Ed Hasbrouck versus the TSA

Edward Hasbrouck has spent the last 20 years or more helping people travel – travel safely, smartly, and cheaply. His book, The Practical Nomad: How to Travel Around the World, is now in its fifth edition. To write it, he traveled 80,000 miles and visited 28 countries on six continents.

Ed Hasbrouck
Ed Hasbrouck

While photos of Hasbrouck on the Net depict a bearded, jovial man who could very easily slip into the moniker "happy nomad," the last 12 years have added a darker edge to his portfolio of traveler services. Let’s just call him "TSA watchdog," and thanks to the constant expansion of that agency’s passenger screening, data collection, and secret intelligence sharing, Hasbrouck is now working full-time at poking, pricking, prodding and challenging the agency so you don’t have to.

"This is essentially about rights," he told Antiwar.com in a recent interview. "This is the government claiming that you have no ‘right’ to travel and that travel is a privilege that they can grant or withhold on a whim, and impose whatever they like on it." That of course, is an anathema to a man who spent his entire adulthood globetrotting. Early on, he focused his writing and researching on helping consumers get the cheapest airline tickets and to be astute and safe travelers. But a couple of years before 9/11, he noticed red flags going up regarding passenger privacy and the kind of personal data the government was canvassing and collecting in massive databases in the name of "security."

"I became concerned about the consumer privacy issue, with the data privacy practices, and the practices of handling personal information, and I wrote about it," he said. After the terror attacks, "as the government intensified its collection of this information and using it for what they call ‘aviation security’ and what I would call information surveillance and control of travel, industry groups and privacy groups came to me for technical expertise."

Ed Hasbrouck in the early days
Ed Hasbrouck in the early days

The rest, as they say, is history. The California-based Hasbrouck, who is well known and respected in the travel industry as an enthusiastic, prolific writer and advocate, as well as a straight shooter, poured all of his energy into dogging the government in its new activities. Someone needed to parse the often-Orwellian government language about the new screening and security rules, and he felt not only compelled, but qualified to do it on behalf of the traveling public.

TSA was created in 2001, and the Department of Homeland Security in 2003, while the Patriot Act was spurring massive database projects like the Computer Assisted Passenger Screening System (CAPPS and CAPPS II). In CAPPS, air travelers’ names were to be checked against a huge data pool fed by numerous public and commercial (including criminal) records, as well as any terrorist watch lists available. Passengers would then be issued a color-coded marking on their tickets to determine how they would be vetted upon arrival at airport security checkpoints.

Hasbrouck was the first to report that Jet Blue airlines had without notice or permission, given over 5 million passenger itineraries to the Pentagon, with the help of the TSA, for a study that supposedly tested whether CAPPS or CAPPS-like programs would be feasible. This started the first of many reports of airlines just "handing over" passenger data to third party contractors, ostensibly to help build the CAPPS database.

CAPPS II was shut down due to complaints by the privacy/civil liberties community (mostly because the no-fly lists were already generating false positives, as it still does), but it was reincarnated in the "Automated Targeting System," and "Secure Flight," at which point the government was demanding airlines turn over passenger data like name, itinerary, payment method used on the trip, etc., so that TSA could test the new program in 2004. In 2006, the TSA announced "Registered Traveler," the progenitor to "Pre-Check," the current program that allows fliers to undergo more limited security screening (they get a presumably shorter line and the luxury of keeping their shoes and belts on, and their laptops can stay in the computer bag through the x-ray scanners) in exchange for an estimated $85 handling fee, their fingerprints, and a background check, where their personal information goes who knows where and is stored for who knows how long with the Department of Homeland Security.

Bottom line, according to Hasbrouck, from the moment the planes hit the World Trade Center Towers on 9/11, Americans have given up a little bit of their privacy each day in exchange for their "right" to fly. Twelve years later, passenger information is not only sitting in massive databases controlled by the federal government, but we have very little idea of what those databases do and how the information is stored and shared. According to Hasbrouck and avid watchdogs like the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), there are no real limits on that information being shared with other agencies or even commercial entities, used for purposes not even terrorist-related, because the government insists on keeping much of what they are doing secret.

As a result, Americans to this day have a difficult time getting off "no-fly" lists when they do not belong there. Hasbrouck once predicted to this reporter that the government would begin collecting and keeping "dossiers" on each passenger. Each revelation, each new "program" at the TSA only confirms his worst fears. Most recently it was revealed that the TSA is conducting a more expansive pre-screening of passengers not voluntarily signed up with the "Pre-Check" program.

It is unclear, according to reports, what kind of personal information the agency is using to determine their assessment of whether fliers are low- or moderate-risk or deemed eligible for an extra pat-down under these new rules. But since DHS has access to pretty much everything in our lives, one might think the sky’s the limit, literally – though the TSA has long insisted it is not using commercial information to screen passengers. But what does that really mean? And that only goes one way – there are no limits now on what the airlines can do with your personal information in regards to sharing or selling to third parties, according to Hasbrouck and other privacy advocates.

It’s a data feast, and unfortunately, we are the main course. "They are doing two things – one, they are expanding the degree of ‘dataveillance’ and they are expanding the degree of pre-crime profiling," said Hasbrouck, who spends much of his time these days researching and writing briefs for The Identity Project. He has taken to comparing the whole screening process to the "pre-cognitives" or "precogs," who in the movie Minority Report, psychically predict actual crimes with precision accuracy, requiring the "PreCrime" police unit to engage a super-massive data and surveillance network to stop events before they occur.

Tom Cruise plays "PreCrime" Cop in "Minority Report"
Tom Cruise plays “PreCrime” Cop in “Minority Report”

"There’s no such thing as a precog," he said simply, and algorithms and robots that are designed to pluck out potential terror suspects can be wrong, very wrong. But at this point, "I would say this is what we’ve been predicting – it’s a step along a path they’ve been on for a while. The question is, how far are going to go on this road before people get more up in arms than they already are?"

Hasbrouck says what most people don’t realize is that their information is likely being shuttled around from agency to agency and they have no right to see how their fingerprints or personal information is being used. That is how the rules are configured. Example: for the current Pre-Check program, the TSA recently issued a federal notice of rulemaking that proposes that Pre-Check is exempted from most if not all of the disclosure and notification mandates under the 1974 Privacy Act (read here; and relevant portions of the Privacy Act here).

So basically, people should have the right to be notified when the government is collecting records on them, and at the very least be able to see those records in full when there is a dossier with their name on it. But invoke criminal or national security exemption, and voila, you got one hell of a fight on your hands if you think you’re getting anything.

Just ask the Practical Nomad. He sued for the file the TSA had on him and after three years "of stalling," Hasbrouck got it: a heavily redacted dossier that despite all the blacked-out portions, held an astonishing amount of information about Hasbrouck’s travels over the last 20 years (he talks about it in his April remarks at Cato, here). The file was generated under the Automated Targeting System (ATS), which was created in the late 1990’s but "greatly expanded" after 9/11, according to Wikipedia. It follows everyone who "crosses U.S. borders." Hasbrouck’s file is therefore pretty long.

But it includes things that have nothing to do with his entry/exit points. As he has noted, the file entails, deliberately or not, contact numbers (even when he has used a friend as a contact), Internet Protocol (IP) addresses, the hotels he has stayed at, the trains and busses he had taken after he crossed the border, special food requests, the things he carried with him, billing codes, credit card numbers and queries about tours. Hasbrouck also noted the files obtained by his colleague John Gilmore. When Gilmore crossed the border in 2007, the inspector made note that he had with him "many small flashlights with pot leaves on them," and a book called "Drugs and Your Rights." Hippie! Subversive!

"Passengers assume they leave no trace behind. That is not true," he said. "The stuff is still there."

He said the aforementioned Pre-Check program would eventually lead to no less than a repository of dossiers on each of those domestic travelers, much like the files now held on international passengers. As for those who opt out of the Pre-Check, they are now going to be subject to a much more invasive screening through Secure Flight, and while TSA says it is above board and will assist low-risk travelers through the lines faster (read their response to the critics, here), one wonders. Are they making it more difficult to opt out until everyone is pushed toward Pre-Check, the ultimate data x-ray?

"Their goal is to get more people into the Pre-Check lane," he said. Soon, "not opting in will be deemed suspicious."

Like many civil liberties advocates, Hasbrouck rankles at the idea of having to show "papers" to travel, and the sense that one is "guilty until proven innocent" in the airport security culture today. He doesn’t like it. Anyone who has read his writing or heard him speak knows he doesn’t mince words when this topic is raised.

"I think that most people believe, at a fundamental level, that we have a right to travel, and the government needs a good reason to interfere with that. More and more conditions are being placed on it, and not all of these are rules or law laid down by judges," Hasbrouck said.

"I have to say the place I find the clearest analysis of this is reading the history of the Stasi (East German police during the Cold War), and the process the East German people had to go through to travel. They had to apply to the government, and the government would decide."

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Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for FoxNews.com and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.