Targeting travelers

October 01, 2007

Once again, federal assurances that anti-terrorism surveillance tactics respect the limits of individual privacy rights have been proved worthless.

Listen in. Here's Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff last December defending a program that collects and saves for up to 15 years information about the travel habits of innocent Americans:

"What we are doing is a sensible, totally constitutional and privacy right-respecting effort to make sure that we don't inconvenience the rights of most travelers, so that we can focus more sensibly and in a more risk-managed fashion on those people that do potentially pose a threat."

Turns out what he meant was that Customs and Border Protection officials are making long-lasting electronic notes of such personal details as traveling companions and reading material, credit card and telephone records, itineraries, hotel and rental car information and a preference for king or double beds.

One civil liberties activist who requested his records and then turned them over to The Washington Post discovered that his file included the notation that he once carried a book on marijuana titled Drugs and Your Rights, which homeland security folks apparently decided cast the shadow of criminal intent.

This is the great danger of such unregulated surveillance of innocent individuals. Observations are made by all-too-human, and perhaps not well trained, border officials and based on their presumptions and prejudices.

The information is stored for up to 15 years, DHS officials said, because terrorists have often proved in the past to have no criminal records that might be a tip-off, so these vaguer details about what they read and with whom they associate could someday prove useful.

Like the discredited FBI of decades ago, this program is targeting potential threats among travelers on the basis of hunches, bias and gossip. And once the information is recorded, it's widely available to law enforcement and other agencies.

From wiretaps, to spy satellites, to surveillance cameras in the public square, Americans have lost an enormous amount of privacy since Sept. 11, 2001. Mr. Chertoff and his colleagues would do well to remember that the Department of Homeland Security has a two-part mission: "preserving freedoms and protecting America." Soon, there may be nothing left to preserve and a country too damaged to protect.

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