Friday, December 01, 2006

How New Is Government Tracking of Risky Americans?

One of the big news stories today is about how the U.S. government is assigning risk scores to Americans who travel internationally. If your risk score is high enough you get flagged as a possible terrorist or criminal.

Barry Steinhardt, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, is quoted in most of these stories as saying: "Never before in American history has our government gotten into the business of creating mass 'risk assessment' ratings of its own citizens."

I'm not sure that Mr. Steinhardt is correct about this. While the current program is probably the most massive example of government tracking its citizens as risks, my own research on U.S. women peace activists during World War I suggests that the government has a long history of deciding that certain behaviors by its citizens are indications of possible threats and then tracking/monitoring those people who fit the profile.

I think if the ACLU wants to challenge this international traveler risk assessment program, the way to go about it is not to argue that it is unprecedented. Rather, they should look at similar programs in the past and whether they were successful or instead diverted resources from pursuing real risks. I know that the time and money spent tracking female peace activists turned out to be fruitless to maintaining American security during WWI. Although it did provide a secondary benefit to postwar administrations since information had been gathered which could be then be used to discredit those who opposed American defense policies after the war.

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