Privacy Row in the Skies

President Bush and the European Union are on a head-on collision course over Washington’s plan to introduce the largest surveillance system ever used on civilian populations. The American Civil Liberties Union has called it “a surveillance monster that will not make anyone safer”.

It could have a serious effect on tourism to America. It could see airlines that co-operate with the system facing huge penalties from the European Union. But those airlines who refuse to bow to Washington’s demands will be denied landing rights at all US airports.

Last week, as President Bush flew to and from Baghdad on Air Force One in a slick publicity stunt for footage to enhance his coming election video, he broke some of the very laws he now wants to enforce.

Air Force One did not identify itself as it sneaked out of Andrews Air Force Base. The President did not say he was on board. Or where he was going.

In doing so, he broke the spirit – if not the proposed law – of the Computer Assisted Passenger Pre-Screening System, CAPPS-II.
This is the updated version of a system introduced in 1996 after TWA flight 800 went down over Long Island Sound, killing 250.
Before it was learned that the tragedy was noting to do with terrorism, the Clinton Administration had rushed through CAPPS-I.

It was supposed to single out potential terrorists by vetting them before they boarded flights. Fliers who bought one-way tickets, checked in without tickets or paid in cash for flights were flagged as “potential threats”.

But now, prompted by Bush, Homeland Security wants to introduce in the New Year, CAPPS-II, that goes far beyond the original scheme.

Each airline bringing a passenger to the United States must supply Homeland Security with the name, address, date of birth, home and office telephone number and occupation of each traveller.

There will be no exceptions. Even babies must be logged. Details of a child’s school must be provided.

The information will be fed into state-of-the-art computers at Homeland Security’s Transportation Division.

Each detail will be checked with data-mining software to cross-reference that information with computerised records already stored.

These would contain details of previous flights a passenger has made – along with where and how long he or she stayed in the United States. Any change in marital status will be noted.

The data will then be processed by more computers to determine “the level of security risk to the United States” any passenger poses.
This information will be supplemented by a passenger’s on board food preference, who he travelled with in the past, who he is currently flying with. Details of how, where and when a ticket was purchased, by credit card or cash, will be stored for years.

“For this to work, a huge amount of private information will be needed on each person. But of the 39 separate items of information that the US wants on each traveller, only 19 are permitted to be disclosed under European Union privacy laws”, said Paris based airline industry analyst, Peter Densor.

Colin Wallace, a former British intelligence surveillance operative, said that CAPPS-II is a “further step to what the state does in the name of protecting the individual. There is something sinister in what Homeland Security is proposing. The results of such surveillance can reshape, reform, or at least control, the thinking and behaviour of any individual. Such surveillance is liberated from any legal or moral obligations”.

“The fact is that the US has nothing like the data-protection legislation which exists in Europe and it is very likely that intimate information on private citizens would be sold on from company to company”, predicted Peter Somer, adviser to Britain’s Trade and Industry Department.

Kevin Warwick, professor of Cybernetics at England’s University of Reading, says that “what CAPPS-II will do is to further ensure that surveillance will eventually totally control us. There are already far too many government bodies who are privy to our secrets. They are the watchers. We are the watched”.

A major problem with CAPPS-II – which will trigger confrontation with Washington – is that the European Community want it to have “as minimum” an independent appeals procedure.

A spokesman for the EU said: “If the systems indicate you are a high-risk passenger due to fault information held on computer, or the checks didn’t source enough information on you, then you could end up on a no-fly list forever”.

The supporters of CAPPS-II – led by Israel – say that civil liberties have to be traded for security.

But Richard Tomlinson, a former MI6 officer said, “that argument is knocked on the head by identity theft. For a few hundred dollars a false ID can be obtained. It is relatively easy for a determined terrorist to create a safe passenger profile with easily available documents; credit cards and driving licence. And the internet is flooded with the essentials of any identity; name, date of birth, address and telephone number”.

President Bush is determined, however, to have CAPPS-II up and running for the start of next season’s tourist influx. But how many visitors would want to have their privacy stolen by his latest whim?

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Gordon Thomas is a writer on intelligence – his many books include :
Gideon’s Spies_The Secret History of Mossad
Robert Maxwell – Israel’s Superspy
Seeds of Fire – China and the Story Behind the Attack on America

Gilad Atzmon, a former Israeli soldier now a writer and an award winning Jazz musician resident in London, where he lives in virtual exile