It should go without saying that in a free country, or even a relatively free one, government officials should not maintain huge databases of individuals for monitoring and security purposes.
Yet the U.S. government, for the nominal purpose of improving airport security, is pushing a new big-brother-style system to monitor air travelers.
Federal officials, having failed to gain voluntary support from U.S. airlines, are planning to force the companies to hand over reservation records, according to a report in Monday’s Washington Post. “Under the system, all travelers passing through a U.S. airport are to be scored with a number and a color that ranks their perceived threat to the aircraft.”
As the newspaper explains, the government would collect personal data on all travelers, including items such as addresses, dates of birth, travel itineraries, home telephone numbers, and then plug that information into databases accessing public information.
The profile of the traveler would then be compared to lists of suspected terrorists in government databases. The routes taken by the traveler would likewise be compared to computerized intelligence about destinations and travel plans.
Finally, a color would be assigned to the traveler. A traveler with the “red” code would be denied boarding, a traveler with the “yellow” code would undergo intense scrutiny, and a passenger with a “green” code would go through normal security measures, according to the Post.
Another proposal would allow travelers to register with the government in advance, providing detailed personal information in exchange for a special card that would allow them to avoid some security hassles. The airlines, which have resisted providing additional passenger data to the feds out of fears of a passenger backlash, have, according to the Post, advocated this “trusted traveler” approach.
It’s not just the name — “trusted traveler” — that has an Orwellian ring to it. The program and the color-code program promoted by the Transportation Security Administration are troubling from a civil liberties standpoint. The TSA idea is the worst of the two, in that it creates a new massive government database, and gives the government broad powers to monitor personal information about average citizens who have done nothing other than tried to board an airplane.
The possibility for errors is enormous. If a person accidentally gets labeled a red or yellow risk, what are the chances the problem could quickly be resolved? Knowing how government handles such matters, we fear that some individuals will be unfairly denied their right to travel. No due process is provided to clear one’s name. The government gets complete power to assign risk codes to individuals.
In “trusted traveler,” at least the individual is volunteering to provide the information in exchange for an easier pass through the security system. The agency wouldn’t give details on its trial program of this system, but it raises some of the same fears as the color-code system.
We haven’t even gotten to the practical application of such programs, to the question of whether any of these intrusive procedures will actually improve security for the public. It seems doubtful, but that’s not the point. The point is the systems empower the government to snoop and label individuals without providing anything resembling due process or presumption of innocence.
Congress needs to step in and stop this nonsense before the country begins to resemble one of those futuristic societies in a dystopian movie.