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.
I started to believe that some of the privacy groups just objected in principle to any use of technology that might help catch criminals or terrorists. The example I remember best was when the police at Logan Airport got handheld computers. The computers were connected to public databases so they could check addresses and other information when they stopped someone. It was pretty much what any businessman could do already with a Blackberry or iPhone.
The ACLU went nuts. The executive director of the Massachusetts chapter called the handhelds "mass scrutiny of the lives and activities of innocent people,” and “a violation of the core democratic principle that the government should not be permitted to violate a person's privacy, unless it has a reason to believe that he or she is involved in wrongdoing." Another ACLU spokesman piled on. "If the police went around keeping files on who you lived with and who your roommates were, I think people would be outraged," He told USA Today. "And yet in this case, they're not doing it, but they're plugging into a company that is able to do it easily."
Remember, the handheld computers just tied to public databases that any citizen could search. "It's nothing we don't have access to already," Lieutenant Thomas Coffey told the Boston Globe. "Instead of me having to go down to the registry of deeds in a particular county, I can now access this information via a BlackBerry," he added.
If the ACLU considered that a civil liberties disaster, I remarked, we’d better not tell them that we also have access to the White Pages.
Still, “no” was the privacy community’s default answer to any improvement in law enforcement technology. The rest of us can use Blackberries, Google and Facebook all we want to gather information about our friends, our business associates, and even our blind dates, the ACLU seemed to think, but law enforcement should live in 1950 forever.
So it’s no surprise that privacy groups challenged our passenger screening time and again, in the press and on the Hill. Each time, they found sympathetic ears. They forced us to justify our plan over and over again. Without the strong, consistent support of Michael Chertoff, a superb policy advocate in his own right, and his willingness to take on the New York Times and the ACLU, our strategy would have been chipped away bit by bit.