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You can’t always get what you want

December 29th, 2009 - 2:36 pm

With the airlines facing the possibility of losing passengers due to a fear of more TSA hassles some in the industry are taking a look at extending the same protection to people that they have long extended to cargo. Stewart Baker of Skating on Stilts has more:

Lots of people have suddenly discovered the value of intelligence and good data for keeping terrorists off planes.  The latest convert is Kevin Mitchell of the Business Travel Coalition, who says that, since 9/11 “the highest and best use of each incremental security dollar spent should have been on intelligence gathering, risk-management analysis and sharing, and on fundamental police work such that terrorists would never reach an airport, much less board an airplane.” …

Thanks, Kevin.  But that would mean a lot more to travelers if you hadn’t spent so much time after 9/11 trying to, well, stop the government from spending incremental dollars on intelligence gathering and risk-management analysis and sharing, which at the time you were calling “invasive screening” and “data mining.”

Kevin Mitchell’s Business Travel Coalition was a leader in opposing Automated Targeting System (ATS), the database that is used by CBP to keep terrorists out of the country.

Kevin Mitchell was opposed in particular to the privacy issues that ATS would create. Mitchell wrote in 2006 that:

ATS is a truly monolithic and disturbing data-mining program which allows for the aggregation of personal information on business travelers; forbids travelers from accessing and correcting inaccuracies; provides for the sharing of such information with foreign governments and third parties; and retains travelers’ personal information in a dossier for 40 years.

Of particular worry is that ATS was widely thought to be strictly for cargo screening. It was discovered only recently that data on travelers have been collected for at least four years without the awareness of the U.S. Congress or foreign governments whose citizens are being profiled. What’s more, a dossier is being maintained on these travelers without their knowledge or consent.

We Signatories to this letter urge you to suspend the ATS program immediately; provide substantially more details on the program to us and our elected representatives; and proceed with ATS only through an official rulemaking with a significant public comment period, per requirements of the U.S. Privacy Act of 1974.”

It’s a worry. But with air travel rapidly becoming a torment and the real prospect of body cavity searches and heavy duty scanning in the works, the calculus may have changed for the airline industry. Nobody likes the prospect of having his anus examined by a TSA worker and may well drive longer distances or give up flying altogether to avoid it. Given the stark choices, many passengers might prefer to go through the ATS.

Some companies, like Palantir Technologies, have created data visualization and mining programs that can thread through the databases but firewall off information that is deemed intrusive to privacy, those being set by the regulatory environment. They can go anywhere they can go but only through designated corridors. The need for data mining products which can follow the strictures of lawyers was described by Alexander Karp, the CEO of Palantir, in an interview with Charlie Rose.

Perhaps the most interesting implication of the latest round of restrictions on passengers is that it forces the public to modify its behavior and expectations in ways that would have been unthinkable before 9/11. The seductiveness of utilizing the intelligence approach is that it moves the intrusion offstage. It can be increased without being visible in our daily physical lives. Consider for example what would happen in the aftermath of a Mumbai-style attack on American targets. If a Jihadi attacked a public place then bag inspections, pat downs, access controls and similar things might become a feature in any public place. Then you would see owners of shopping malls acceding — nay clamoring — for more thorough data mining. When its a choice between losing customers and losing privacy, you lose the privacy.

Leon Trotsky once said, “You may not be interested in strategy, but strategy is interested in you.” No matter how many assurances the administration gives that the War on Terror does not exist, for so long as the war actually exists — and it only takes one side to aggress — then trappings of the conflict will spread everywhere. Sooner or later we’ll live on a battlefield with all of its virtual barbed wire and and controls. And we’ll live that way until one side wins or the other gives up.


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