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.