Is Big Brother Riding Shotgun?

The New York Times recently reported that government agents at airport security checkpoints have begun checking more than people’s bags, pockets and shoes. Now, they are even checking faces. This new technique, called “behavior detection,” is occurring in about a dozen of our nation’s airports. The program, which our government borrowed from Israeli airport security agencies, trains a small group of agents from the Transportation Security Administration on how to identify people with “evil intent.” These agents, once routine security screeners, receive only four days of classroom training and three days of practice before they are sent off to focus on passengers’ facial expressions, body and eye movements, changes in vocal pitch and other indicators of stress.

While many Americans are concerned with the privacy issues relating to this program, even those who are close to the project recognize its flaws. Paul Ekman, a retired psychology professor from the University of California and the developer of some of the facial analysis tools used by the U.S. government in this program, admits, “We have no basis other than the seat of our pants to know how many points should be given to any one thing.” In other words, the government has no idea if the program’s intrusive methods will have even an ounce of success. And how could they, based on such subjective and unreliable indicators? People at airports are often in a hurry, under stress and agitated—all of which is expressed in their facial expressions and mannerisms.

Since the alleged British bomb plot, government officials are placing even more scrutiny on international passengers. A recent proposal by Homeland Security chief watchdog Michael Chertoff would permit government officials to look beyond known terrorists on watch lists and check unsuspected passengers’ itinerary information more closely. Such information could include passengers’ names, addresses and credit card information, plus their hotel and car reservations.

However, more comprehensive databases such as Passenger Name Record already exist which the government could use to access this information. According to The New York Times, “Passenger Name Record is created by global travel reservation services like Sabre, Galileo and Amadeus, companies that handle reservations for most airlines as well as for Internet sites like Travelocity.” When someone makes a reservation with a participating travel agency, a file is created containing the person’s name, contact information, flight, car and hotel reservations and credit card information as it relates to the travel.

It’s bad enough that the government can watch your flight patterns and facial behavior. However, it won’t be long before they know each time you drive down the road to get a gallon of milk. In fact, the government already has the ability to access information right out of your car. Unknown to most Americans, nearly one-third of all vehicles on the road today (and 64% of this year’s models) contain small chips and sensors known as event-data recorders (EDRs) that can retain up to 20 seconds of data prior to an accident. This information includes speed, braking, acceleration and seatbelt usage in cars.

These “black boxes,” which are similar to the ones used in airplanes, are being used by car rental companies, transport companies and even parents alongside other technology such as global positioning systems (GPS) to determine how fast their employees or children are driving, the number of hours behind the wheel and general driving patterns. The technology can even capture up to 300 hours of driving data, which is then easily downloaded onto a personal computer.

These black boxes are also being used in our nation’s courtrooms to determine the outcome of criminal trials involving vehicular accidents. However, it doesn’t stop there. Insurance companies are interested in using this technology to track their customers’ driving habits, which, while not a true indicator of a driver’s overall driving record, could lead to higher insurance rates. Some insurance companies have even begun offering their customers discounts for voluntarily providing them with the information captured by the recorders.

Of course, this new technology and its use by the government (in conjunction with the automobile corporations) concern many privacy experts. Barry Steinhardt of the ACLU observed, “We have a surveillance monster growing in our midst. These black boxes are going to get more sophisticated and take on new capabilities.” In fact, the growing concern that this technology will chip away at citizens’ privacy rights has prompted several states to pass laws regulating their use and accessibility. In 2004, California was the first state to pass legislation that requires automakers to inform buyers if their vehicle has a black box and to restrict anyone from downloading the information from the box without the owner’s permission. Since then, nine additional states have passed similar laws and eleven others are considering it. The issue has even received attention in Congress, with Representatives Mary Bono (R-Calif.) and Michael Capuano (D-Mass.) sponsoring a bill that would allow car owners to turn off their recorders.

The government, as usual, claims that all of these programs are done in the name of keeping Americans safe from terrorists—and even from ourselves. As the threat of terrorism confronts us, our government claims that new methods are necessary to track terrorists and prevent them from striking. Even the use of surveillance techniques that don’t involve terrorists will simply be justified as being for our own good and safety.

But where will all this stop? As one privacy expert opines, “This is a confirmation of our warnings that once you let the camel’s nose under the tent, it takes ten minutes for them to want to start expanding these programs in all different directions.”

Perhaps Robert Tally of the National Motorists Association said it best: “Sometimes you just like the idea of being free in a free country.”


Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. He can be contacted at Information about the Institute is available at

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