Tuesday, August 23, 2005


Better security means more freedom

By ND Batra
From The Statesman

On a recent flight to Chicago, the airport security inspector said to me with a wry smile on his face, “You have been randomly selected to undergo special search.” Why me? Of course, I look different. And with my dark-brown tanned un-American face, I could be anybody. But there were other people too, many all-American faces, waiting for more probing electronic searches, which lessened my resentment at the special treatment.

I would rather fly safe than being blown up in mid-air, even if it sometime amounts to profiling, which of course is not a pleasant thing to think about. But don’t we all profile strangers when we meet them? Terrorism is with us, let’s face it, which we can preferably without compromising our freedoms.

For international flights, the searches are much more rigorous. Eventually India with its burgeoning airline industry, too, might feel persuaded to use the security measures that the USA has been enforcing: digital finger printing and photographing of approximately 24 million foreigners entering and leaving the country from its 115 international airports.

The surveillance programme called Visitor and Immigration Status Indicator Technology (VISIT) is based on the premise that either a potential international terrorist is known and has been included on the terrorist watch list and national criminal database that the homeland security department maintains or he could be digitally traced as he moves around the country.

Without such a comprehensive database, it hardly makes any sense for the home security secretary to assert that the system would “make sure our borders are open to visitors but closed to terrorists”. The inconvenience to visitors going through the VISIT screening process is not that terrible; nor is the emotional trauma so severe, not like what it might be in the case of someone being subjected to electronic strip search with a “naked camera” using low-level X-ray beams to reveal a person’s anatomy, including warts and hair along with metal, plastic or ceramic objects hidden underneath the clothes the person wears.

Nor is the procedure that time consuming for a visitor who has already spent several hours in the plane. As technology improves, electronic identification would become almost unobtrusive. Digital fingerprints and photographs will go into law enforcement databases to ensure that the visitor is the person he claims to be when he boards the plane from the place of origin and whether he overstays his visa.

With time, land borders between the USA and Canada and the USA and Mexico too would be turned into smart borders, digitally alive, as they should be between India and Bangladesh. The global village was not supposed to be like that but look what terrorists have done to Britain, the ultimate home away from home for asylum seekers.

The question is whether the system would do what it is supposed to do, that is, to apprehend potential terrorists without giving the authorities a false sense of security. For example, if the surveillance system ends up apprehending only small time crooks, drug offenders and visa violators, some other method less offensive to individual privacy could be used instead of subjecting millions of people to psychological discomfort of being suspects.

On the other hand, the fear of being caught in the digital net might keep terrorists altogether away from using airplanes as weapons of mass terror. When the surveillance programme was put in place, most international passengers visiting the USA took it as a minor nuisance but some advocacy groups such as the American Civil Liberty Union took umbrage at the privacy invasive programme.

Since it exempts some citizens of 27 countries mostly Europeans, including Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand and Singapore, on a tourist visa for less than 90 days, the regulations seem racist; but considering that the recent London bombings were perpetrated by British-born terrorists of Pakistan descent, the exemptions must be done away with.

France too has a law that requires foreigners applying for visa to be fingerprinted and photographed at the French consulates. That should be the universal rule. It is some hassle but many of us would gladly pay the price and fly with peace of mind to reach our destination safe.

Airport security measures are not limited to electronic surveillance. Israel, Switzerland, France, Britain and Germany use armed air marshals on some or all flights, as does the USA now. I believe armed marshals should be on all flights, domestic or international, in every country. We need a tough approach to fight terrorism. Passports must be encoded with digital fingerprints so that the identity of a person could be quickly established.

The USA has in place a comprehensive computer-screening programme that will check a passenger’s identity and colour code him based on the threat he poses to the aircraft. This electronic trawling approach is necessary to make air flights safe, along with improving other sources of Intelligence. The number of terrorists may be small, but their reach is wide and consequences horrifying. The same electronic scrutiny should be applied to trains, buses and subway travel. Most travellers brush aside the minor inconvenience of being digitally fingerprinted and photographed. Of course, it won’t stop there.

Eventually US consulates, customs and border protection offices, immigration services, and state and local law enforcement agencies will have access to networked information. Warning: It is at the local and state level that one does not know how the information would be used, and hence the possibility of abuse. Checks and balances are necessary to maintain the dynamic tension between security and freedom.

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