net.wars: Travel costs

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 18 August 2006

I've never been much for conspiracy theories – in general, I tend to believe that I'm not important enough to be worth conspiring against – but if I were, this week would be a valid time. On Monday, they began lifting the draconian baggage restrictions imposed late last week. On Wednesday, we began seeing stories questioning the plausibility, chemistrywise, of the plot as we have been told it so far.

Wendy M Grossman

On Thursday, the Guardian published a package of stories outlining the wonderful increased surveillance we have in store. Repeat after me: the timing is just coincidence. It is sheer paranoia to attribute to conspiracy what can be accounted for by coincidence.

...the timing is just coincidence. It is sheer paranoia to attribute to conspiracy what can be accounted for by coincidence.


One of the things I meant to mention in last week's net.wars but forgot is the 's new rules on passenger data, which require airlines to submit passenger records before the plane takes off instead of, as formerly, afterwards. Ed Hasbrouck has a helpful analysis of these new rules, their problems, and their probable costs. (has anyone calculated the lost productivity cost of the hours in airport security?). The EU now wants to adopt those rules for its ownself, a sad reversal from the notion that the EU might decline to provide passenger data to a country that has so little privacy protection.

One possibility that's been raised on both sides of the Atlantic is a "trusted passenger" scheme, whereby frequent travellers can register to be fast-tracked through the airport. In a sense, most airports already have the beginnings of such a scheme: frequent flyers. As a Gold Preferred US Airways Dividend Miles member, you use the first-class check-in, and in some airports even sped through security via a special line. Do I love it? You betcha. Do I think it's good security? No.

If I were a terrorist wanting to get some of my cellmates onto planes to wreak havoc, I would have them flying all over the place building up a stainless profile until everyone trusted them. Only then would they be ready for activation. Obviously the scheme the security services have in mind will be more sophisticated and involve far more background checking, but the problem of the sleeper remains. It's like people who used to talk about gaming the system by getting a "dope-dealer's haircut" before travelling internationally: short, neat, and business-like. That will be the "terrorist's travel identity": suit, tie, briefcase, laptop, frequent flyer gold status, documented blameless existence.

The UK is also talking about "positive profiling" (although Statewatch notes that no explicit references to this appear in the joint press statement), which I guess is supposed to be more sophisticated than "Let's strip search all the Asian passengers" The now-MP-formerly-one-of-my-favourite-actresses Glenda Jackson has published a fairly cogent set of counter-arguments, though I'll note picayunally that the algorithm for picking passengers to search randomly had better be less clearly visible than just picking every third passenger in the queue. (You must immediately! report anyone who asks to change places with you!)

The Home Secretary, John Reid, has said that such profiling will not target racial or religious groups but will be based on biometrics – fingerprints, iris scans. We hope Reid is aware of the years of research into fingerprints (DOC) attempting to prove that you could identify criminality in a fingerprint.

Closer to net.wars' heart is ministers' intention to make the Web hostile to terrorists

For example: by blocking Web sites that incite acts of terrorism or contain instructions on how to make a bomb. Aside from the years of evidence that blocking does not work, it's hard to see how you can get rid of bomb-making instructions, such as they are, without also getting rid of pretty much any Web site devoted to chemistry or safety. Though if you're an arts-educated politician who is proud of knowing little of science, that may seem like a perfectly reasonable thing to do. Show me someone who's curious, who wants to know how things work, who likes to try making things and soldering things, and playing with electrical circuits, and I'll show you a dangerous specimen.

But beyond that, I'll bet professional terrorists do not learn how to make bombs by reading Wikipedia... or typing "how make bomb" into Google.

I'm not sure how you make the Web hostile to terrorists without making it hostile to everyone. If you really want to make the Web hostile, the simplest way is simply to limit, by government fiat, the speed of the connection anyone is allowed to buy. Shove us all back to dial-up, and not only does the Web become hostile for terrorists trying to find information on how to make bombs, but you've pretty much solved music/video file-trading, too. Bonus!

We hear quoted a lot, now, the American master-of-all-trades Benjamin Franklin who probably said, "Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety." But the liberties people deem essential seem to be narrowing, and no one wants to believe that safety is temporary. No plane full of passengers declines screening, saying, "We'll take our chances."

If there's a conspiracy, I guess that means we're in on it.


 cartoon courtesy Steve Bradenton

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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).