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USA to ground all travellers until 'cleared'

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No one will be permitted to board an aircraft or a marine vessel leaving or bound for the United States until cleared by the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Bureau of Customs and Border Protection (CBP), under proposed regulations.

Under current regs, the US requires airlines to transmit their manifests no later than fifteen minutes after a plane is in the air, wheels up. This, according to DHS, allows known terrorists to board, then hijack or blow up, commercial planes during the deadly window of opportunity provided between boarding time and when the aircraft is finally diverted or shot down by fighter planes scrambled to "escort" it.

However, if the manifests were to be transmitted before the planes leave the gate, DHS would have time to ensure that "high-risk passengers" are prevented from boarding in the first place, with a subsequent reduction in the number of commercial aircraft needing to be blown out of the skies by their military escorts. Other benefits would include fewer diverted flights, with fewer holidays spoiled and business appointments postponed. Which all sounds quite reasonable.

For DHS, it's a public relations dream come true. No longer will their crummy databases with their prolific false positives create entire planeloads of hateful citizens at each go. Now, only one poor bugger in a turban at a time is going to be inconvenienced for no good reason. When handled individually before boarding, "selectees" can easily be detained, intimidated, humiliated, cavity-searched, and then released as soon as DHS realises its error, without other passengers, and most importantly, the press, taking notice.

Using its Advance Passenger Information System (APIS), DHS has the ability to screen an entire manifest within one hour, or to screen individuals within fifteen minutes of boarding. Airlines will be given a choice between transmitting an entire manifest under the one-hour rule, or transmitting the required "biographical information" on each passenger in real time under an optional fifteen-minute rule.

"Under both options, the carrier will not permit the boarding of a passenger unless the passenger has been cleared by CBP," the Department explains.

Naturally, at a major airport launching planes every minute or so, there's not going to be time enough to check each passenger's identity carefully. The passport will be read or scanned electronically, and if the name under which it's issued doesn't ring any bells, and the picture matches the bearer, it won't be challenged. Indeed, DHS already permits passengers to supply their own APIS information well in advance of travelling, conveniently via the Internet.

During a recent international flight - prior to which I had registered with DHS online - I noticed that no attempt was made to verify my identity. I had a pre-printed boarding pass, and when I arrived at the security checkpoint, a uniformed TSA guard merely glanced at my boarding pass and passport, verified that the names matched, and observed that my face matched the passport photo. It took about two seconds. If I had been a terrorist, I'd have needed only two easily-acquired items: a credit card under a clean alias with which to buy the tickets and obtain a boarding pass, and a passport under the same alias with which to register with APIS and later to scam the TSA guard.

From a security point of view, the new APIS regulation is just another useless counterterrorist rain dance. But from a civil-liberties point of view, there are some curious implications.

According to a public comment submitted to DHS by the Identity Project, World Privacy Forum, and (who else?) John Gilmore, we have here a dramatic escalation in travel restrictions.

But that isn't so. DHS is essentially admitting, without embarrassment, that it is the arbiter of who can travel. This has been the case for some time, since APIS compliance became an obsession in the wake of 9/11. DHS has been diverting flights at will, and removing (usually innocent) "undesirables". What's new here is merely the language: all passengers must be "cleared" in advance by the Department.

In a practical sense, this has been going on for years, only it's been buried under steaming piles of counterterrorist rhetoric. DHS is finally admitting the plain truth: every one of us is on a no-fly list. We are all unfit to travel, until some government clerk verifies that our names don't match his sloppy list of suspected evildoers. Even US citizens cannot enter or leave the USA until they are approved - until they've passed the database test.

The North Korean government has the same basic arrangement, only they don't try to hide it. It's about time Uncle Sam came clean about his own travel approval process. And now, finally, he has. ®

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