How close are we getting to a “papers please” society?

Berlin bleibt doch Berlin. / Photo by Punxsutawneyphil – Flickr Creative Commons

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?

Plenty, actually.

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.

But Pre-Check is particularly problematic because of the perceived trade-off. The federal government is basically saying, “We’ll think you’re a little less dangerous if you tell us a little more about yourself.” But it doesn’t bother to define “dangerous” or tell us why the information will help it make that determination. We just have to trust it.

Not all of us do. Activist and fellow journalist Edward Hasbrouck has waged a lonely campaign to challenge national ID requirements. His website, Papers Please, is a must-read if you’re concerned about where these laws are taking the United States.

It isn’t too difficult to see where all this is going. But I have a few insights, courtesy of the 17 years I spent in Europe. I lived only a half-hour drive from what was called the “Iron Curtain” — a true “papers please” society. You could be stopped on the street and asked for ID, and if you didn’t comply, you could end up in very serious trouble and you might even disappear under mysterious circumstances. You needed the government’s approval to travel and if you wanted to leave the country, permission was rarely granted.

How far are we from living in such a country? As Pre-Check expands, civil liberties advocates would say we are moving closer. Too close.

I share their concern.

Think about it. What would stop the TSA from requiring that all air travelers be “trusted”? Or from modifying some of its rules to “punish” the untrusted ones with a mandatory pat-down or trip through the feared full-body scanner?

What’s to stop the TSA, which broadly interprets its mandate to safeguard all transportation systems — including roadways, mass transit, NFL games and political conventions — from asking for its “trust” elsewhere?

You’d probably laugh if someone suggested that a special license plate would give you “fast track” access through a road checkpoint, or that a government-issued ID would guarantee you don’t have to wait in a long security line before boarding a New York subway. You would scoff at the idea of not being able to travel without a special plate or ID card.

And yet, that seems to be the direction in which travel (and with it, the rest of the country) is moving.

Sadly, no mainstream presidential candidate is taking a principled stand on the “papers please” problem. In fact, when it comes to these alleged civil liberties violations, a cynic might say both candidates have no principles.

Which is too bad. We deserve better.


Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • davork

    Of course all foreigners would get the choice of a pat down or the unmonitored (unlike hospitals) xray scan … ‘welcome to america’ indeed

  • lost_in_travel

    We already have a fast way to zip through a check point in a car – it is called Fast Pass or EZ Pass – the transponder that pays the tolls on the high way and bridges.  I had to give my name, address, car registration number and, for convenient refills, my credit card number.  So for the “convenience” of not carrying cash and waiting for change, I am tracked in my automobile travels.  I know several people who refuse to get a Pass just for this reason.

  • Dazymae

    I’m one of them.

  • Extramail

    My question is: how terribly hard would it be for a terrorist to become a “trusted” traveler, skate through security and actually do harm to a plane load of folks? Given the ineptitude of our TSA “agents” I doubt it would be too difficult.

  • TonyA_says

    I’m curious, do you use a cell phone or a smart phone? You are not just tracked wherever you are, but also whoever you communicate with and websites that you visit.

  • cjr001

    Recently a federal judge gave the OK to the “papers please” portion of Arizona’s ‘immigration’ law.

    America is edging closer to becoming a “papers please” society in ALL ways.

  • chaos530

     I totally share the same concern, since we (the USA)  already have homegrown terrorists here, maybe not political, but terrorists nonetheless.

  • JimDavisHouston

    I honestly don’t think that the “Papers Please” approach is the main objective.  The issue is, the DHS from the bottom all the way up to Pistole himself are simply incompident, and in reality have no clue when it comes to Avation Safety.  The actual stupidity of checkpoint inspection is overwhelming to me.

    So many times, a TSA Screener will pick an item from my case and say “What is this?”  I can make up a scientific fake name for it, and they say “OK”.  then they proceed to take away my nose hair clippers because the 1/4″ blade is “metal & pointy”.

    So in reality, the “Papers Please” approach simply gives these uneducated folks a sense of authority, while giving some of the general traveling public a sense of false security.

    Security Theater?  Yup, at its finest.

  • Julie B

    Ever been through a border patrol checkpoint some 60 miles or more from the border in the Southern US? That terrifies me more than airport screening.

  • lost_in_travel

    TonyA – not sure if you were asking me or Dazymae –
    I do use my smart phone and I realize I am tracked everywhere. I have the Fast Pass too. Philosophically I hate it, but in reality I guess I don’t care that much which I will be the first to acknowledge is pathetic. But I do know it is happening so if I ever do need to “disappear” I’ll be sure to ditch all of my electronics first.     Hard to get the embedded chip in my neck out though   :~)  Sarcasm intended.

  • Christopher Elliott

    I have, and it does.

  • MarkieA

    Before all the folks come out with the typical, “Well, you should see what happens in ________ . It makes the TSA look like kindergarten cops.” let’s think about our Constitution. Does the country that you’re holding up as an example have an overarching document as its very existence that expressly forbids unwarranted search and seizure? No? Hmmm. Maybe you should re-think your example,

  • scapel

    I believe that TSA needs to concentrate more on who is getting  on an airplane rather than what is getting on an airplane. This unfortunately may require a “papers please” scene.  Of course old Nazi movies show where forged papers exist, so nothing is fool proof, except that modern technology may make it harder to forge papers. A start would be “flight papers please”.

  • JonathanChandler

    Way back in the dark ages of the late 1930s, under the aegis of “homeland security for the Motherland”, denizens of Germany became quite complacent about being separated from their personal belongings, succumbing to physical, invasive searches, and proving their “loyalty” to the fuehrer… just to take a train from Hanover to Frankfort.  We all know how that worked out.

  • TonyA_says

    More Americans die of suicide compared to terrorism.

    Facts and Figures
    The latest data available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
    indicates that 36,909 suicide deaths were reported in the U.S. in 2009.
    This latest rise places suicide again as the tenth leading cause of
    death in the U.S. Nationally, the suicide rate increased 2.4 percent
    over 2008 to equal approximately 12.0 suicides per 100,000 people. The
    rate of suicide has been increasing since 2000. This is the highest rate
    of suicide in fifteen years.

    That’s 12 times more than the number of people who died here in NYC on 9/11/11.  Fear of Terrorism is way too overblown. How many Americans died due to terrorism in 2009? Maybe none.

    There must be a lot of money that can be made in the name of Terrorism; that’s why it has become a huge NON-PRODUCTIVE industry.

  • ClareClare

    Chris, thanks for publishing the link to “Papers Please.”  I’d never heard of it before, and immediately bookmarked it! 

  • jebaker

    I am a precheck member and it’s still security!  Yes, I can leave my liquids in my bag, but I still have to go thru the magnetometer which detects metals (and yes belts).  And it’s random, I’d say 50% of the time I get to go thru the precheck line and 50% I have to go thru the regular.  It’s certainly not a “walk” around.  

  • lost_in_travel

    I think it was the Fatherland for Germany and the Motherland for Russia, but both were evil and diabolical parents.

  • bodega3

    Last week when we flew out of ZRH, we had 3 passport checks to pass through just to get to our gate, then a fourth one when our plane had mechanical issues and we had to move to a new plane, just one gate away.. Similar security procedures just more of them. Pretty interesting considering the country.

  • Sommer Gentry

    It’s particularly galling to have to respond to the TSA’s “Papers, please” demand when it’s transparently done as a mechanism of subjugation.  This rule clearly has no relation to security because it’s so laughably ineffective.

    Think it through with me: the reason that TSA claims to need to know who you are is so that they can check that you’re not on the no-fly list of suspected terrorists.  (the pre-check version: so they can check that you’re on their special honored list of super-good people)  However, their process obviously can’t achieve that objective.  Let’s say bad guy Jay Wren has his name on the no-fly list.  He books an airline ticket in a fake name Joe Blow that is not on the no-fly list. He prints his boarding pass at home, and prints another fake one (trivially easy to do with photoshop) with the name Jay Wren on it.  At the checkpoint, he presents a boarding pass with the name Jay Wren and his actual photo ID with his real name.  TSA does nothing to verify whether the name Jay Wren is on the no-fly list – they just check that the ID matches the boarding pass.  Then, to get on the plane, our bad guy can present the Joe Blow boarding pass, though it’s also pretty unlikely he would have any problem presenting the faked Jay Wren boarding pass to get on the plane.

    Why don’t people see through the BS line that demanding our papers makes us safer?  I’ll never understand why anyone believes that.

  • Jose L Cruz

    Most of the states with the ‘paper please’ statues are in the southern border with Mexico and are using the fear of illegal immigration as a tool to pass this arcane laws.  What they don’t understand and you hint of here is that it may be used as the catalyst for a society where individual rights will be a thing of the past, in the interest of public safety of course.  Once this Pandora’s box is open, it will be impossible to close.  Some times the cure is worst than the disease. 

  • BMG4ME

    Anything that stops me having to take off any items of clothing at the security is good.

  • MarkieA

    And that country is? Ah, Switzerland. I looked it up for the 90% of you – me included –  who didn’t know.

  • MarkieA

    Baaaah. Baaah.

  • Sommer Gentry

    Except it doesn’t even do that.  Most people who are enrolled in Pre-check get rejected from the pre-check line even at airports and on airlines where it should be functioning.  My husband just got rejected from his pre-check line at Chicago even though he enrolled twice: once with the airline and once through Trusted Traveler programs. 

    Pre-check is just a political ploy that the TSA uses to try to get an angry Congress off its back, not an actual screening method.  Pre-check applies to less than 0.02% of all screenings, and TSA won’t even verify whether you’re enrolled.

  • Katherine Coull

    My husband and I lived in Mexico for 14 years and we made the trip (by car) from our home in Lake Chapala to the US more times than I can remember. We only flew when we were going someplace that we couldn’t drive to, like the Dominican Republic. And we never flew on an American flagged airline.  Every time we went through the border checkpoint you must produce a passport, then about 20 or 30 miles up the road (Interstate 35 at Laredo & northwards) there is the second checkpoint. Again, show your passport.
    Personally, if family had not required our presence here we’d still be living in Mexico. And we have not taken a vacation to anywhere that requires a plane trip. We drive or we don’t go. For the first time in more years than either of us can remember we don’t have passports!.
    Yes, we are definitely becoming a ‘papers please’ society. And I don’t like it a bit.
    Kathie Coull, who used to live in Mexico.

  • Lisa Simeone

    Two stories from the UK:

    Terror laws: customs officials could take passengers’ DNA 13 Sep 2012
    Passengers could be forced to provide fingerprints and DNA samples against their will as they pass through airports, under planned changes to anti-terror laws. For the first time, customs officials and immigration officers would have the power to take mouth swabs or hair samples without a passenger’s consent, the Home Office confirmed. Theresa May, the Home Secretary, is proposing to reform existing powers that police and immigration officers have to stop and search anyone entering the UK, regardless of whether they are suspected terrorists. The government conceded that there were concerns that the sweeping powers were being “unfairly” applied to Muslims and other minorities.

    Police to ‘patrol’ Facebook, Google and Twitter for terrorists under EU plan –‘Providers of chat boxes, email services, messaging systems, social networks, retailing sites, voice over internet protocol, and web forums must have flagging systems.’ 21 Sep 2012
    Police across Europe will “patrol” Facebook, Google, and Twitter for postings supporting terrorism under an EU project detailed in a leaked report. Internet firms also face an array of new obligations to monitor their services for extremist material, according to a document about the “Clean IT” initiative seen by The Telegraph. “It must be legal for police officers to ‘patrol’ on social media. This includes having a profile, joining user groups, sending and receiving messages, on the platform,” the document says. Officials are also preparing proposals for “semi automated detection” systems and buttons to allow users to report suspicious activity on social networks and chatrooms to authorities… The Office of Security and Counter Terrorism, a secretive Home Office unit, already maintains a blacklist of terrorist websites used in filtering software at universities, libraries, and other public networks.

  • Drontil

    And I’m another!  I also keep my cell phone turned off unless I need to use it.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    Except that Pandora’s Box has been open in numerous other countries for a long time and it hasn’t led to the end of individual rights. Switzerland?  You’d also definitely call them a “papers please” country but they’re a very free and open democracy. Most of Europe is the same way.

    I’d also argue that we’ve been essentially there for a LONG time prior to any of these new laws.  Police routinely ask people for identification for obvious reasons. No, you aren’t required by law to produce it, but things go way easier if you do, thus 99% of people do so.  

  • Joe_D_Messina

    “How close are we getting to a “papers please” society?”

    If you’re talking “Western Society” then we’ve been there for a long time because virtually all of Western Europe is what you’d call “papers please.”  I started going to Europe when I was pretty young and the first thing my mom taught me was to make sure I had my passport on me at all times in case somebody needed to see it.  

    And even if you’re just talking about the USA, I’d argue we’ve essentially been there forever.  Want to buy beer?  You need “papers.” What about a can of spray paint or some Sudafed? Same thing. If the police stop you, even if you’re just walking down the street, they’re going to ask you for an ID. No, you’re not required by law to comply, but 99% of people do so because it makes things go easier. I can’t even keep up with how often I need to produce my ID for various things.

  • BobChi

    I am with Chris on this one. We seem way to willing to give up freedoms in exchange for perceptions of security (and I’m not sure it is real security). The only people that can reign in the TSA is the Congress, and they’re too dysfunctional and cowed to do it.

  • BobChi

    I’m going to bet you were on a flight that was direct or connecting to the U.S. Many times in foreign countries the security gets a lot tighter for passengers headed to the U.S. than for passengers flying domestically or to another destination. It’s all the U.S. government requirements.

  • bodega3

    For that concourse, after we passed through the first security check point, most flights were not US bound.

  • pauletteb

    I don’t think your comparison is valid in that suicide is a personal choice and death by terrorism is not.

  • Mark Sobolewski

    Regarding the Arizona law, I believe that it means the police can ask for “papers” only in the case of an existing detainment (such as a traffic stop or other arrest). It wouldn’t allow the police to casually stop people at random.

    That said, keep in mind that EXISTING law requires my friends with green cards to carry them on their presence AT ALL TIMES and to produce them upon request. When I got to other countries, it’s not uncommon for the law to require foreigners to carry their passport, again at ALL TIMES, to produce for the police if requested at ANY TIME. Failure to have ID allows the police to detain you and take you back to the station and require you to get someone to bring your passport there although in some countries (such as Mexico), you can bribe them to get out of that (which means they tend to target foreigners for that very purpose.)

  • Rebecca Rosenberg

    It’s already here. I’ve seen videos taken by ordinary U.S. citizens on YouTube where encounters with law enforcement are recorded. Granted, some of these folks are looking to get arrested, but some are just minding their own business, going out of their way to be polite and respectful.