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Archive for March, 2006

One Goose Step Forward

Thursday, March 16th, 2006

John Gilmore recently lost an appeal on his lawsuit against the United States Government for the right to fly without presenting identification.

The one good thing to come out of this was that the Transportation Safety Administration stated to the 9th Circuit Court that the reason that Mr. Gilmore was not allowed to board a plane without ID was because he additionally refused to submit to a secondary screening in lieu of presenting ID. The court’s ruling is here (166KB Acrobat pdf). Since the rules governing what is and what is not allowed with respect to air travel are secret (how I wish I were joking), it took Mr. Gilmore more than three years of winding his way through our legal system for the TSA to cough up this fact.


The Identity Project wants to put the TSA’s claim to the test. They are asking people to decline to present ID during some or all of their air travel, and report their experiences back to them. I don’t travel by air very often, but I certainly intend to provide them feedback at my next opportunity. Here’s why.

In cases such as air travel, using identification as a security measure is ineffective at stopping bad people, while being unnecessarily invasive to honest people. For those of you who don’t care about showing your ID for every silly little thing, that’s fine. I would simply ask for you to consider that each person has hus own threshold when it comes to privacy, that mine is different from yours, and that this wonderfully diverse arrangement where you get to be you and I get to be me is protected by our Bill of Rights.

A few things to consider:

  • Even if we could with 100% confidence authenticate the identity of every single person boarding a plane, authenticating an individual is not the same thing as understanding that individual’s intent.
  • Terror organizations capable of attacks of the sophistication and scale as those perpetrated on September 11, 2001 are not deterred by these kinds of measures.
  • Every time a practice like this is imposed, citizens have to work a little harder to exercise their rights. In other words, the focus continues to shift from “Show me where it says I can’t,” to “Show us where it says you can.”

There are several reasons that the TSA gets away with these sorts of things:

Reason 1: Many Americans don’t know their own rights. A recent survey (231KB Acrobat pdf) shows that while only 28% Americans can name more than one freedom guaranteed them by the First Amendment, 41% can name more than one judge on American Idol, and 52% can name at least two characters from The Simpsons. About one in five stated that among the freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment is the right to own pets.

John Gilmore’s arguments went to the First and Fourth Amendments. For the record, here they are:

Amendment I:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

Amendment IV:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Gilmore argued that his First Amendment right to assemble was violated by the government inhibiting his movements. Additionally, he stated that the government violated his Fourth Amendment protection against search and seizure without probable cause.

Reason 2: I think it’s fair to assert that most of us want to feel safe. For some, presenting ID is a reassuring ritual that lets them know that there are People In Charge. That’s fine, as long as it’s not at the price of rights I hold dear, and not when there is no hard security value complementing the warm-fuzzy.

Reason 3: It’s simply easier to comply. Couple that with fear of being hauled off for non-compliance (how far gone are we when we’re afraid of getting backroomed by our own government for hazy reasons?) and it’s easy to see why most people go along.

My good friend Gokmop once told me that one way to determine the right thing to do is that it’s frequently the harder choice. Challenging authority (for me anyway) is hard but it gets a little easier each time. I live in a country that was founded on the principle that citizens should be suspicious of their own government, and I think that’s amazing. Challenging these kinds of wrong-headed, worthless practices is my form of patriotism.

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