security theatre exposed: we're taking off our shoes while people on terror-watch lists travel freely

In one of my courses last term, "Knowledge and Information in Society," one of the topics explored was surveillance and control.

The professor, Andrew Clement, has amassed a huge body of research with practical, real-life applications. One lecture that made a big impression on me summarized his work on Ontario's plans for the so-called enhanced driver's license, an identity document permitting travel to and from the United States in lieu of a passport.

Ontario planned and implemented the licenses without public input or oversight, and a group at the University of Toronto Faculty of Information tried to participate. After numerous Access to Information requests and other attempts were stalled or ignored, they held their own hearings. (This was part of a graduate student's PhD thesis.)

My interpretation of their findings: the enhanced driver's license is a frightening intrusion into citizen privacy and offers no greater security or time-savings than any other document.

Dr Clement used the term "security theatre": a presentation from the state giving only the appearance of increased security. The methods of security theatre are often an invasion of the state into our lives and onto our very bodies.

This struck Allan and I as a perfect expression of what we've seen at airports since September, 2001. Many of us realize that the ridiculous rituals now being carried out at airports all over the world do nothing but delay, frustrate and harass us, and in some cases - those of us with brown skin and/or Arabic-sounding last names - humiliate and harm us. And they don't make us one hair safer.

This week the masks fell off the ongoing performance of security theatre, when a man boarded a plane despite: [sources below]

  • being on terrorist watch lists both in the UK and the US (but not on the no-fly list!),

  • having been seen trying to board the Amsterdam-Detroit flight without a passport,

  • having been refused a UK student visa following an application to study at a fake university (he then obtained a US visa, issued in London),

  • his own father having warned security services in both Nigeria and the US about his extremist views,

  • buying a one-way ticket, and

  • paying cash.

    Meanwhile, we are taking off our shoes, throwing out water bottles, putting hand lotion in special packaging and submitting to all manner of intrusions and humiliations, causing us hours and hours of travel delays, or worse.

    I can't help but wonder if Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was allowed to fly not because of incompetence, but by intent. Either way, the incident exposes the complete sham we've been forced to live with for the past eight years.

    If you're interested in the research into enhanced driver's licenses and other surveillance, you might want to check out The Surveillance Project of Queen's Univeristy and The Identity, Privacy and Security Institute (IPSI) at the U of T. IPSI "is dedicated to developing new approaches to security that maintain the privacy, freedom and safety of the individual and the broader community".


    Sources: The Age (Australia), CBS, ABC, New York Times, Daily Mail (UK).
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