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Invasion of privacy not something to shrug off

By JAN GLIDEWELL, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 4, 2003


In case you weren't listening closely, that "thunk" you just heard was another chunk of your civil rights hitting the floor in the name of homeland security.

I'm talking about CAPPS-II, the second generation of the Computer Assisted Passenger Pre-Screening System, with which the government now wants to pry into your credit and banking records before deciding whether you can board an airplane.

I guess if you are overdrawn on your checking account or in serious arrears with the Book of the Month Club, you automatically become some sort of a threat.

As with many of the so-called security measures being implemented after having stepped over the bleeding corpse of the Bill of Rights, it's being tolerated partially under the guise of being allowable because it is conditional.

By that I mean that we have come to accept during the past few decades that it's really okay to have our rights abridged as long as we are only being forced to agree to it in order to do business.

The law keeps -- or should keep -- a police officer from walking up to you on the street without demonstrable probable cause to believe you have committed a crime and insisting on searching your pockets, purse, car or backpack.

But we can all look the other way if that is only being done as a condition of entering a concert venue or boarding privately owned means of transportation because your rights are not really being taken away by the government, you are surrendering them as a condition of access.

These searches, by the way, don't always have to do with security. A diabetic friend of mine got busted by the venue-Nazis for trying to take M&Ms (which he needed medically) into a Grateful Dead concert because food vendors in the place didn't want anyone bringing their own snacks.

Beginning with the first airliner hijackings to Cuba in the 1960s, we all just sort of shrugged and began submitting to screening before getting on planes. And after the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001, we all shrugged again and started allowing them to search us with wands and demand that we take off our belts and shoes, and, later, to allow them to search checked luggage at will.

It's interesting that, a few months after television news magazines exposed organized theft from airline passengers' luggage by baggage handlers, we are now instructed to leave all of our luggage unlocked or risk having the locks broken.

There have been a few high-profile (and, my guess is, several more low-profile) drug arrests resulting from carry-on baggage checks; and a 36-year-old woman was humiliated at Dallas-Fort Worth Airport a little more than a year ago when security agents forced her to remove, in view of other passengers, a vibrator from her checked luggage.

I have been stopped, even before the hullabaloo brought on by 9/11, for having several bottles of (prescribed) pills in a plastic bag because the security person thought it looked "like a grapefruit."

Now the government plans on snooping through my credit and banking records to see if I am patriotic enough to fly. Guess I'd better juice it up by using my credit cards to buy some of those "America, Love It or Leave It" bumper stickers and making conspicuous contributions to the Republican National Committee. And that's part of what makes all of his silly in a Condition Yellow (if that's what it is today) America.

Is it going to take hijackers long to figure out that they should use something other than their Bank of Baghdad MasterCard to buy tickets?

In the meantime, we shrug again and murmur, "anything that keeps us safe," and fork over more information to the people who either want, or already have, our library and video rental records, and are slavering for access to all of our e-mail and telephone calls. But its okay. We don't have to travel, read, entertain ourselves, communicate or go back to paying our light bills in person unless we really want to.

We can trust the government with our privacy. Which is exactly what all of those AIDS patients in Pinellas and Pasco counties thought before copies of the computer discs with their names on them were mailed to major newspapers.

You go ahead and sleep well tonight, but my advice would be: Don't talk in your sleep.

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