A question of privacy

A question of privacy

Every now and then a particularly relevant current event or news article will pre-empt the topic I had previously selected for my column. Such was the case this month after reading an Oct. 31 front-page article in the Wall Street Journal ("New Dragnet: How Tools of War on Terror Ensnare Wanted Citizens").

The article featured Customs and Border Protection's enhanced use of the FBI's expansive database at the National Crime Information Center. The database contains more than 40 million records, including criminal records and terrorist watch lists, which since the Sept. 11 attacks are accessible by U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services. This database is used at airports, most border crossings and even domestic immigration offices. The sharing of this previously exclusive data - a weakness cited in The 9/11 Commission Report - has empowered immigration and customs agents with the capacity to identify wanted individuals who otherwise would have simply slipped quietly through this pre-existing hole in our security net.

The Wall Street Journal article begins with a great example of how this sharing has paid off, citing the apprehension of a 21-year-old U.S. citizen who, upon re-entering the country from Mexico, was found to be wanted in Los Angeles for attempted murder. The article also notes that Customs is the biggest user of the database, with more than 1.5 million searches daily, reporting its capture of 4,555 persons in 2003, and 6,189 in 2004. The article quoted outgoing Customs Commissioner Robert Bonner as saying, "This technology is a fast, effective weapon in the war on terror, but also gives our agents a means to apprehend criminals and fugitives of every kind."

I'm mentally cheering as I read this, as any positive news on this front seems to be few and far between. However, after just a few more sentences, my parade gets rained on. It quickly becomes apparent that the true intention of the article is not to applaud the obvious benefits from the sharing of this data, but rather to point out what is reported to be a growing number of foreign citizens who are being abusively detained after being identified in the system for "minor issues." At this point I find myself racing ahead, already pre-convinced that the cause for all of this uproar will be linked with typical computer-related glitches and-or "false positives," such as those that remain a common challenge with denied-party screening for export shipments. Instead, what I read next was genuinely dumbfounding.

It turns out that in every case of "abuse" cited within the article, the person being detained had a legitimate charge pending against them - charges that included reckless driving, possession of cocaine, shoplifting and theft. Enter the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Conservative Union, various attorneys, legal scholars and defenders of privacy who worry that the "easy access to criminal databases is giving rise to the indiscriminate detentions of citizens for minor offenses, and to a "mission creep" that is blurring the line between immigration control and crime control." I'm sorry, did you say minor offenses? Maybe if compared to acts of terrorism, murder or assault with a firearm, but nonetheless, all were valid infractions that involved something a bit more serious than just unpaid parking tickets.

Thus, the article's true story-line was revealed - the outrage and incredulousness displayed by the "victims' attorneys had nothing to do with the fact that their clients were indeed guilty (something the article didn't dispute), but was targeted solely at the fact that their clients were caught as part of a records search that was "unrelated to the administrative purpose at hand," such as applying for a relative's green card or a marriage license. Granted, this new "long arm of the law" will no doubt require the development of new procedures that can perhaps better remediate outstanding warrants in a manner more accommodating to the nature of the offense, but make no mistake, guilty is guilty.

In a post-Sept. 11 environment, one would think that using this type of information would not only be universally understood, but unanimously endorsed. But then I had to catch myself because this precise issue is born out of the very freedoms that provide us the ability to openly challenge. Freedoms that define us as a country, making us both the envy of many . . . and a target for others.

William G. "Jerry" Peck is president and founder of Global Trade Management Solutions. He can be contacted at (815) 462-1732, or at wgpeck@comcast.net.