ACLU Says "Traveler's IDs" For Airline Passengers Will Create Dangerously False Sense of Security

November 8, 2001 12:00 am

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ACLU Says “Traveler’s IDs” For Airline Passengers Will Create Dangerously False Sense of Security

Statement of Barry Steinhardt, Associate Director
American Civil Liberties Union


NEW YORK — The Air Transport Association today called for the creation of a federally issued “traveler’s ID” containing biometric data such as finger and iris scans. The proposed cards would be “voluntary” for American citizens and mandatory for foreign visitors.

The American Civil Liberties Union believes that security does not have to be at odds with privacy and other liberties. We support many sensible measures to increase security at airports, such as increased training for security personnel, heightened screening of airline and airport security personnel, strict control of secured areas of airports, measures to improve security at foreign airports, a neutral entity to which passengers can report lax security procedures, and luggage matching of all passengers.

More thorough and consistent application of the simple, longstanding basics of airline security would do far more to move us toward safe airports than a technological Band-Aid such as the ATA proposal.

The American people should be not be fooled: a “traveler’s ID” is not an effective way of protecting against terrorism. Someone planning a terrorist attack would get one if, like Timothy McVeigh or most of the September 11 hijackers, there are no red flags in their record. Even when there are, the cards are still only as good as the documents and procedures used to decide who should get one. It remains extremely easy in this country to steal another person’s identity.

And the use of biometric identifiers accomplishes very little. They do not help decide who should get that piece of plastic in the first place and they do not prove anything about their owners, including their real identity. All you may wind up with is a phony piece of plastic that contains the biometric of the bad guy who is carrying it. The irony is that the good guys will have their privacy invaded and the cards won’t present any real obstacle to the bad guys, who will treat them as free passes for easy access to airplanes.

We should also not be fooled by claims that these cards will be voluntary. They will quickly become a de facto requirement for traveling by air. As adoption of the card spreads, those who decide not to “volunteer” for such a card will increasingly find themselves subject to intrusive, humiliating, and time-consuming searches – in short, treated like second-class citizens. In a short time, Americans will be for all practical purposes forced to acquire a card and to submit to whatever procedures are used to issue them.

In addition, it is unlikely that these government-issued cards will remain confined to air travel. If another terrorist attack should occur, it is highly likely that it will not follow the same methods as September 11; it could involve a truck bomb, a bus, or a train. Calls to expand use of the card beyond air travel will not be long in coming. As the card becomes a requirement for more and more functions in our lives, it will become a de facto national ID, allowing the government to track the movement of travelers within our country — the kind of tracking that has long been one of the hallmarks of totalitarian states such as Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

In sum, the dangerous social implications of the traveler’s ID proposal and the potentially fatal false sense of security they would provide far outweigh any small benefit to our security that they could bring.

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