Thursday, November 22, 2007

Watch out: the watch list is growing


Today the New York Times reports that air travel has gone smoothly for most Thanksgiving travelers. The weather was good -- and prospective airline customers are getting well trained: many began the holiday a day early to avoid the crush.

So how's our "no fly list," our security theater system, doing? According to slew of recent reports on the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and its parent Terrorist Screening Center (TSC), the system is still limping -- and regularly infringes on our expectation that we're innocent until we commit a crime and should expect to be allowed due process to clear our names. Nor does it make us safer.

For starters, the watch list continues to snare absurd victims. In addition to Congressmen and small children, even an airline pilot has a problem:

Captain Robert Campbell was a pilot for the US Navy in Vietnam. He recently retired from a 22-year career as an airline pilot.

And, yep, he's on the list...

"The fact is, I'm authorized by the TSA to fly the airplane and ride the jump seat on air carriers," he said. "But if I want to ride in the back, I'm on the No-Fly List."

Aero News Network,
November 6, 2007

The TSA says this sort of thing happens because people have names very like or identical to people who should be stopped from flying. At the present rate of growth, roughly 200,000 new names a year, pretty soon one million names will trigger special scrutiny. Not surprisingly,

..."It undermines the authority of the list," says Lisa Graves of the Center for National Security Studies. "There's just no rational, reasonable estimate that there's anywhere close to that many suspected terrorists."

Though the government wins breathless hype from student reporters for its Terrorist Screening Center which selects these names, the office of the Inspector General was less impressed when it examined a sample portion of the list:

Inspector General Glenn A. Fine said its management by the Terrorist Screening Center (TSC) "continues to have significant weaknesses," producing a high error rate and a slow response to complaints from citizens.

In an examination of 105 records, for example, the auditors found that 38 percent of the records contained errors or inconsistencies that the TSC's own quality-assurance efforts had not found. They also discovered that the TSC is operating two versions of the database in tandem without ensuring that their contents are identical, which they said could result in missed opportunities to identify terrorists. ...

The review found that nearly half the initial name matches against the watch list proved worthless, suggesting that the government should consider misidentifications a priority and develop policies to address them, Fine said.

Washington Post,
September 6, 2007

Security expert Bruce Scheier got a chance to explain the results of bad matches to TSA head Kip Hawley:

The main problem with the list is that it's secret. Who is on the list is secret. Why someone's on is secret. How someone can get off is secret. There's no accountability and there's no transparency. Of course this kind of thing induces paranoia. It's the sort of thing you read about in history books about East Germany and other police states.

Not everyone gives the government the benefit of the doubt about its list collecting. As reported in Travel Management,

First Amendment rights activist Edward Hasbrouck, working for The Identity Project, during the TSA meeting said that the "core of the proposed rule" is a requirement for "would-be air travelers to obtain permission from the government before they can travel." That, he said, infringes on freedoms of assembly of movement.

And all this mass of names and data the government is collecting isn't just used to hassle people who want to fly. The government uses it in multiple other contexts.

The State Department queries the list before issuing visas, customs and border agents use it to vet incoming travelers and a subset of the list is exported to airlines for their passenger rating systems. More than 800,000 local and state police can also query the database when they pull over a speeding car or run a detained person's name through their computer system.

Wired Security News

The ACLU warns that the TSC envisions additional uses:

There was considerable discussion in today's [Congressional] hearings on whether the watch list should be checked for anyone trying to purchase a firearm. One can imagine the watch list, once thought of as merely a "No-Fly List," being used increasingly as a screening method to determine eligibility for a wide array of privileges and rights. A move in this direction would make it a true blacklist, with hundreds of thousands of Americans wrongly denied full participation in society because of erroneous placement on the list.

This certainly seems possible if the powers-that-be feel the need for more coercive controls over some of their opponents. For the moment, most of us are not threatening enough to invoke such a response. And for the moment, we can and must still defend whatever political space we can make. But something cancerous and evil is growing among us, exemplified in those airport security checks.

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