Dispatches From the Front Lines of the War on Privacy

Government Computer To Decide Who is a Terrorist

The Federal Aviation Administration ( FAA) has announced that is will implement a new computer system called Computer Assisted Passenger Screening (CAPS) to profile and evaluate airline passengers before they get on planes. The computer will be trying to determine if a passenger is a terrorist by analyzing “suspicious” characteristics.

Although bureaucrats won’t reveal the specific “suspicious” profiles they’re looking for, experts speculate that traveling alone, buying your ticket at the last minute, visiting unapproved foreign countries, or frequent travel could get you tagged as a possible terrorist. Passengers could also be picked at random.

If you fit the “terrorist profile,” security agents could pull you out of line, search your luggage, interrogate you about your travel plans, tag your luggage with bright orange labels, or escort you onto the plane. In a worst-case scenario, you could be x-rayed, or subjected to a body cavity search.

“CAPS will turn air travel into computerized Russian roulette, where a microchip will decide if security agents should detain or search you, ” said Steve Dasbach, National Director of the Libertarian Party. “Last year, 50,892 airline passengers underwent some kind of body search by airport personnel. You could be next – even if you are 100% innocent of any crime – and their excuse will be: ‘The computer made me do it.’”

Concluded Dasbach, “The Fourth Amendment guarantees protection against unreasonable search and seizure. There’s no exception that says ‘unless a computer program says you’re guilty.’ Innocent Americans shouldn’t be treated like terrorists because a computer chip doesn’t like them.”


It’s doubtful that your General Motors car salesman told you about the extra accessory hidden under the hood. It’s a small silver box (called a black box after the device of the same name on airplanes) that records every detail about the operation of the car. It constantly monitors the car’s speed, its throttle position, the engine’s RPM and whether the driver is wearing a seat belt. Upon a crash impact, the box stops recording and saves the last five seconds of information.

Supporters of the idea say will give accident investigators and insurance companies the key to what actually happened in the final moments before a crash.

However, privacy-rights advocates reason that since the information could put a car owner at fault, the boxes will make it easier for insurance companies to refuse to pay claims. In fact, the box has the capacity to incriminate the driver. “It’s like having a cop and an insurance agent riding in the back seat,” says reporter Elizabeth Wilberg.

Moreover, the black boxes may signal a more vigorous surveillance to come. Insurance companies may lobby for full access to the boxes. Says Charles Langley of the Utility Consumers Action Network, “In the wrong hands, it can do the consumer wrong.”

One question to proponents comes to mind. If the black box is just an innocent, but valuable tool for safety, why doesn’t GM advertise that the devises are in the car? Is it a secret?


Nob Hill Foods, a chain of grocery stores has decided to pull its discount card program due to customer’s concerns over privacy. The discount card gives the store a tracking device to show what each customer buys and that individual’s shopping pattern. The discount card is used by many other grocery store chains. The card gives special discounts that aren’t available to people who pay by cash, check or credit.

The privacy concern is over third parties accessing this information. For example, it a person buys cigarettes and the information is passed to that person’s insurance company, the individual could be denied coverage.

Privacy Papers, Free Congress Foundation, 717 Second Street, NE, Washington, DC 20002

Tom DeWeese
[email protected]

Tom DeWeese is President of the American Policy Center and National Grassroots Coordinator for CFACT (Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow) working to help local activists organize into Freedom Pods (www.CFACT.org). He is also the author of three books, including Now Tell Me I Was Wrong, ERASE, and Sustainable: the WAR on Free Enterprise, Private Property, and Individuals.