As the surveillance state expands, are we drawing closer and closer to the world of "Minority Report"? In the 2002 futuristic thriller "Minority Report", Tom Cruise and a team of "Pre-cops" work in the "Pre-Crime" unit in Washington, DC to stop crimes before they are committed. The team taps the powers of a few gifted humans who can see into the future to identify crimes, criminals, and victims before the crime ever takes place. With the advanced intel, the Pre-cops can be waiting on the scene and arrest the perpetrator before the crime even takes place.
Today's New York Times reports that TSA has now taken to checking up on passengers before they even reach the airport. (h/t Anil Kalhan) The TSA has been searching "a wide array of government and private databases" of passengers before they arrive at the airport. These records can include your car registration and employment information. Like the Pre-Cops in "Minority Repor", in effect, what TSA is doing is a "pre-crime assessment" as one of the critics in the article pointed out. The stated goal of this new and more invasive policy is "efficiency", that low risk passengers will get less screening and high risk passengers will get more screening, thereby speeding up lines at checkpoints. The problem is passengers who are slotted into the "high risk" category are still in for multiple searches and delays. The larger problem is how one ends up being tagged as "high risk". The Times states:
Critics argue that the problem with what the agency calls an “intelligence-driven, risk-based analysis” of passenger data is that secret computer rules, not humans, make these determinations. ...Privacy advocates have also disputed whether computer algorithms can accurately predict terrorist intent.
Even more outrageous is that the TSA data will be shared with other government agencies and private companies who may have a non-travel security interest in your personal information. The article explains:
Much of this personal data is widely shared within the Department of Homeland Security and with other government agencies. Privacy notices for these databases note that the information may be shared with federal, state and local authorities; foreign governments; law enforcement and intelligence agencies — and in some cases, private companies for purposes unrelated to security or travel. (Emphasis added)
So your information gleaned by TSA may be forwarded to debt collection agencies and your fingerprints may be sent to the FBI to check against an unsolved crimes database. No crime need actually be committed, no warrant, and no probable cause is necessary--TSA gathers this information on you and disseminates it to outside groups just based on your desire to travel.
I understand the premise of security checks, that they aim to prevent terrorist attacks or mass crimes, by identifying plots before they can be carried out. That options is preferable to a security system that searches for perpetrators only after a mass crime has been committed. I get it. But this is where the parallels to "Minority Report" end. In the movie, people are arrested in advance of a crime because there is reliable data from seers that can accurately predicting the future. You could call that evidence, incontrovertible evidence even. But in the USA 2013, instead of a presumption of innocence until proven guilty, the indiscriminate Hoovering of all travelers' data means just the opposite, that everyone is suspected of a future crime unless they can prove otherwise to a computer algorithm that the way in which you live your life is not suspicious.
In the name of national security, the surveillance state has expanded its tentacles to reach every aspect of our lives. NSA collects metadata on your phone calls, emails, internet searches, TSA is now aggregating information on you that it stores in one database and then shares with other entities. We are rapidly approaching the point where there truly are no more secrets. "Privacy" is a word and concept that has no direct translation into Chinese. "Minority Report" is set in the year 2054 A.D. By the year 2054 in the United States, will "privacy" become obsolete? Well, I suppose that's one way to seek common ground and build mutual understanding with Chinese citizens.