Big Brother Is Watching You Read

Posted on September 20, 2007

A new report says that Homeland Security is watching what you read on airplanes, presumably to see if you are a terrorist. Say you're on a flight to London and you have books on bomb-building and chemical weapons. You could be a terrorist doing some light reading on a long flight, or you could be a thriller author doing research for your next book. Either way, the government is watching what you read and making notes in your permanent record.

International travelers concerned about being labeled a terrorist or drug runner by secret Homeland Security algorithms may want to be careful what books they read on the plane. Newly revealed records show the government is storing such information for years.

Privacy advocates obtained database records showing that the government routinely records the race of people pulled aside for extra screening as they enter the country, along with cursory answers given to U.S. border inspectors about their purpose in traveling. In one case, the records note Electronic Frontier Foundation co-founder John Gilmore's choice of reading material, and worry over the number of small flashlights he'd packed for the trip.

The breadth of the information obtained by the Gilmore-funded Identity Project (using a Privacy Act request) shows the government's screening program at the border is actually a "surveillance dragnet," according to the group's spokesman Bill Scannell.

"There is so much sensitive information in the documents that it is clear that Homeland Security is not playing straight with the American people," Scannell said. The documents show a tiny slice of the massive airline-record collection stored by the government, as well as the screening records mined for the controversial Department of Homeland Security passenger-rating system that assigns terrorist scores to travelers entering and leaving the country, including U.S. citizens.

Of course, anyone who gets on a plane with a book entitled How to Blow Up a Plane is either crazy or longs for an up-close look at the Guantanamo Bay facilities. Somehow we find it highly unlikely that terrorists bring books about terrorism onto planes. Surely, they'd try to dissemble a bit and bring something innocuous to read, like a romance novel? In any event, the growing erosions of personal privacy regarding reading material is disturbing.

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