Commentary

It’s Not Just About Terrorists

This article was first published in The Record (Bergen County, NJ), March 7, 2002.

In the name of catching terrorists, the federal government is rapidly establishing program after program to monitor law-abiding American citizens. Long-standing wish lists of government officials and special interests for expanded government surveillance of ordinary Americans are being trotted out daily, wrapped in fine-sounding phrases. Promoters hope that busy and frightened Americans will look no further than each measure’s reassuring title.

We’d better look beyond the titles. These measures seek to establish federal surveillance of law-abiding people on a scale previously unimaginable in America. They reflect a now accelerated quest for biometric identification of all Americans — using technology to track people by myriad physical characteristics: eye color/retinal scan, fingerprints, DNA, etc. The end game is eventual linkage of that identifier to a multitude of government and private-sector databases of personal information, enabling the central government to track and monitor our daily lives in detail.

Prior to Sept. 11 the federal government already had mandated creation of vast databases capable of providing officials with an enormously detailed portrait of the lives of every American — our finances, our educational experiences, our employment, our medical care, and countless other personal activities chronicled in records now tied to our Social Security numbers. The goal of federal officials now is to facilitate more immediate and unfettered governmental access to this information.

In November Congress passed the `Aviation and Transportation Security Act,’ 51 more pages of new federal authority. Only now are we learning that this law authorized the creation of `trusted passenger programs’ that employ biometric identifiers with linkages to government and private databases of personal information about law-abiding citizens. By calling it a `trusted traveler card’ and appealing to our desire to avoid travel delays, authorities hope we will not perceive its potential to become a national ID card in everything but name.

Federal authorities also are moving ahead with efforts to centralize air passenger data from every airline reservation system in the nation, establishing a computer network linked to electronic databases containing information about where we work, where and with whom we live, our financial records, and more. Washington Post writer Robert O’Harrow recently quoted former FAA official Joseph Del Balso as saying, “This technology … gives us a pretty good idea of what’s going on in a person’s mind.”

At the same time, the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators (AAMVA) is working with like-minded federal officials to try to turn our drivers’ licenses into the functional equivalent of national ID cards. That effort also contemplates use of biometric identifiers and linkages to federal government databases about our private lives.

Meanwhile, officials of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently commissioned a draft “Model State Emergency Health Powers Act” and now seek its passage across the nation. The purpose of the act is to establish something like martial law when a state public health authority declares a “public health emergency.” Private property could be seized, people subjected to medical tests and treatments without their consent, physicians forced to administer treatments to patients as ordered by the state on penalty of losing their medical licenses. And individuals who objected to government-mandated medical treatments on grounds of religion or conscience could be quarantined until authorities decided that the public health emergency had ended.

Can anyone doubt that these measures are anathema to a free society? Access to the transportation system can be controlled by government and medical treatments imposed by government. What’s next?

Do not imagine that these new measures will catch many terrorists. Indeed, it has been widely reported that the intelligence failures that permitted the Sept. 11 terrorists to elude authorities were more a product of too much data clogging the system than too little. Unfortunately, in the long run these measures may primarily threaten freedom of speech and assembly — “what’s going on in our minds” — not foreign terrorists. A watched people are not free. If we trade our liberty for the mirage of an unattainable security, we will wind up bereft of both.

During the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden said: “I tell you, freedom and human rights in America are doomed…. The U.S. government will lead the American people in and the West in general into an unbearable hell and a choking life.” If the new push for surveillance of ordinary Americans succeeds, Bin Laden may be proved right. These measures do not just target terrorists. They target American liberty.

Charlotte A. Twight, professor of economics at Boise State University, is author of “Dependent on D.C.: The Rise of Federal Control Over the Lives of Ordinary Americans” (Cato/St. Martin’s Press, January 2002).