Of scans, profiles and freedoms

Par Beryl Wajsman le 7 janvier 2010

Much time has been spent, and appropriately so, defending our privacy rights in this time of war on terror. The public must be convinced of their importance.  Justice Louis Brandeis called them “the most prized right of civilized nations.”

But amidst the tumult over the impending use of full body scans at airports in the wake of the foiled Christmas Day suicide terror attempt in Detroit, we must today realize that the alarms raised over privacy on this issue are excessive. In addition, the pejorative denunciations of so-called “profiling” of watch-list passengers being determined by country of origin or boarding is also disingenuous to say the least.

scales_of_justicebw.jpgOne “flyers rights” activist stated vociferously that “the price of liberty is too high.” We would suggest that before  “flyers rights” there is a right to live. There is the superior right of freedom from fear. The reality is that we are in a war. A war which the west did not start or choose. For those who think that the body scan is an over-reaction to one incident, they miss the point.

Terrorists from the organizations operating under Bin-Laden’s umbrella of Al-Qaeda have carried out hundreds of successful suicide attacks since 9-11. The only reason there have not been more, is due to intelligence work and security measures. Some failed plots we know about – like the Toronto 18 – but most are kept secret so as not to compromise security agents and operations.

One important element in security work is the gathering of intelligence. Clearly this work must be done by state authorities with the greatest respect for the sanctity of personal domains. Wiretaps and other surveillance methods must be authorized with probable cause. We cannot criminalize – nor need we to be effective – an entire population.

But certain realities exist. It is far better to undergo a body scan when we fly, than to allow – for example – unfettered recording of our cell phone conversations by Canada’s Communications Security Establishment (CSE). Though it is hard for some to accept, the truth is that examination of our physicality is far less invasive than the surveillance of our mentality. Though the airport is the last, worst line of defense against terrorists, if the body scans work they may actually lessen the necessity for some of the abridgments of our privacy rights that have been ongoing since 9-11 particularly with respect to our personal information and communication.

On a more mundane note, there have been many merited complaints that we are, as one reporter recently wrote, “already shoeless, beltless and waterless.” Well, here again, if the body scans work, perhaps we can be spared those other inconveniences. We walk into them fully clothed. These machines are supposedly so accurate that they detect undigested food in our stomachs. They give off one-tenth thousandth of the energy of a cellphone. The images are not stored or transmitted unless something is found. We’ll see. But we should hope for the best. They are no panacea, but they will be an important, sharper arrow in our anti-terror quiver.

The second change announced this week is that the United States has put 14 countries on a watch list. Passengers from those countries, or whose flights originated in those countries, will be subject to full examination. Among the countries on the list are Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Iran, Libya, Iraq, Sudan , Somalia and Syria. The United States hopes that other countries will join it in this new directive.

This directive has been denounced as “profiling at its worst” by Canadian civil libertarians. They point out that in 2007 there were more than 30,000 landed immigrants in Canada from those 14 countries. According to Stats Can, over one million Canadians were born in those countries. They want “evidence-based, targeted and narrowly tailored investigations based on individualized suspicion.” The civil libertarian argument is that intensive searches at airports based on country of origin is somehow against our values. I beg to differ. Frankly, we should be surprised why the west took so long. 

The word “profiling” has gotten an altogether bad rap in recent years. If profiling means that one ethnic or racial group is automatically singled out without reason as a matter of institutional prejudice then clearly that is unacceptable. But if a series of crimes have been committed with witnesses identifying members of a particular community again and again, would it not be negligent of security authorities not to take origin into consideration as one of the components of a criminal “profile”?

The fact is that some eighty percent of suicide terrorists over the past eight years have come from ten of these fourteen countries. Sixteen of the 9-11 killers came from Saudi Arabia and Yemen alone. And those two countries – with Afghanistan and Pakistan - still account for the origin or training of the majority of suicide terrorists active in the past few years.

Origin is not  a perfect determinant of course. We all remember the pre 9-11 terrorist attacks from the Japanese Red Army, Italy’s Briggate Rossa, Germany’s Baader-Meinhof gang and Peru’s Maoist Shining Path. But the past eight years have seen a geographical narrowing of terror. Generally we know where they are coming from. Origin is but one of 52 components that go into a criminal profile. But it is a critical one. And an airport security check, though inconvenient and  invasive, is not a scarlet letter.

Individualized, evidence-based targeting would be best, but despite the evidence about the Detroit bomber the dots were not connected.

This debate is just starting. It is one we need. But we hope it takes place with eyes wide open about our international realities.


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