Thursday, January 08, 2009

Travel track down

Since 2001 travelling to the US has seemed at times more hassle than its worth. I know of friends who have decided not to renew their visas or have simply announced never to travel to America, ever. The stress over applying for a visa, the interview, the cost, then the security at the border, plus the sense of is it worth all this trouble just to give your child a chance to see Mickey Mouse in person or to stand in line to enter the Statue of Liberty?

Last September I flew back to the US for a month of railroad travel, and had read about the problems some travellers encountered at the border, when their computers, cameras, blackberries, even ipods were taken from them by the customs officials and weren't returned to them for reasons of security. There was an article of one American traveller who didn't get his laptop back for a month, who wrote that colleagues of his from other countries didn't get their equipment returned even after 3 months had passed and innumerable queries from their company had been sent to Homeland Security. I chose not to bring too many electronic items with me, but it would still have been intolerable to have to turn over my camera if they demanded it. There's little you can do, there are laws they can use against a traveller, and it's not easy to recall one's rights at moments of stress.

An article I came across today also highlights the efforts of the US government to track both their citizens and other nationals when crossing into US soil. The writer, Sean O'Neill, explains that all border crossings are sent to DHS and files of all citizens are kept for up to 15 years.

"The commercial airlines send these passenger records to Customs and Border Protection, an agency within the Department of Homeland Security. Computers match the information with the databases of federal departments, such as Treasury, Agriculture, and Homeland Security. Computers uncover links between known and previously unidentified terrorists or terrorist suspects, as well as suspicious or irregular travel patterns. Some of this information comes from foreign governments and law enforcement agencies. The data is also crosschecked with American state and local law enforcement agencies, which are tracking persons who have warrants out for their arrest or who are under restraining orders. The data is used not only to fight terrorism but also to prevent and combat acts of organized crime and other illegal activity."

For identity security, the concern lies in the massive undertaking of tracking down the millions of Americans and international travellers who enter and exit the borders each year, managing all this data, and avoiding a security leak that would put at risk all these people's data if it were to be used by criminals. It's a scenario fit for an espionage thriller, with an crazed criminal using all our details for monetary gain or worse. I'm not sure there's a hero capable enough to keep something like that at bay.

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