net.wars: Suspected terrorist

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 01 August 2003

This week, Wendy warns that American freedom erosions are preparing to fly across the Atlantic - courtesy of British Airways.

Wendy M Grossman

Is the right to travel anonymously a necessary part of the First Amendment - freedom to assemble? This is the key question in a case filed by John Gilmore against the demand that airline passengers travelling within the US be required to show photo ID before being allowed to board a plane.

Of course, that demand is only part way to what the Travel Security Administration has planned for us. They want to do background checks on passengers under a system known as CAPPS-II that will take the information contained in the Passenger Name Records that are created when you buy your ticket, plus some other piece of identifying information such as birth date, and run it all through a variety of databases. Potentially, these will not only include whatever massive national database the Department of Homeland Security intends to create, but commercial credit and financial databases and a host of others. Many of us have pointed out that the terrorists who blew up the World Trade Center had photo ID, and that truly dedicated terrorists will put in the time to create unexceptional backgrounds for themselves.

Ed Hasbrouck, who has been worrying about the privacy of travel data for years, believes the whole point of CAPPS-II is not so much airline safety as getting travel data into the Total Information Awareness program. Er, I do beg its pardon, it's been renamed. To Terrorism Information Awareness. (Hm. That implies that everyone whose information is in the system, which will be everyone, is in fact either a terrorist or a suspected terrorist. Can we sue the government for slander?) Hasbrouck has been saying for years that travel data is the most revealing stuff anyone can have about you. People think it's just about locations and dates, but it shows who you travel with, what terms you're on (is that hotel reservation for one room or two?), and may even indicate your religion (orders Kosher meals).

The TSA proposals have problems - read Hasbrouck's page on travel privacy to see what they are - but dishonesty about the intent isn't really one of them. Gilmore is perfectly right to be alarmed, and unlike most of us he has the money (employee #5 of Sun, former owner of Cygnus Systems), the time, and the inclination to spend both on matters of principle. Gilmore was a founder of "http://www.eff.org" the EFF, and is an inveterate civil liberties advocate - just type "FOIA Gilmore Tien" into Google and see the long list you get back of cases he's pursued.

Most of us, when presented with airline security, just try to get through as fast and unnoticeably as possible. Gilmore, Agnostic love him, is the opposite; he was refused carriage by British Airways recently for declining to take off a button that read "Suspected Terrorist".

You can argue that Gilmore acted like a nut, that BA is not American and therefore not subject to the First Amendment, that a plane is private property belonging to a business, that an airline captain has absolute discretion, and that intransigence is not a rational response to easily unnerved staff. You can also argue that BA staff have long been petty bureaucrats who treat passengers like sheep, that they have should focus on real security issues rather than a passenger's nearly unnoticeable one-inch lapel button, and that what the other 300 passengers were really disturbed by was the no doubt lengthy delay while the plane went back to the gate to expel Gilmore and his guilty-by-association companion. But there is a principle here: do we surrender all our rights when we become airline passengers? If not, which ones do we have?

Gilmore's case about the right to travel anonymously is more serious. In 1996, when he began complaining about the photo ID issue and got arrested at San Francisco airport for refusing to show his, it might have been possible for a court to rule that there are anonymous alternatives to flying and that therefore Gilmore's freedom is not harmed by the airline "safety" rules. But things have changed since then.

You're now asked for photo ID to buy a bus ticket, or travel by train. About the only way you can travel anonymously now is to hitchhike or drive your own car. Or, of course, by getting someone else to buy your bus ticket for cash; they don't check the photo IDs at boarding, only at the ticket counter. Although, I've got to say, by now you'd think Gilmore would be instantly recognizable throughout the travel industry. Surely he needs no ID beyond his name, sandals, and tie-dyed socks for them to know who they've got there. But the fact is that you don't really need to know who he is anyway when he's sitting next to you. You just want to know he's not going to blow up the plane or stab you with the pin from the back of his button.

Want to stop - or at least comment on - some of this without being thrown off a plane? Read Ed Hasbrouck's backgrounder on the issues, and then email your comments to the TSA by September 30.

Europeans, please note: the US is putting extreme pressure on EU airlines to turn over their passenger data, too, and many of them already do. Complain to your Data Protection commissioner.

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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).