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Jewish World Review Feb. 23, 2004 / 1 Adar, 5764

Nat Hentoff

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Computers will say who you are | In his new book, "Terrorism, Freedom, and Security: Winning Without War" (Click HERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR.), Harvard Law School professor Philip Heymann, a former deputy U.S. attorney general, warns about the coming of a national intelligence state "where information about citizens is gathered extremely broadly and the activities of the intelligence agencies are unconstrained."

We are already well on the way to having our lives extensively computerized by the government through the Patriot Act's unprecedented powers of electronic surveillance, some of it with minimal judicial oversight through the compliant, secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

And the president recently signed the 2004 Intelligence Authorization Act, giving the FBI, among other agencies, the authority to gather bountiful amounts of personal records without having to get any permission from a judge. Some time this year, the Department of Homeland Security is planning

a test run of CAPPS II, an advanced version of the Computer-Assisted Passenger Pre-screening System that will subject the 100 million people or so who fly on our airlines to a risk analysis. This procedure will give each of them a score regarding their "threat level" of being involved in terrorism.

This system is not the innocuous, though annoying, collection of information done by telemarketers and other solicitors that is used to deluge our postal boxes and computer accounts with targeted junk mail. This is a compilation of private information, from various sources, that you may not want collected and distributed without your knowledge or consent.

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Already, congressional auditors, through the General Accounting Office, have warned about the plan's propensity for abuse of privacy, and they have raised questions about the accuracy of the information that will affix "threat level" scores next to each passenger's name.

The following is what Homeland Security is planning to do with the data as soon as you make an airline reservation: After the airline obtains your name, address, phone number, date of birth and intended destination, the information is sent to the Transportation Security Administration.

The data will then be sent to a commercial database company that will authenticate your identity. And this only begins the government's pre-flight investigation into you. On Feb. 2, Ann Brick, an American Civil Liberties Union staff attorney in northern California, reported in the Los Angeles Daily Journal, a legal affairs newspaper, on some additional screening procedures.

Brick wrote that the government "will next enter the passenger's name into a "Black Box" -- a computer program using a secret set of law enforcement, intelligence and other databases to generate a "risk assessment" for each passenger based on a secret set of criteria."

As this plan now exists, you will not know what those criteria are or what information about you has determined your threat risk. If it's green, you will get the usual, standard search before you can get to your gate. (Wear shoes with Velcro strips rather than laces. I've learned they're easier to take off.)

If you're rated as yellow, you will be subject to considerably more intensive searching. And if your color is red, your ticket will be useless, you will not be allowed to board the aircraft, and it's very likely that you will be taken to a room where law enforcement agencies will be asking a lot of questions.

Since we don't know what the computer thinks it has learned about us, we won't know how reliable the information is. Further, computer software is under constant threat of attack from hackers, who can potentially alter your security profile or steal all of this personal data that has been readily compiled for them into their one database. No one, not even the software juggernaut Microsoft, is safe from such data crimes, as have recently been reported.

So the CAPPS II data's trustworthiness becomes even more critical, which is apparently not a serious enough government concern, as Brick further reported that: "The unreliability of CAPPS II is compounded by having the assignment of a threat level to passengers made not by human beings but by computer algorithms. The computer is not simply asked to determine the likelihood that a passenger is a known terrorist or has identifiable links to known terrorists or terrorist organizations. Rather the system is also asked to predict whether the passenger 'otherwise poses a threat to passenger or aviation security.'"

What does "otherwise" mean? And, once this coloring scheme is in place, why limit it to airline passengers? To maximize homeland security, the government could extend this system to railroad depots, bus stations and beyond. Once a computer system is developed, by its very nature, it's child's play to share its results across a broad range of groups or, in this case, government agencies.

We would then be constantly screened through a network of government checkpoints, which, ironically, is an image often ominously mocked in American movies as part of a communist or fascist nation's modus operandi.

Since most members of Congress are frequent flyers, I earnestly hope they will subject this computerized transformation of America to persistent scrutiny. Can computers guarantee our being able to remain free Americans? Or is the Constitution's built-in protections, guaranteeing civil liberties, a safer alternative?

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Nat Hentoff is a nationally renowned authority on the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights and author of several books, including his current work, "The War on the Bill of Rights and the Gathering Resistance". Comment by clicking here.

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