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Privocrats Vs. National Security
Casualties in the privacy wars.


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The country’s “privacy advocates” are jeopardizing national security. Most recently, they have sued to halt the government’s efforts to keep terrorists off of airlines. But the privocrats’ assault on essential antiterror policies long predates this latest suit: In fact, they were responsible for much of the paralysis in the nation’s counterterrorism community before 9/11. Unfortunately, even after 9/11, the privacy advocates keep pressing their extreme arguments and–all too often–winning.

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The recent litigation against the government’s “no-fly” list, brought by the ACLU, is a peerless example of privacy charlatanry. The seven plaintiffs’ names resemble those on a list of suspected terrorists whom the government wants to block from flying. When the plaintiffs try to board an airplane, they are often asked to produce additional identification and are briefly detained while their identification is verified. Security agents have searched their luggage and used the ubiquitous magnetic wand to scan their bodies for weapons.

And that is all. None of the plaintiffs has ever missed a flight because of the additional security procedures. Their biggest complaints? They can’t use curbside check-in or the e-ticket self-service check-in; one woman didn’t get her assigned window seat. They all felt embarrassed by having been more closely scrutinized in front of other passengers.

Out of this set of minor inconveniences, the ACLU has manufactured major constitutional infractions. The government’s application of the no-fly list deprives the plaintiffs of liberty and property in violation of the Fifth Amendment, the ACLU charges, and subjects them to unreasonable searches and seizures in violation of the Fourth Amendment. Unless a federal court immediately blocks the operation of the no-fly list, pleads the ACLU, the plaintiffs will suffer “irreparable injury.”

The ACLU’s tactics are by now familiar to anyone who has watched the privacy advocates in action. The drill runs as follows: Elevate a fleeting inconvenience to the status of a constitutional violation. Next: Take an absolutist view of individual rights, while conceding almost no countervailing interest in public security. The annoyance of a few hundred passengers subjected to additional screening trumps, in the ACLU’s view, the interests of 380 million other Americans in not getting blown up or used as a cruise missile mid-flight. Finally: Cut the government no slack in its efforts to protect citizens–any good-faith error in administering antiterror systems immediately becomes a breach of the Bill of Rights.

According to the ACLU’s logic, millions of air passengers suffer constitutional abuse every day: most of us have been wanded, our bags have been searched, we sometimes don’t get our assigned seats, and there may be no self-check-in kiosks at our airport, or those kiosks may be malfunctioning.

While the ACLU takes on the no-fly list, a coalition of privacy advocates, from the Electronic Privacy Information Center on the left to Americans for Tax Reform on the right, has already blocked an important reform of airline-security procedures on similarly specious grounds. The advocates claim that the proposed Computer Assisted Passenger Pre-screening System (CAPPS II) violates privacy rights by asking an air traveler to provide his name, address, date of birth, and phone number upon making a reservation. The government wants that information in order to verify that passengers are who they say they are and are not listed in government intelligence files. Such information is hardly private. Commercial data banks daily traffic in such basic consumer identifiers and far more, from our purchasing preferences to our mortgage amount and credit-card balance. And with the exception of birth date, airline passengers have long given the required CAPPS II information when reserving a seat.

Nevertheless, the privacy agitators have stalled CAPPS II, and airlines are refusing to cooperate with the Transportation Security Administration for fear of being accused of violating their passengers’ privacy.

The list of security casualties in the privacy wars goes on. Last year, the advocates killed groundbreaking research to spot terrorist planning with computer analysis–the Total Information Awareness program. As a result, the computing-research world has given up trying to develop cutting-edge tools for terror preemption, lest they, too, face the wrath of the privocrats.

The privacy crusade is based on imaginary injury and indifference to the real terror threat. It’s time for public officials to stand up to the privacy charlatans and defend their commonsensical antiterror protections as lawful and essential to national defense.

Heather Mac Donald is a contributing editor at City Journal and the author of Are Cops Racist?.



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