22 October 2007

We Knew You When

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

In an environment of incremental change, it can be difficult to track the cumulative effect of change upon us; we lose sight of the forest because all we see is, ever so slowly, the impact on the trees. For Americans, nowhere should this be of greater concern than in the increase in presidential power, and the corresponding weakening of our civil liberties. As Charlie Savage noted in his article “Commanding Heights,” (The Atlantic Monthly, October 2007): “Taken one by one, the Bush administration’s efforts to expand presidential power seem familiar. Piled together, they are startling. The administration has asserted a power to imprison Americans without charges, to bypass laws such as those governing wiretapping and torture, to set aside the Geneva Conventions and scrap other major treaties without consulting the Senate, and more.” Now, the U.S. Senate wants to confirm a new attorney general who seems entirely in line with this same broadening of presidential power. They, and we, should say: No!


Just as Americans have lost a number of freedoms in the years since the September 11th attacks, to all appearances a very odd one has been partially restored: the role of identity as part of airline security. On a recent series of trips, I was struck (again) by the degree to which passenger flight processes have changed since late 2001. This is about more than just having one’s toiletries in a quart-sized Ziploc bag. In the aftermath of those terrorist attacks on the U.S., identity jumped to the fore: passengers had to show some form of identification at least three and often as many as five times before boarding a plane: at check-in; to get on a security line; coming through the metal detector; and then once or twice more at the gate, depending on whether you were pulled out for a separate (and theoretically-random) screening. The whole process was as much concerned with whether you were who you said you were, on your way to wherever you had decided to travel, as whether or not you were carrying something potentially dangerous, like nail clippers, large aerosol cans, or box cutters. At the same time, the newly-formed Transportation Security Administration (TSA) was pushing forward with plans to launch new identity review databases such as the Computer-Assisted Passenger Prescreening System, known as CAPPS II. (See Reason Magazine for a good selection of stories about this terrible system.)

This focus on identity is and was misplaced. In 2003 and 2004, Reason Magazine ran articles about John Gilmore’s lawsuit against the federal government over just this issue: the need for identification in order to board an airplane. As Brian Doherty wrote in “Suspected Terrorist,” in the August/September 2003 edition of the magazine, “Anyone can flash a card with his or her picture (or someone who looks like him) and a name and address. ... Real security, he [Gilmore] believes, comes from making sure travelers don't have weapons or explosives on them and having people on planes ready to fight would-be hijacker.” The airlines themselves might have reason to be concerned that the person who paid for a ticket is the one who is using it, in order to prevent theft and fraud; but odds are that there were relatively few instances of people stealing other folks’ tickets. (Stealing credit cards and buying tickets was and is a different matter; but that relates to identity theft, not passenger security.) So too might the Federal government have an interest in the identity of travelers, so as to catch those fleeing from certain crimes; but at the moment, interstate travel by car requires no proof of identity, and most people working that hard to maintain fugitive status might be just as likely to have well-faked ID.

Now, however, the identity-security situation has changed, been scaled back (for domestic travel) to two checks – and sometimes only one. Travelers not checking any luggage only have to show ID to get onto the security line. That’s it. Picking up an e-ticket does not require ID (or even a credit card, which might serve as a form of identification); once through the metal detector, a TSA security agent checks boarding passes, but no longer asks for anything else; and the at-the-gate screening has all but disappeared, for passenger identification as well as for any dangerous objects those passengers might be carrying. There is only one identity check: by a TSA agent at the security screening line, an agent with no on-site computer access and no scanning equipment to confirm the legitimacy of the ID being presented.

There are two ways to look at this situation, neither of them good. One perspective is that Americans have had some degree of freedom returned to them: that the TSA and the domestic-service airlines have come to Gilmore’s realization that the identity of the traveler is secondary to the question of whether they are actually dangerous. However, the Department of Homeland Security continues to test and seek ways to deploy identity screening systems (as this article from The Register indicates), so this does not seem likely to be the case. The other perspective, which is even more problematic, is that the system as a whole remains flawed. While the TSA is apparently deploying new, full-body scanning machines for testing (Total Recall, here we come), and some articles indicate that security screenings have become more sophisticated, other news reports about the failure of TSA agents suggest we still have a long way to go just on the process of checking for dangerous materials.

In the meantime, about the only thing travelers can do is try to keep abreast of an ever-changing, often arbitrary set of rules – and hope that yet-more arbitrary rules are not another harbinger of the increasingly Big Brother-like powers of our government, and a reflection of the diminished power of our citizenry.


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