Thursday, 5 August 2004

CAPPS-II defenders won't give up

I’m denounced on the Op-Ed page of the Wall Street Journal today (and in a slightly different version on their Web site) as a “leading advocate” for travellers’ civil liberties.

I’ll take the compliment. The late Dave Dellinger (who led massive anti-war demonstrations outside the White House while President Nixon claimed to be obliviously watching football on television) taught me that you can’t expect the government to admit defeat, and that you know you are having an effect when the government, and its apologists, switch from ignoring you to criticizing you.

Today Heather Mac Donald writes in the Journal:

Edward Hasbrouck has decried both a voluntary [not really - EH] registered traveler option [true - EH], in which passengers agree to a background check in order to circumvent some security measures, and physical screening at the gate [false - EH]. Bottom line: Any security precautions prior to flight constitute a civil liberties violation [false - EH].

Heather Mac Donald has been a vociferous advocate of racial and ethnic profiling by police and other government agencies as well as of Total Terrorism Information Awareness and CAPPS-II. Her Op-Ed today is largely a rehash (although the dig at me is new) of a 1 April 2004 column on, inter alia , CAPPS-II, that was so extreme that Declan McCullagh, in describing it to his Politech mailing list, found it necessary to advise his readers, “This is not an April Fool’s joke (I’m serious).”

Ms. Mac Donald apparently includes me among those she dubs “Privocrats”. I’m not sure if that means she thinks I’m a government bureaucrat — an odd accusation to make against an anarchist whose only government employment was more than 25 years ago as a summer intern for the Massachusetts Department of Education, writing a handbook for public high school students on their legal rights — or if she’s trying to tar me by association with the Democratic Party, or vice versa. (For what it’s worth, it’s a matter of public record that I’m currently registered as a member of the Peace and Freedom Party, having signed a petition a while ago to help them keep their California ballot status, and not having bothered to go down to City Hall to change my affiliation back to “independent”.) And whatever she means, it seems peculiar for someone who works for an organization that professes a belief in market-oriented policies to be devoting her work to advocacy of a billion dollar unfunded government mandate for changes by travel companies to their information technology infrastructure.

For the most part, Ms. Mac Donald’s piece today simply repeats the same lies the TSA itself has been telling about CAPPS-II. But it’s also clear that she has no idea what she is talking about, and has made no attempt to familiarize herself with the work of people like me who she singles out for criticism: I rebutted these lies in detail in my comments on the CAPPS-II Privacy Act notices (both in writing and in person in a meeting last year with DHS Chief Privacy Officer Nuala O’Connor Kelly — who has continued to propagate the same lies anyway) and in a long succession of articles in this blog.

“Contrary to the rights lobby,” Ms. Mac Donald says, “Capps II was not:”

  • “A privacy intrusion. Passengers already give their name, address and phone number to make a flight reservation.”
    Actually, group reservations are routinely made with no names at all. Most reservations contain only a travel agency, not passenger, address or phone number — as the TSA found out as soon as it started testing CAPPS-II with real reservations, and as airline industry representatives have pointed out in testimony to Congress. Until changes made in June of 2004 to the airlines’ interline messaging protocol (the subject of one of several articles in progress that I hope to post before I leave on vacation next week) there was no way for airlines, travel agencies, or reservation systems to communicate individual passenger address information to each other, even if their own PNR databases supported it, which most still don’t and none yet require.

  • “A surveillance system. Neither the government nor the airlines would have kept any of the information beyond the safe completion of a flight.”
    This is perhaps both the most obviously false, and the most misleading, of the DHS/TSA lies that Ms. Mac Donald parrots. Nothing in any public version of the CAPPS-II proposals or any existing or proposed law or regulation in the USA would place any restriction whatsoever on the ability of airlines, CRS’s, travel agencies, or any other travel companies to retain reservation data for as long as they like. Even the additional data people making reservations would be required to provide — by government order — would still be considered the exclusive property of private companies, to do with as they chose. It’s unclear if the government has the authority under any existing law to order such records destroyed after flights are completed — even if it wanted to, which it doesn’t. On the contrary, because reservations contain financial records, current tax and public accounting regulations require airlines and other travel companies to retain them for years.

  • “The government would have had no access to the commercial records used to check a passenger’s alleged identity.”
    Actually, under the USA-PATRIOT Act (with whose provisions Ms. Mac Donald ought to be familiar, since she has written extensively in their defense), the government can get access to travel reservations and other commercial records, secretly and without the need to obtain a warrant, at any time.

  • “A data mining program. This misunderstood technology seeks to use computers to spot suspicious patterns or anomalies in large data bases, sometimes for predictive analysis. Capps II had nothing to do with data mining.”
    Actually, the whole reason the government puts such stress on requiring additional evidence of identity from travellers, and identifying information in reservations (if birth date is unimportant, why does the DHS care about it so much?) is to ensure the ability to mine reservation databases for patterns that might (although there is no evidence of this from the CAPPS-II tests to date) reliably identify would-be terrorists — or for any other surveillance purpose.

Ms. Mac Donald’s screed concludes, “It is mystifying why the government should pay heed to people who so disregard the public good.” Personally, I consider freedom, including the fredom to travel recognized in the First Amendment to the Constitution of the USA as, “The right of the people… peacably to assemble”, to be part of the public good.

Link | Posted by Edward on Thursday, 5 August 2004, 07:44 ( 7:44 AM)

Edward - you seem like a very smart guy, well-studied, meticulous, etc, but I am left to wonder what someone who has thought so hard about this problem would propose as a "solution"...easy enough to shred the govt proposals.

You will probably argue that it is not your place to dictate solutions. Still, I'd like to know where you fall on the continuum from the Gilmore/EFF proposal to CAPPS, from "no ID" to "everything you ever did or said".

Assume 2 outcomes are desired: safety, and cheap reliable convenient air travel. Right away, that rules out universal screening.

So what are we left with? What do you suggest? There has to be a way to achieve both ends that we clearly need to have more smart people thinking about.

Posted by: Ben, 5 August 2004, 18:39 ( 6:39 PM)

I thought you would be interested in seeing this article:

Posted by: Clay, 10 August 2004, 08:28 ( 8:28 AM)
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