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

America is edging closer to becoming 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 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.” Only, 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 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.

  • RickB

    First of all, pre check, like kcm does cost us. The airlines pay and pass the cost on to the consumer.

    • RickB, yes, we’ve written about the Pre-Check boondoggle several times at TSA News.

  • g k

    so far, no one’s getting off their seats to do much about this. aside from whining on comments sections of tinfoil hat articles on the web. the few that DO get up and do something are labelled “anarchists” and scoffed at by “respectable” citizens, beaten up by cops, and quickly shuffled off to court for mysteriously long jail terms. yet, again, the rest of us just sit here typing out complaints as the noose grows tighter and tighter around our own necks. see you all at the halftime show!! we all really DO get what we deserve.

    • gk, you’re mistaken. Some of us have been working on civil liberties and other social justice issues all our lives. Some of us have been arrested. And some of us are doing more than “whining on comments sections of tinfoil hat articles on the web.”

      As I’ve repeated umpteen times, there are many ways to resist, not just one. I outlined some of them here:

      You’re welcome to add your suggestions to the list, and to do more than “whine” in the comments section.

      • g k

        I’m talking about everyone else that IS just an armchair activist! I certainly pointed out how society here treats activitsts… I thought I made it clear, but I guess not. sorry!

        • gk, armchair activism is also useful. Not everyone can go out into the streets, though I agree that that is what is needed. Again, there are many ways to resist, not just one. And educating the public is a huge way. There’s still so much ignorance (some of it willful) out there about the TSA and what it does. So I welcome even armchair activists.

  • zulu127

    In England the UK Border Agency is considering “fast tracking” people who “High Value” ie., rich…no special license plate required. []

    • zulu, yes, we already have that here. It’s called Pre-Check, and it’s a boondoggle. People pay extra to sign up with this program that is the embodiment of “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others,” and even then they’re not guaranteed expedited screening. We’ve written about it here at TSA News several times. Do a search here and the stories will come up.

  • In the UK:

    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.

    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.

    • TSAisTerrorism


    • frostysnowman

      Scary. And they should stop giving our TSA ideas.

  • 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.

    Also, Edward Hasbrouck is my hero.

    • TSAisTerrorism

      Indeed, Sommer, that’s one way around NFL. There are about a half dozen other trivially easy ways around it. The Panty Bomber proved just one…