Tag: traveler

Will Taxing Foreign Visitors Promote Tourism?

President Obama is taking a break today from promoting a more federalized health-care system to sign a bill creating a federalized tourist promotion campaign.

In a closed ceremony at the White House, the president signed the Travel Promotion Act. After gaining final passage by the Senate last week, the bill will raise an estimated $200 million a year by imposing a $10 tax on visitors to the United States from countries where they are not required to obtain a visa. The revenue will be used to create and fund a new agency, the Corporation for Travel Promotion, that would work with the U.S. tourism industry to promote the United States as a global travel destination.

I’m all for promoting tourism to the United States. Tourism is an important “service export” that generates more than $100 billion a year in earnings from foreign travelers to the United States. But a new federal agency and a new tax on travel are not the right way to drum up more tourism business.

First, just on principle, promoting a particular industry should be the business of that industry, not the business of government. Americans also export billions of dollars worth of farm goods, semiconductors, machinery, aircraft, pharmaceuticals, and chemicals, along with financial, education, insurance, and other services. None of those industries deserves their own tax-financed promotion board either. If the payoff from promotion is so huge, the industry should be willing to bear its cost without the aid of the government.

More practically, it goes against basic economic logic to promote tourism to the United States by imposing new costs on tourists. Granted, $10 is not a large amount, but the demand curve for tourism is downward sloping - as it is in every other market. A higher price will lead to less demand, not more. As a spokesman for the International Air Transport Association told ABC News:

It’s absolutely counterintuitive. To us, we’re saying we’d love to see more people visit the United States, but we’re going to charge you more for the privilege of entering the country. We are in favor of increased tourism and visitation… but let’s look at our priorities. We don’t think that videos and billboards are necessarily a priority. Instead, we should be focusing on how to make customs and immigration easier for people.

As I argued in a previous post, the U.S. government should be doing more to keep dangerous people off  flights to the United States instead of making it even more difficult for perfectly harmless tourists and business travelers to get on those same flights.

Review of the Big REAL ID Hearing

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee held a hearing yesterday on the REAL ID Act and the REAL ID revival bill, known as PASS ID. I attended and want to share with you some highlights.

Good News!

Little good came from the hearing, as it was primarily focused on how to get the states and people to accept a national ID. But there is some good news.

First, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano declared REAL ID dead (much as I did in my testimony two-plus years ago). “DOA” is how she referred to it.

She also said that no state will be in compliance with REAL ID by the current December 31, 2009 deadline. This is important because a lot of people think that states doing anything about the security of drivers’ licenses and ID cards are complying with REAL ID.

Another highlight was the commentary of Senator Roland Burris (D-IL). He is a beleaguered outsider to the Senate and evidently wasn’t coached on the talking points around REAL ID and PASS ID. So he flat out asked why we shouldn’t just have “a national ID.”

Senator Susan Collins’ (R-ME) nervous smile was particularly noticeable when Burris asked why the emperor had no clothes. No one was supposed to talk about national IDs at this hearing! But that’s what PASS ID is.

REAL ID and PASS ID are two versions of the same national ID system, and nobody is denying it. That’s good news because the effort to rebrand REAL ID through PASS ID has failed.

A Fake Crisis

Some other issue-framing is worth pointing out. Chairman Lieberman and Secretary Napolitano took pains to point out the importance of acting on PASS ID soon, claiming that the TSA would have to seriously inconvenience travelers with secondary searches at the end of the year if nothing was done.

But this is the same “crisis” that the DHS navigated a little over a year ago. States across the country were refusing to implement REAL ID. The DHS Secretary rattled his saber about inconveniencing travelers. And the DHS Secretary ended up giving all states a deadline extension. Secretary Napolitano will do the same thing if PASS ID fails - saber-rattling included. There is no crisis.

Vermont Governor Jim Douglas Supports a National ID

As I noted above, PASS ID is a national ID, just like REAL ID.

By testifying in support of PASS ID, Vermont governor Jim Douglas (R) put himself on record as supporting a U.S. national ID. He can pretend it’s not a national ID, of course, and he did his best to paper over the issue when Senator Burris asked about it. But Governor Douglas supports a national ID.

There was a time when Republicans stood for resisting federal incursions on state power. In the 104th Congress, the Senate Judiciary Committee had a subcommittee that focused on federalism and the preservation of state power (the Subcommittee on the Constitution, Federalism, and Property Rights). But the National Governors Association, with Douglas at the helm, is now in the process of negotiating the sale of state power over driver licensing and identification policy to the federal government.

Rampant Security Ignorance

The reason why he supports this national ID law, Governor Douglas said, is that he, like every governor, “is a security governor.”

With so many Senators and panelists conjuring security and the 9/11 Commission report, it would be a delight if someone actually examined the security benefits of a national ID. The information is there for them. Again, my testimony to the committee two years ago supplied at least some. Then, I said, “Implementation of REAL ID would impose more costs on our society than it would provide in security or other benefits,” and I articulated how and why a national ID fails to secure.

But Senator Lieberman said he “assumes” REAL ID provides national security benefits. Assumes? He and his staff apparently haven’t familiarized themselves with the level of national security that a national ID would create, taking into account the counterattacks and complications of such a system.

Five years after the vaunted 9/11 Commission report - and the three-quarters of a page it devoted to identity security - Senator Lieberman, the chairman of a committee dealing with domestic security, has yet to look into the merits.

In case Senator Lieberman needs some help …

I’m So Sick of the 9/11 Commission Report!

Speaking of the 9/11 Commission, it has been five years since that report came out, and people continue to parrot the line that REAL ID was a “key 9/11 Commission recommendation.”

The 9/11 Commission dedicated three-quarters of a page to the question of identity security, out of 400+ substantive pages. Its entire treatment of the subject is on page 390.

The 9/11 Commission did not articulate how a national ID system would defeat future terror attacks. It did not even articulate how a national ID would have defeated the 9/11 attacks had it been in place. A minor shift in behavior by the 9/11 attackers, such as using their passports to board planes, would have defeated REAL ID and PASS ID, were we somehow allowed “do-overs.”

We are not allowed “do-overs,” and the problem we face is not 9/11, but securing against current and future threats - including people who might shift their behavior in light of security measures we take.

These shifts in behavior might include taking a few extra steps to get the documentation they need, for access to the country or targets. These shifts in behavior might include attacking targets that do not require documentation. Identity-based security is a Maginot Line.

The 9/11 Commission report was written at a time when little research on identity-based security had been done. It was written by fallible humans who knew little about identity-based security, and who got it wrong. The report is not a religious text.

The report did say something important, though: “For terrorists, travel documents are as important as weapons”! (page 384) It’s a terrific turn of phrase because it shuts down the logic centers in the brain - eek, terrorists! - and ends the discussion.

The “travel documents” the report was talking about, though, were passports and visas, not drivers’ licenses and birth certificates - the things foreign terrorists use to get into the country. If we’re going to turn the driver’s license into an internal passport - and TSA checkpoints are the beginning of such a policy - then perhaps these are travel documents. Just, please, Secretary Napolitano, train your TSA agents to not say, “Your papers, please.”

Even as to international travel documents, though, the 9/11 Commission got it wrong. Weapons are the only things as important as weapons. And the 9/11 terrorists didn’t actually use weapons any more substantial than box cutters. They “weaponized” a non-weapon. (Security is complicated, you see.)

Denying terrorists travel documents, drivers’ licenses, and IDs simply presents them some inconveniences - such as using people with no record of terrorism. Seventeen of nineteen 9/11 attackers were unknown to U.S. officials as threats, so it’s obviously not that much of an inconvenience.

Evading identity-based security is so easy. People do it all the time. And it won’t stop under anyone’s version of a national ID. But the 9/11 Commission said … !

Something New to Worry About

Much of the national ID battle happens at the federal level with these national ID laws, of course, but it’s important to realize that federal officials, state officials, companies, and non-profit groups are working to knit together a cradle-to-grave national ID system no matter what happens with REAL ID and PASS ID.

Here’s one worth highlighting: Thirteen states apparently are already scanning, or have scanned, their birth certificates into databases for use in the national ID system. The effort is being led by the National Association for Public Health Statistics and Information Systems in Silver Spring, Maryland. This group will undoubtedly have access to your private health information should federal e-health records be implemented, so you might want to familiarize yourself with them.

Is your state one of them? How many copies of your birth certificate can be found in how many places around the country? You might want to ask your state legislators about that. The future of this effort is to collect biometrics at birth, of course. This is a privacy problem.

But maybe all the privacy concerns have been taken care of. The proponents of REAL/PASS ID found themselves a fig leaf on that score.

Token Cover on Privacy Issues

Ari Schwartz from the Center for Democracy and Technology testified in favor of PASS ID. (Senator Akaka noted in his opening statement that CDT endorses PASS ID.)

He characterized opponents of REAL/PASS ID as wanting to “do nothing.” It’s a classic ploy - but cheaper than we’re used to seeing from Ari and CDT - to mischaracterize opponents as wanting to “do nothing.” As Ari knows well, I have advocated endlessly for a diverse and competitive identification and credentialing system that would provide all the security ID systems can, without government surveillance.

But Ari testified imaginatively about how PASS ID makes a national ID okay. He has concerns with it, of course, yadda yadda yadda - the privacy fig leaf obliged to wear a fig leaf himself.

And this is the unexpected bad news from the hearing. The Center for Democracy and Technology supports having a national ID in the United States.

Many would find this inexplicable, but it’s not. Though the people who work at CDT personally want very much to do the right thing, there are no principles to the organization beside compromise and having a seat at the table (neither of which are actually principles, of course).

CDT plays a wonderful convening role on many issues, and the name of the organization implies that it reconciles technology programs with fundamental societal values. But here it has given political cover to the push for a national ID in the United States. One can’t help wondering if there is anything that would cause CDT to push back from the table and say No.

Making Airline Travel as Unpleasant as Possible

The Transportation Safety Administration long has made air travel as unpleasant as possible without obvious regard to the impact on safety.  Thankfully, the TSA recently dropped the inane procedure of asking to see your boarding pass as you passed through the checkpoint – a few feet away from where you entered the security line, at which point you had shown both your boarding pass and ID. 

However, there are proposals afoot in Congress to set new carry-on luggage restrictions, to be enforced by the TSA, even though they would do nothing to enhance security.  An inch either way on the heighth or width of a bag wouldn’t help any terrorists intent on taking over an airplane.  But the proposed restrictions would inconvenience travelers and allow the airlines to fob off on government what should be their own responsibility for setting luggage standards. 

TSA also has restarted ad hoc inspections of boarding passengers.  At least flights as well as passengers are targeted randomly.  After 9/11 the TSA conducted secondary inspections for every flight.  The process suggested that the initial inspections were unreliable, delayed passengers, and led experienced flyers to game the process.  It was critical to try to hit the front of the line while the inspectors were busy bothering someone else.  There was no full-proof system, but I learned that being first or second in line was particularly dangerous.

Finally TSA dropped the practice.  And, as far as I am aware, no planes were hijacked or terrorist acts committed as a result.  But TSA recently restarted the inspections, though on a random basis.

I had to remember my old lessons last week, when I ran into the routine on my return home from a trip during which I addressed students about liberty.  Luckily I was able to get on board, rather than get stuck as TSA personnel pawed through bags already screened at the security check point.

There’s no fool-proof way to ensure security for air travel.  Unfortunately, it’s a lot easier to inconvenience passengers while only looking like one is ensuring airline security.

Tightening the Noose Around the Right to Travel

Ask anyone who has experienced life in a country where freedom of movement is not recognized, and you’ll come away impressed with the importance of having the right to travel. That right takes another step back in the United States today.

Today the federal government takes over from airlines the process of running passengers against its terrorist watch lists. This means that when you fly, the Transportation Security Administration now requires airlines to give the government your full name, your itinerary, your date of birth, your gender, and an optional “redress number.”

Running names against watch lists does not secure against even modestly sophisticated attackers — 17 of 19 9/11 hijackers were “clean skin” terrorists, without histories of activity that would get them on watch lists. And in 2002, an MIT study (the “Carnival Booth”) showed how passenger profiling failed as a security measure. Attackers could “step right up” and test the system on dry runs to see if it singles them out. The same applies to watch listing.

Transferring responsibility for checking watch lists is a small step, but it brings into sharp focus that the government is now pre-screening Americans’ travel and travel plans.

There is no telling which direction this mission will creep over time. In the event of an attack on some other mode of travel — even a small or failed attack — expect the government to extend pre-approval for travel in that direction. The government will soon discover that it can run names of travelers past other lists — first dangerous wanted criminals, then wanted criminals, then “deadbeat dads,” and on down the line to people with unpaid parking tickets.

With government officials pushing fear of disease to the level of mania, watch for medical records to be used in government pre-screening of travelers.

The current policy is to retain information about travelers for no more than seven days after each leg of a trip has been completed. If a person is a suspected match, TSA will retain the information concerning that potential match for seven years. If the potential match is confirmed, TSA will retain the confirmed match for 99 years.

Seven years is already a lot for people who just happen to have a name similar to a name on the burgeoning terror watch list. But the policy is likely to change too, and deep dossiers of Americans’ travel will grow.

Remember, again, that watch listing is security theater. It looks like it protects air travel, but it doesn’t. When you are prescreened for travel by the government — as this program saps your freedom to travel — you are giving up something for nothing.

Limiting the TSA’s Use of “Strip Search Machines”

I wrote here in February about the push and pull over “strip search machines,” also known as “whole-body imaging” and “millimeter wave scanning.”

The question is joined: How do you maintain privacy with a technology that’s fundamentally intrusive? Maybe by using it less. This week, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) introduced a bill to limit the use of whole-body imaging.

H.R. 2027, the Aircraft Passenger Whole-Body Imaging Limitations Act of 2009, would place several limits:

  • Whole-body imaging could not be the sole or primary method of screening a passenger, and it could only be used as a follow-up to other methods like metal detection.
  • Passengers would have the right to opt for a pat-down search instead of whole-body imaging.
  • Passengers subject to whole-body imaging would have to be provided information about the technology and the images it generates, on privacy policies, and the right to have the pat-down search instead.
  • Images of passengers generated by whole-body imaging technology could not be stored, transferred, shared, or copied in any form after the passenger has passed through the security system.

Most of these protections are already TSA policy, but agency policies are relatively easy to change compared to federal law. Without limitations like this, these machines are on the natural, mission-creepy path to becoming mandatory.

Rules, of course, were made to be broken, and it’s only a matter of time — federal law or not — before TSA agents without proper supervision find a way to capture images contrary to policy. (Agent in secure area guides Hollywood starlet to strip search machine, sends SMS message to image reviewer, who takes camera-phone snap. TMZ devotes a week to the story, and the ensuing investigation reveals that this has been happening at airports throughout the country to hundreds of women travelers.)

So this bill is a step forward, but from a very backwards position. Ultimately, as I wrote before, the solution is to return responsibility for security to the airlines and airports, who are most interested in and capable of balancing all the factors that go into safe travel, including passengers’ privacy, comfort, and peace of mind.

TSA Intimidates Political Activist Traveler

Thanks to ever-improving technology, we have a record of what can happen when Americans try to assert their rights against government officials.

The video is a bit ponderous, but when they play the tape of TSA agents interrogating a young political activist who wishes to exercise his right to remain silent, it’s riveting and offensive.

(HT RedState and @JonHenke)