Montréal,  23 oct. - 5 nov. 1999
Numéro 48
  (page 6)
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 by Ralph Maddocks
          You probably hadn't realized it but the US government perceives you as a terrorist, or at least as having the potential to be one. You may well conclude this if you look at the computer monitoring system in use at certain US airports. Their computers use a so far secret algorithm to compare your personal profile with those of known or likely terrorists, with other airline passengers being selected at random for scrutiny and investigation. Costing a mere $2.8 billion, all 32 US based airlines are to be required to devise computer-assisted screening programmes, known as CAPS, and already many of them have indeed already complied with this FAA rule.  
          The main cause of this infringement of the privacy of the travelling public was the crash of TWA Flight 800, an event which is still the subject of discussion in some quarters as to whether it was a terrorist attack or not. The official verdict is that it was not, but in the atmosphere of panic accompanying the event, President Clinton set up a White House Commission on Aviation, Safety and Security. Although the Canadian experience would suggest that such commissions are most often used for drawing attention away from a problem, and away from those politicians who may be responsible for it, once a commission has been formed it has to produce recommendations. Within thirty days of the Commission’s preliminary report, President Clinton had signed into law many of its recommendations. Clinton claimed that « as a result of these steps, not only will the American people feel safer they will be safer. »
How safe is safe? 
          Would-be President Gore did say that there is no « silver bullet » available to ensure aviation security. He referred to the trade-offs which would be required in terms of security, direct costs, delays and inconvenience to the travelling public to say nothing of their civil liberties. While computer background checks to identify possible terrorists may be accomplished at a reasonable cost they obviously entail the curtailment of individual freedoms. How safe is safe enough? Short of banning air travel completely, an unacceptably high price to pay, travellers must accept some degree of risk. After the TWA crash, earlier check-in times became mandatory and waiting lines became longer as questions were asked about the contents of a passenger's luggage and requests were made frequently for photo ID. 
          CAPS uses data which is already available in an airline's reservation system, the passenger's last name, destination, whether a rental car is waiting, the type of travelling companions, whether the tickets involve a return or are only one-way, whether the ticket was purchased with cash and how long before the flight, history of travel to a terrorist linked country; to name a few. The most pernicious part of all this is the linking of such essentially commercial information to the « profiling », so beloved of American police forces, and the « virtual » strip search. Passengers may be singled out on the basis of their perceived or actual race, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation or political opinion. If you are unfortunate enough to fit one or more of these conditions you may well find yourself the subject of heightened scrutiny.  
          The « virtual strip search » system in effect photographs and displays an image of the naked body underneath the clothing. The body scanner is capable of projecting a naked image of a person's body on a screen for others to see and is far more intrusive than a magnetometer which sounds a tone when a passenger passes through without removing their car keys or coins from their clothing. Such equipment can show a detailed image, even underneath your clothing, of breasts or reproductive organs and the relative dimensions of each. The image is so detailed, it can even show your navel. The system has a zoom option that allows the operator to enlarge portions of the image. Promotional material for the device describes it as « Non-Intrusive – the person being scanned remains fully-clothed. » It isn't « non-intrusive » at all, it is a gross intrusion of privacy.  
 « The “virtual strip search” system can show
a detailed image, even underneath your clothing,
of breasts or reproductive organs and
the relative dimensions of each. »
          I, for one, cannot think of any place where a person would have a more reasonable expectation of privacy than under his or her clothing. We all have private things in our possession, things such as medications we do not want others to know we are taking, catheter tubes and bags, evidence of mastectomies, colostomy appliances, penile implant devices, and artificial limbs, to mention just a few. We certainly do not expect that we will be required to show these to others before boarding an aeroplane. The Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution holds that people’s property shall not be subjected to unreasonable searches and seizures. It requires warrants based upon probable cause of criminality. 
Intrusive manoeuvres 
          Hopefully, the US courts will find that such searches are intrusive and insist upon their use only when there is an extremely high level of suspicion involved. Where for example there is probable cause to believe that the individual is involved in a criminal activity such that a strip search would be conducted under existing law. Not a search based on a profile such as that the passenger is young, Muslim, born in the Middle East, olive skinned, bought a ticket this morning and frequently travels on business to the Middle East.  
          Some months ago, the National Research Council released a report entitled Airline Passenger Security Screening. Their report suggested that passengers might be more willing to sacrifice their privacy to aviation security measures if they could be convinced that the threat that their aeroplane would be bombed was relatively high. Ignoring walking, flying today is probably the safest form of travel. This has prompted at least one commentator to suggest that the enhanced security measures proposed by the Gore Commission would actually cost, not save, lives. People would become more inclined to travel by car – a more dangerous mode of transportation – because of the inconvenience, cost and invasive nature of security measures.  
          When you check your bags at the airline counter you are not checking your right to privacy. Airports should not become some kind of « cyber-Checkpoint Charlie » where you are required to present your identification papers, where computer files about you are questioned, or where if you fit some profile or other you are subjected to an overly intrusive search.  
          The security systems adopted for airports today will undoubtedly find their way into other areas tomorrow. Already, X-ray machines and magnetometers have found, or are finding, their way into US government buildings, courts, banks and schools. Our own provincial government is already employing magnetometers to scan visitors to the august halls of what it is pleased to call the National Assembly. It is doubtful that much time will elapse before these more intrusive devices make their appearance in this land, assuming that they have not already done so.  
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