Memo to airports: Hire Big Brother

By Peter J. Ognibene

Published November 29, 2001 8:30PM (EST)

Read the story.

I see: "suspicious" now equals "poor." Forget about trying to identify people with actual ties to terrorist groups, or putting screening procedures into place that treat all passengers to equal (and intense) scrutiny. We can apparently solve our problems with terrorists by instead zeroing in on people who don't have much income, or have a spotty employment record, or don't have a permanent address, or even (horrors!) have a frequent flyer number but don't fly very often. I can see the ad campaign announcing the new security screening now: "Whether you're flying first class or economy class, we trust you if you're middle-class."

-- Amy Griswold

The author's hypothesis is interesting, but contains a fatal flaw that would probably lead to a very dangerous false sense of security.

The flaw? Identity theft.

His whole careful system of checking for the existence of personal history in credit records and employment data falls to pieces if the potential hijacker assumes an existing, legitimate identity. Then, shunted to the low security line, a terrorist is empowered to take advantage of complacent screening.

Identity theft could be something as sophisticated as the hacker-based databases of credit card numbers and Social Security data available through shady Internet sites, or by the simple and brutal method of killing a citizen with similar features to the hijacker in order to use the victim's documents for a suicide mission.

While the author's suggestion might constitute a useful tool for sniffing out some attempts, it should not replace other forms of screening for weapons, bombs, and wicked intent.

-- Ken Erfourth

If Mr. Ognibene is a foreigner or has family and friends who are foreigners, he will figure out pretty quickly how many innocent people might score low and therefore be prevented or hindered from flying. He cites the information available to loan officers and creditors but perhaps doesn't realize how easy it is to run aground on the rocky shoals of bad credit.

He is pretty blithe that this system would not be ethnic profiling, but I'll bet Ognibene is not an Arab or Persian name.

His system not only would infringe on the freedom of a lot of innocent people, but it would also provide only limited security. How hard would it be, if you were a terrorist, to borrow an identity anyway? We all know identity fraud exists.

His system also assumes that a native-born American would of course not board an aircraft with ill intent. This might be true during this crisis, but what about later?

It is stunning how many people are willing to trade someone else's liberty to obtain a little of their own temporary safety these days.

-- Angeli Primlani

Peter J. Ognibene writes, "Individuals for whom little information exists should face greater scrutiny than those who are well established in their communities." This is so wrong. For the U.S. to remain true to its roots, a person must be able to remain anonymous if they so choose. A person must be able to travel unencumbered by the government in any form. Who is to determine what is well-established in a community? This country is too diverse with too many changes daily in people's lives for there to be any realistic standard of well-established. Peter Ognibene is wrong. I would not want to live in a country where Peter Ognibene has his way with regards to airport security.

-- Mark W. Wheatley

This is one of the most ridiculous and nonsensical articles Salon has ever published. The author suggests that passenger identification is all we need for airport security -- apparently access to massive amounts of information about each individual will allow us to correctly identify as terrorists all passengers with thin employment records, few frequent flyer miles, and P.O. box mailing addresses.

The author seems to be ignorant of one important fact: The world is not safe. It has never been safe, and it will never be safe. There is no way to create a security system that will be comprehensive enough to catch every potential terrorist. Indeed, someday maybe a longstanding member of the community will attempt to take down an airplane -- what advantage will the author's rating system provide then?

Big Brother-esque measures are not the answer. In fact, if people would remember once in a while that they are in far greater danger every time they get in their cars than they ever will be on an airplane, maybe we could put a stop to all this nonsense and get back to our lives.

-- Elisa Rassen

Mr. Ognibene 's suggestions are dubious at best. Taken at face value, they would have had no ability to stop a determined group of men from creating havoc on board a plane. Suppose the 9/11 hijackers had been identified, and their luggage searched carefully. And should this search lead to confiscation of the so-scary box cutters, what then ... why, that would simply mean they would have used some other quickly fashioned weapons.

So the only use for Mr. Ognibene's strategy is to ban suspicious characters from flying -- where suspicious seems to be defined as "not having a middle class paper trail".

Perhaps this might help Mr. Ognibene enjoy his travels, but that's about all it does. Hardly a benefit commensurate with the disturbing impacts on privacy and equal treatment of citizens,

-- Daniel Hellerstein

Oh joy. An age- and Republicanism- index. Yeah, that'll help.

The analysis fails to account for a huge chunk of hardworking, patriotic Americans who have cash-paying jobs. These are jobs like the waitress who brings your power-lunch, the roofer who keeps you dry, the stripper who keeps you "faithful," clerical contractors who regularly handle confidential information, and so on. Consequently: little to no credit history.

Also ill-considered: identity theft. Under the screening scenario, our terrorists would still likely have gotten through.

This is tantamount to saying, "I'm privileged; screen that disenfranchised person over there."

>Economic profiling is unjust and counter-productive.

-- Jonathan Kidder

Is Peter J. Ognibene trolling us in the old Usenet tradition of posting something so full of wild-eyed certainty and so devoid of critical thought that even people who know better compulsively answer in patient, point-by-point rebuttal?

He says that we need to identify passengers, "who they are" and "where they live." Not if we're to remain a free country. The right to travel freely without being tracked, traced, tagged or otherwise monitored, although not mentioned in the Constitution, has long been firmly established and recognized in U.S. law and precedent.

Ognibene calls it a failure that the aviation security legislation does not "make use of government and commercial databases ... to identify everyone who makes a reservation." I don't defend this legislation but what Ognibene points to is not a failure; it is simply a characteristic of free countries. There are countries where everyone is identified, and permission to travel given or withheld based on Kafkaesque reasons like having "frequent flier numbers but few or no mileage credits," but such countries are neither free nor safe. Ognibene doesn't know what he's asking for.

Ognibene thinks that basic freedoms are something you earn, like credit, and that your freedom-worthiness, like your credit-worthiness, is based on how much you make, and whether you use a mailbox or a street address to receive correspondence. He even proposes a numerical score "invisible to the passenger" (!) yet available on demand to "everyone connected to air travel security."

But freedom is not a Fair, Isaac score. It's not a privilege you must first prove worthy of having. In this country, freedom is yours by simply being here. And for you to lose a freedom, there must be a compelling state interest and a due process of law. Rounding up the usual suspects is not a due process of law, nor is providing a false sense of security a compelling state interest.

And the totalitarian nightmarishness of it notwithstanding, a false sense of security is the most that we could expect if Ognibene's dream came true. He seems to believe that if the government "could physically track individuals from the moment they come into contact with the airline," we could prevent 9/11 incidents. He believes that such a system would have detected the 19 hijackers and "alerted airline and airport security staff to thoroughly inspect the men and their baggage."

And then what? Take away their box-cutters? Remember, the hijackers succeeded not because they were well armed but because they had learned to fly well enough to turn themselves into missile controllers, and because they intended to die among those they killed. They were not merely willing to die; they were absolutely committed to it.

No system can keep us safe from the unimaginable, and sacrificing our rights does not change this.

-- Walt Roberts

By Salon Staff

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