If you’ve traveled out of the country, the government may have a file with your name on it.
Names, addresses, credit card information. Itineraries, telephone numbers and e-mail addresses. The cars that you rented and the names of the hotels where you stayed. Even the books that you read, the people you traveled with and the type of bed you requested in your hotel room.
And that’s just some of the information that is gleaned by our government when ordinary citizens come into contact with border agents and transportation safety officials, or give personal information to airlines and companies that make travel reservations. The data is downloaded to the government’s Automated Targeting System, which links electronically to border points and reservation systems.
Why? Inquiring minds in the Department of Homeland Security want to know. Since 2002, they’ve updated the system by bringing more border checkpoints online, as well as mandating that airlines provide data.
Security officials claim it’s for our own good, of course. They say they need to know all they can about people who enter our country, including law-abiding Americans, in order to detect patterns and protect us from terrorists.
But privacy advocates and civil liberty activists correctly label it as an unnecessary and dangerous intrusion into the lives of regular people; another step in our evolution toward a surveillance society. The Identity Project, a group of civil liberties advocates, requested their Automated Targeting System files, and were shocked by what they found.
John Gilmore of San Francisco carried a book about marijuana laws on an overseas trip, a fact that was illegally recorded in his file. And Edward Hasbrouck, a travel consultant, found information about his travel companions, another constitutional no-no. These and other cases are apparent violations of federal privacy laws, which prohibit the government from violating your First Amendment rights by collecting data about the books that you read and the people you choose to associate with.
It’s just another example of how the eavesdropping Bush administration has used the events of Sept. 11 to wage war on our civil liberties.
Forget Big Brother. Americans who value privacy and freedom have a bigger concern, one based on fact and not fiction. Uncle Sam is watching.