is another excerpt from the book I'm writing on technology, terrorism, and my
time at DHS, tentatively titled "Skating on Stilts." (If you want to
read the excerpts in a more coherent fashion, try the category on the
right labeled "excerpts from the book.") Comments and factual quibbles
are welcome, either in the comments section or by email:
firstname.lastname@example.org. If you're dying to order the book, send
mail to the same address. I'm still looking for an agent and a
publisher, so feel free to make recommendations on that score too.
At this point, some readers must be wondering what the fuss is about. Surely this approach to border security is obvious. There’s nothing especially ground-breaking or high-tech about a passenger screening program that uses data to improve decisionmaking.
Well, yes and no.
Yes, it’s easy to imagine such a border control system. It was easy to imagine such a system in the 1980s, too. But governments didn't implement it. They did the opposite. They surrendered to the tide of travelers.
Why, we asked, did they make a choice that seems so foolish now? We soon found out. We were going to have to fight for our new border strategy. And it wasn’t at all clear that we were going to win – even though the new approach moved most travelers as fast as before, and even though the old approach had produced a disastrous failure and left three thousand dead. It didn’t matter. We were in for a bruising political and diplomatic battle.
We were fighting powerful constituencies that weren’t used to losing. To them, our new approach was a threat greater than terrorism. They had defended the status quo against past efforts to revise border procedures, and they didn’t think the unfortunate events of 9/11 were a reason to change course.
The first and most obvious opponents of change were the businesses whose profits depended on the status quo. Our new strategy was going to shake things up. For example, in the old days, to encourage travel, the United States had told a number of countries in the Western Hemisphere that they could come to the United States without a passport. That put a big hole in our security strategy, but when we filled it by requiring that all international air travelers have passports, industry howled. Tourism, travel, and airline executives wanted to keep riding the exponential growth in jet travel. They didn’t want any innovations in government security on the border. The industry couldn’t be sure that the measure would improve security, but they were sure of one thing. If the measure made travel less attractive, they'd be hurt. So the safe course for industry was to always advocate less control, not more. And that’s what they did. We had to jam the requirement through over their resistance.
An even more formidable opponent was the privacy lobby. Throughout our tenure at DHS we faced claims from privacy groups that using data to screen travelers was somehow an abuse of personal information. Privacy watchdogs in the United States and Europe didn’t like it when government got access to any information for any purpose. If the data was collected at all, they agreed, it must be cabined in the most stringent manner. They wanted suffocating controls on what we gathered and how we used it.