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The permission-based society

It was Edward Hasbrouck who drew my attention to a bit of rulemaking being proposed by the Transportation Security Agency. Under current rules, if you want to travel on a plane out of, around, into, or over the US you buy a ticket and show up at the airport, where the airline compares your name and other corroborative details to the no-fly list the TSA maintains. Assuming you're allowed onto the flight, unbeknownst to you, all this information has to be sent to the TSA within 15 minutes of takeoff (before, if it's a US flight, after if it's an international flight heading for the US).

Under the new rules, the information will have to arrive at the TSA 72 hours before the flight takes off – after all, most people have finalised their travel plans by that time, and only 7 to 10 percent of itineraries change after that – and the TSA has to send back an OK to the airline before you can be issued a boarding pass.

There's a whole lot more detail in the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, but that's the gist. (They'll be accepting comments until October 22, if you would like to say anything about these proposals before they're finalised.)

There are lots of negative things to say about these proposals – the logistical difficulties for the travel industry, the inadequacy of the mathematical model behind this (which at the public hearing the ACLU's Barry Steinhardt compared to trying to find a needle in a haystack by pouring more hay on the stack), and the privacy invasiveness inherent in having the airlines collect the many pieces of data the government wants and, not unnaturally, retaining copies while forwarding it on to the TSA. But let's concentrate on one: the profound alteration such a scheme will make to American society at large. The default answer to the question of whether you had the right to travel anywhere, certainly within the confines of the US, has always been "Yes". These rules will change it to "No".

(The right to travel overseas has, at times, been more fraught. The folk scene, for example, can cite several examples of musicians who were denied passports by the US State Department in the 1950s and early 1960s because of their left-wing political beliefs. It's not really clear to me why the US wanted to keep people whose views it disapproved of within its borders but some rather hasty marriages took place in order to solve some of these immigration problems, though everyone's friends again now and it's fresh passports all round.)

Hasbrouck, Steinhardt, and EFF founder John Gilmore, who sued the government over the right to travel anonymously within the US, have all argued that the key issue here is the right to assemble guaranteed in the First Amendment. If you can't travel, you can't assemble. And if you have to ask permission to travel, your right of assembly is subject to disruption at any time. The secrecy with which the TSA surrounds its decision-making doesn't help.

Nor does the amount of personal data the TSA is collecting from airline passenger name records. The Identity Project's recent report on the subject highlights that these records may include considerable detail: what books the passenger is carrying, what answer you give when asked where you've been or are going, names and phone numbers given as emergency contacts, and so on. Despite the data protection laws, it isn't always easy to find out what information is being stored; when I made such a request of US Airways last year, the company refused to show me my PNR from a recent flight and gave as the reason: "Security." Civilisation as we know it is at risk if I find out what they think they know about me? We really are in trouble.

In Britain, the chief objections to the ID card and, more important, the underlying database, have of course been legion, but they have generally focused on the logistical problems of implementing it (huge cost, complex IT project, bound to fail) and its general privacy-invasiveness. But another thing the ID card – especially the high-tech, biometric, all-singing, all-dancing kind – will do is create a framework that could support a permission-based society in which the ID card's interaction with systems is what determines what you're allowed to do, where you're allowed to go, and what purchases you're allowed to make. There was a novel that depicted a society like this: Ira Levin's This Perfect Day, in which these functions were all controlled by scanner bracelets and scanners everywhere that lit up green to allow or red to deny permission. The inhabitants of that society were kept drugged, so they wouldn't protest the ubiquitous controls. We seem to be accepting the beginnings of this kind of life stone, cold sober.

American children play a schoolyard game called "Mother, May I?" It's one of those games suitable for any number of kids, and it involves a ritual of asking permission before executing a command. It's a fine game, but surely it isn't how we want to live.

Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, at her personal blog, or by email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).


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