Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Your Papers, Please!

Grounded: Millionaire John Gilmore stays close to home while making a point about privacy
He's unable to travel because he refuses to present a government-approved ID

Gilmore is asking just how much citizens are giving up when they hand their driver's licenses to a third party, in this case an airline, where it is put into a database they cannot see, to meet a law that, as it turns out, they are not allowed to read.

When Congress passes a law, it is as often as not up to some agency to decide what that law means and how to enforce it. Usually, those regulations are available for people to examine, even challenge if they conflict with the Constitution.

This wasn't the case when Congress passed the Air Transportation Security Act of 1974. The Department of Transportation was instructed to hold close information that would "constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy" or "reveal trade secrets" or "be detrimental to the safety of persons traveling in air transportation."

When the responsibility for air travel safety was transferred to the newly created Transportation Safety Administration, which was in turn made a branch of the new Department of Homeland Security, the oversight for Sensitive Security Information went with it. The language in the Homeland Security Act was broadened, subtly but unmistakably, where SSI was concerned.

It could not be divulged if it would "be detrimental to the security of
transportation." "By removing any reference to persons or passengers, Congress has significantly broadened the scope of SSI authority," wrote Todd B. Tatelman, an attorney for the Congressional Research Office. Tatelman was asked by Congress last year to look at the implications of Gilmore's case.

Scary but true. Try to rent a hotel room without a credit card and driver's license. No more signing Mr & Mrs. John Smith in the hotel register.