Surveillance in the sky

Air travellers face ever-more intrusive surveillance – and an increased risk of being wrongfully detained

Gus Hosein

With only months left to the Bush administration, the EU has picked up the torch and is running with ill-considered policies on border surveillance. And it will succeed. Not only because the EU decision-making processes in security affairs lack accountability. Not just because the EU has been complicit in US travel surveillance programmes for years. But because the prevailing mood in the UK and across Europe is to call for “tougher borders” without quite knowing what that means.

In a poll conducted for the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust and published last week, around 50% of Britain was opposed to government surveillance plans like data-sharing, identity cards, and fingerprint databases. So far the government has not come anywhere near to convincing the population that it must interfere in their private lives. But there was one remarkable finding: only 31% opposed the government’s plans to develop border surveillance schemes at the UK border.

We don’t seem to mind border surveillance because we always imagine it applies to someone else. But there is nowhere in the world that you more powerless than at the border of another country. You are at the whim of any government official’s mood or interest. Worse yet, you’re at the whim of technology that will never quite work the way it is promised to you by governments (if they bother to tell you).

We’re all relatively familiar with the American scheme that collects fingerprints and a digital facial scan from visitors to the US. This data will be kept for between 75 and 100 years. At the time it was introduced, some governments and foreign nationals protested. Brazil even retaliated against visiting Americans.

The protests never gave US officials any cause to worry. They knew that every country would soon follow the US example and want to have its own toys to play with. Japan implemented a fingerprinting system in November, advertising with pride that it had caught up with America’s lead in the world. Russia and Britain have similar plans, and this week the EU is set to announce its own fingerprinting scheme.

The US is also leading the world in collecting data from airlines regarding your travelling behaviour (who paid for your ticket, travelling companions, who is your travel agent, travel history, and other types of information). If airlines fail to comply they could be forced to pay fines or prevented from landing. The US authorities retain this data for at least 15 years. They run data profiling algorithms to identify suspect travellers through the “Automated Targeting System”, originally designed to profile cargo. When this was discovered last year US policymakers were shocked. Yet there was an awkward silence from European governments. Again, US officials knew they need not worry because any protests would quickly subside as other countries would adopt similar techniques.

Indeed, despite fending off the Americans for three years on their requests for such data, the EU agreed to stand aside and permit EU airlines to submit this data to the US authorities on the condition that the EU could also gain access to this same data. In November 2007 the EU announced its own passenger-profiling plans. The UK has been doing this for years already, and yet no one actually knows how.

The fundamental flaw is that governments believe the more information you have and the more money you throw at a solution, then you’ve dealt with the problem. This is the idea behind CCTV surveillance, where we know that it doesn’t really work and yet can’t even begin to count how much money we have thrown at the solution, but we still aren’t quite sure of the problem we’re solving but everyone seems so darn happy about it. Same goes for ID cards and the fingerprinting of an entire population of innocent citizens. At least ID cards and other surveillance systems are receiving some form of public and parliamentary scrutiny (though it took years for this to happen).

But we hardly pay attention to the conduct of our own governments when it comes to border surveillance, so they escape scrutiny. The American people haven’t questioned the billions of dollars thrown at border surveillance in the US because they’re just happy to see their government doing something about it. Most UK voters (and political parties) would probably argue along similar lines. So we never find out whether it all works.

We do hear, when permitted, about the failures. The list of high profile border failures is long and depressing. Many already know about how Cat Stevens’s plane was diverted on a flight to the US. Senators and Congressmen were on US watchlists and were prevented from boarding planes without extensive searches. When the data profiling system crashed at LA airport in August last year 20,000 international travellers (US citizens included) were prevented from deplaning for more than 14 hours. Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen, was extraordinarily rendered to Syria and tortured for 11 months because a border-system wrongly interpreted his file, based on information from the Canadian government under data-sharing agreements, and concluded he was a terrorist (eventually the Syrian justice system recognised the mistake and sent him back to Canada). And on Saturday the Guardian reported that six Pakistani men close to President Musharraf were wrongly arrested at Gatwick and sent to Paddington police station for fingerprinting, questioning, and DNA collection.

But these cases, and the thousands of similar cases, never come out of the woodwork when a government is hailing all the phenomenal yet unachievable successes of the systems. Does it all work? We never even bother to ask the question so we hardly deserve an answer. But we will get the answer the next time we’re detained somewhere in the world.