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Behind the bureaucratic failure

Although the story of passenger profiling in the United States is a damning chronicle of failure, it would be a mistake to interpret this series of events as merely a story of bureaucratic indecision and incompetence. Behind the twists and turns in the story lie genuinely knotty problems with the very concept of this kind of system. While it often strikes people as a simple, common-sense matter to "know who is flying, and not let Osama Bin Laden get on a plane," as proponents so often put it, the reality of trying to implement database and background checks in a democratic society is that it introduces many troubling implications and dilemmas, which are a big reason for the programs' failure to launch.

  • Questions about its effectiveness. Persistent unanswered questions about the actual effectiveness have dogged the program and robbed it of political support. The ACLU and other critics have pointed out that nothing in the system would prevent a terrorist from sailing through it simply by assuming someone else's identity. Unless the system is backed up by a kind of comprehensive cradle-to-grave identity tracking and verification system, it will be plagued with problems. Such a comprehensive system is unpalatable to Americans.
  • Due process and redress. Despite repeated official claims, decent redress procedures for the airline profiling plans in their various incarnations were never unveiled – and the existing procedures were proven to lie somewhere between useless and non-existent. Checks and balances are vital for this kind of program – but due process would be expensive for the government to administer. And the government has only begun to confront the knotty problems involved in a democratic society when the government tries to build and maintain secret lists and ratings of citizens, and impose what amount to sanctions based on those judgements, without opening up the process in a way that compromises the security value of the program.
  • "Mission creep." Critics have also pointed out that once put in place, the stage will be set for an inevitable expansion of this program. How will politicians resist expanding it to cover all forms of petty crimes for example? Who will stand up to defend, for example, fathers who fail to pay child support, or whatever other category of petty wrongdoing? How will policy-makers and administrators resist expanding it to new locations, such as bus stops and sports arenas? And what will prevent administrators from drawing upon more and more sources of data in a vain attempt to gather enough information about individuals to make reliable judgements about them?
  • Unreliable watch lists. Another problem with these programs is that the foundation upon which they are being built – watch lists – is rotten. In the United States, at least, terrorist watch lists have been beset by mismanagement and bloat. Instead of maintaining a narrowly focused list of true terrorists, the lists have been rapidly expanding to alarming size far beyond the number of people that anyone believes are circulating with any intent to attack airliners. The result: innocent people harmed and security resources wasted.