net.wars: Security must be seen to be done

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 24 September 2004

Are we trying to prevent terrorism or is the idea just to harass and surveille ordinary people so they're too intimidated to make trouble?

Wendy M Grossman

What kind of sense does it make to divert a plane to Maine - lovely as the state is in summer, and so convenient for shopping at LL Bean -- because you've just realised, most of the way through the flight, that you have someone on board who is on a list of folks who aren't supposed to fly to the US? Yusuf Islam/Cat Stevens could surely have been just as easily deported from Washington, DC without inconveniencing all the other passengers, to say nothing of all that embarrassing media coverage. Or did they think if he was going to bomb someone Maine wouldn't mind?

There must be terrorist cells who think it's a good gambit to send someone out to attack a plane full of people or a city who is so famous the security guards want his autograph, but there can't be many. The wise terrorist surely tries his best to slide through everywhere without attracting attention. He will have valid ID, a spotless record, polite manners, and, no doubt, what's sometimes called a "dope-dealer's haircut". The last thing he'd want to be is a well-known musician, even one who's retired.

Trust me, because I used to do a lot of it, you do not want to travel with what songwriter John James calls a Suitcase Shaped Like That. They like to search people with those. A lot. If I were any sort of conspiracy theorist, I would assume that someone as well-known as this was a decoy to hide the real terrorist activity going on somewhere else. If the gentleman in question were involved at all.

We will leave aside the incongruity of banning someone from entering the US because he might have given money to organisations linked to terrorist groups, when the US is already full of people who have contributed to the IRA.

But the real problem is that it's difficult to evaluate whether the Transportation Security Administration behaved either rationally or correctly, because it's so secretive about what it's doing. Regular net.wars readers may remember that activist John Gilmore has been challenging the government on this point ever since 2002, when he was told he couldn't see the rule requiring him to produce photo ID in order to board a domestic airline flight because the rule was secret. A couple of weeks ago, the Department of Justice tried another variation on the "rule is secret" ploy: it asked the federal appellate court, in which the case has now reached a hearing, to keep its arguments in the case secret. So there might (or might not) be such a law, but we're not supposed to know for sure

As Pat Paulsen once said in an editorial about censorship he presented on the Smothers Brothers show: "There is nothing in the Bill of Rights about Freedom of Seeing. You can look for it, but if you see it, you'd better not show it to anybody."

But seeing the rule isn't in and of itself why Gilmore is pursuing this case. The second part of his objective is to question whether requiring photo ID and operating the "no-fly" list that is now famous for having trapped Islam is Constitutional. Gilmore believes it potentially violates Americans' First Amendment rights to free assembly and Fourth Amendment rights to be free of unreasonable search and seizure.

Since 2002, when Gilmore originally brought his case, a lot has changed. At the time, a judge might have been able to argue that requiring identification for air travel wasn't much of an imposition because there were other transport choices available. Now you have to show ID to buy a bus or train ticket, and inspectors are randomly checking people's ID on the Boston T, and increasingly access to all public transport requires identification. "Unless you'd rather be intimately searched, sir?"

The security expert Bruce Schneier has described the no-fly list this way: "a list of suspected terrorists so dangerous that we can't ever let them fly, yet so innocent that we can't arrest them - even under the draconian provisions of the Patriot Act". As usual, Schneier gets to the heart of things. The travel security we have now has always had two divergent motives. One is to act as a reassurance policy. After the 9/11 attacks, people were frightened to travel, and putting very visible security in place, even - perhaps especially - if it caused them delays and harassment, helped convince them it was safe enough. The other is to service law enforcement's eternal desire for more information and more control. Travel data, as industry expert Ed Hasbrouck keeps reminding us, is exceptionally revealing and valuable if you are constructing a surveillance system.

The second of those motives requires a certain amount of secrecy. You don't want it to be obvious to people why and when you're surveilling them. For maximum effect, you want them to know, however, that you could be watching them at any time. The first requires maximum visibility at all times: people are not reassured by security they can't see.

This week, we've seen it in all its glory. Do you feel safer now

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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).