August 29, 2006

Dataveillance: Airline Travel [6:58 am]

Homeland Security wants to know your telephone number, credit card number, travel itinerary, frequent flyer number, next of kin and meal & seating preferences — but it’s for your protection. His op-ed in the Washington Post, A Tool We Need to Stop the Next Airliner Plot (pdf) starts with an amazing assertion and then keeps on going.

Imagine that our troops in Afghanistan raided an al-Qaeda safe house and captured a computer containing the cellphone numbers of operatives in Europe. Wouldn’t it be important to know whether one of those cellphone numbers was used to book a transatlantic flight? Unfortunately, today our ability to make that connection remains limited: Information that terrorists readily share with travel agents cannot easily be shared throughout the United States government. [Emphasis added] That needs to change.

Let’s just think about that for a second: “Information that terrorists readily share with travel agents cannot easily be shared throughout the United States government.” The problem is, he’s not asking to collect that information about terrorists: he wants to collect that information about travelers in the hopes that he can use it to detect terrorists. If we rewrite the sentence to describe what he actually wants, you get something like this — “Information that travelers readily share with travel agents cannot easily be shared throughout the United States government and the government wants to collect and employ that information inconjunction with other data sources to try to figure out whether any of you travelers is a terrorist (no guarantees against either Type I or Type II errors, either).

The fact is that, no, I’m not comfortable with the notion that just because I share information with a travel agent, I should be happy to share it with my government. My travel agent faces a wide range of well established forms of liability should she misuse that data; I’m not sure what obligations my government has (or, worse, will be held to) should it elect to misuse that data. And, as we continue to learn, there are a lot of things that they can do with some of that information.

At this rate, we all need to take a moment and reflect upon the words of the Fourth Amendment, and ask ourselves if it can be reconciles with Secretary Chertoff’s wants:

Amendment IV

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

In case you were wondering what I meant by “keeps on going,” here the Secretary is complaining about the EU’s privacy protections:

The U.S. government has collected PNR [passenger name record] data on travelers aboard international flights to the United States since the early 1990s. This information is of such value that after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Congress mandated its continued collection. But in the past few years European privacy concerns have limited the ability of counterterrorism officials to gain broad access to data of this sort.

*Sigh* Recall that control of travel movements is another one of those slippery slope things that have been used to limit freedom in many societies. How confident are you that it stops with just “collecting” this data? And when has any data collection, once established, found only one application? Do you buy this closing set of arguments?

Protecting personal privacy is a part of responding to the post-Sept. 11 world, but it should not reflexively block us from developing new screening tools. Indeed, more data sharing leads to more precisely targeted screening, which actually improves privacy by reducing questioning and searches of innocent travelers.

Uh-huh. Not to mention reducing the government’s need to submit to any external scrutiny of its actions. Got any bridges for sale, Mr. Secretary?

Later: in case you missed it, expect a full court press on this — see the quote: Bush Shields U.S., Cheney Says: The vice president says `sound policy decisions’ by the president, and a vigilant government, have deterred terrorist strikes since 9/11. - pdf

Rumsfeld said that in every war, there had been “setbacks and difficulties” and compared critics of the Iraq war to critics of World War II. Without naming him, Rumsfeld singled out then-U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain Joseph P. Kennedy.

“When Hitler was bombing London in 1940, a former U.S. ambassador came home and declared, ‘Democracy is finished in England,’ ” Rumsfeld said. “And he said, ‘It may be [finished] here’ as well. Think of that.”

Kennedy, father of President John F. Kennedy, had opposed U.S. involvement in the war and doubted the British could defeat Germany. The elder Kennedy resigned his diplomatic post as war plans progressed and before public support for U.S. involvement surged after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941.

Tell me that you think the LATimes writer came up with that historical tid-bit all on his own.

Much later (Sept 11): and op-ed from the Washington Post — Share Data — and Protect Rights - pdf

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