.

Wendy M Grossman

As of, well, more or less now, you are required to give your airline the following information so it can be passed on to Customs and Border Protection:

  • complete name (Pneumonia Vanderfella)
  • date of birth (guess!)
  • citizenship (dual)
  • gender (you can't tell?)
  • passport number and country of issuance (which one?)
  • country of residence
  • US visa number, date, and place of issuance
  • alien registration number
  • US address while in the US
  • IATA arrival and departure port codes,
  • airline carrier code,
  • document type,
  • date of document expiration, and
  • a unique passenger identifier.
  • My long-suffering travel agent tells me that so far they don't have to do anything; the airlines ask you at check-in. But one day soon, he added gloomily, doubtless it would be up to the agents to suffer the brunt, along with fuel surcharges and airport taxes.

    Guess how much collecting and processing this data is going to cost the airline industry?

    Some of this, as travel data guru Ed Hasbrouck says in his blog entry on the subject, is silly. You've long been asked for a US address on customs forms, but there's nothing to stop you from lying or changing plans. Much more of it is simply invasive, the more so because you can't give the information directly to the government; instead it goes to several commercial organisations along the way: the airlines, the "Computerised Reservations Systems" who handle the airlines' data, travel agencies. Forcing EU citizens to supply personal data to companies that are not bound by EU data protection law or its equivalent ought to be a violation of EU principles, and in fact some wrangling is going on with the European Parliament trying to block the Commission's promise to turn over the data.

    The cost: about a billion dollars over ten years.

    Meantime, the TSA has also been asking the industry to suggest technologies for detecting suspicious behaviour. We must assume they have something a little more sophisticated in mind than grabbing the first laptop-laden male in a coat. In which case, you know, let's have that smarter technology.

    While the technology industry gears up to meet the challenge, I have some guidelines that might be of assistance to TSA personnel stationed at bus depots, train stations, and airports to play spot-the-terrorist.

    First of all: it is very, very easy to spot the suspicious people in a Greyhound bus station, especially at, say, two in the morning. They are the people who are clean, well-dressed, affluent, and not creepy. Eliminate the foreigners, and you have your suspicious people. Affluent Americans do not travel by bus unless they are expatriates back on a visit.

    Second of all: train stations, at least in the UK, already have a host of unpaid guys keeping an eye on things. Why not enlist them? Yes, jobs for trainspotters! But trains are probably the last thing to worry about in the US, at least if you assume that terrorists go for maximum news impact. A train derailed last spring in Oregon, and honestly, who noticed?

    Third: airports. You should be suspicious of anyone who does not complain about the long lines, the questions, the wait, the rules, or the personnel. You show me someone who is docile, cooperative, and pleasant throughout, and I will guarantee that person is either drugged or has an ulterior motive. It's not normal to be bureaucratted for three hours and not get cranky

    Some basic principles to ponder.

    One: geek is the new normal. People dressed in black with piercings, tatoos, obscure jokes on their shirts, and bristling with are harmless. The suspicious character is the guy in the suit and tie with what my ex-husband used to call a "dope dealer's haircut" (conservative and short). A 51 year-old woman in a trail vest with a laptop bag, long hair and glasses, reading a copy of The New Yorker, is of course completely innocent, and my - I mean, her - passage should be expedited in as non-bureaucratic a fashion as possible.

    Two: everyone has electronic devices, and they all fiddle with them. This is 2005, and the last person who travelled without an electronic device to be obsessive about died in 2003.

    Three: if you really want to test someone's bona fides, try asking what their favourite toys were when they were children. You can bet that someone who grew up in Herzogovinia but is posing as a native-born American won't get the Year of the Hula Hoop right. (Of course, this will only work until the grows up.)

    But the real thing is that none of this data is going to help. Because what we need to identify is not . The 9/11 terrorists flew other times in their lives before they took their last flights, and they were never dangerous on any of those occasions. What we need to identify is . And that's a much harder problem.

    Ed: Apologies to any readers whose email to bounced or went unanswered last week; there was a glitch at Demon Internet.

    You are a terrorist suspect - You can discuss this article on our discussion board.

    Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).