America is edging closer to a “papers please” society, at least when it comes to travel.
Where’s the evidence? Just visit Arizona, where a judge last week ruled authorities could begin enforcing the “show me your papers” provision of the state’s bitterly contested immigration law.
Or click on this page every now and then. It’s where the Transportation Security Administration broadcasts its latest achievements to the mainstream news media. There, you’ll read all about the latest airports to implement TSA Pre-Check, the agency’s trusted traveler program that allows eligible passengers to receive “expedited” screening benefits.
My colleague, Nancy Trejos at USA Today, connected a few of the dots and documented the expansion of Pre-Check last week. The new system has screened — or perhaps it’s more accurate to say, “pre-screened” — 2.7 million passengers since Pre-Check launched last October. TSA expects 35 airports to offer Pre-Check by the end of 2012.
So what’s wrong with that? On the surface, nothing at all.
After all, the TSA’s trusted traveler program doesn’t cost anything, at least not yet. And what’s the harm in surrendering a little personal information in exchange for access to a faster screening line where you can leave your shoes, light outerwear and belt on, and are allowed to keep your laptop in its case and your 3-1-1 compliant liquids and gels bags in a carry-on?
First, it’s still unclear what kind of threat our shoes, light outerwear, belts, laptops and hair gel pose to aviation security. Yes, we’ve heard that terrorists might try to use these items for nefarious purposes, but so far, with the possible exception of shoe bomber Richard Reid, there’s no credible evidence that our notebook computers could bring down a plane.
Critics might call this kind of threat a straw man, and the conspiracy theorists among them might argue that the threat was trumped up precisely in order to get the American public to surrender more information about itself.
I don’t know if I’d go that far, but the TSA does have some explaining to do. Please tell me why my belt is dangerous while that of a trusted traveler isn’t. Why does my MacBook need to be scanned, but that of a Delta Platinum member is deemed “safe”?
But that isn’t the biggest problem. It’s that Pre-Check represents the latest step toward what many TSA-watchers consider a “papers please” society, a darker version of America that before 9/11 only existed in the pages of dystopian novels.
It’s hardly the only threat to your travel freedom. The Real ID Act of 2005 put the country on that course by requiring a federal identification card that contains your full legal name, address, signature, date of birth, gender, a unique ID number and photo. Privacy advocates are fighting the implementation of that law, which, if nothing else, set a troubling precedent and paved the way for Pre-Check’s implementation and acceptance.