TOC The plain truth about the Airport Syndrome Your Turn

When German Chancellor Angela Merkel came to visit US President George W Bush last week, they may not have discussed eprivacy. It's a pity, for Texas and former East Germany have more in common than meet the eye.

Manny Fernandez and Kareem Fahim filed a news article on the following week-end stating (*):
"Five men on an American Airlines flight from Dallas to Newark set off a security alert and were detained yesterday after passengers and the flight crew said they were acting suspiciously."
Here is as reported the incriminating behavior of these unfortunate passengers, freed after a couple of hours:

  • being in a group of five
  • talking among themselves
  • speaking in a foreign language, identified as Portuguese
  • making hand gestures, sometimes
  • holding flight manuals, gotten from a flight school they had just attended
  • switching seats
The authors of the article dared not mention it, but the men reported to be "four Angolans and a possible Israeli" were not, in all probabilities, Caucasian looking. One may shrug off this disturbing event as yet another case of racial profiling. I demur. First ill informed racial-based suspicions are a mortal threat to society. Second suspicions in this instance were driven by the individuals' behavior.

I am as deeply aware as anyone of the underlying reasons for this incident. The tragedy that happened in September 2001 is not to be ignored, and its lessons must be followed. At stake is the security of our airlines, our airports, all means of public transportation and venues of public gathering.
As a frequent flyer, I would never dream of joking while going through airport security, however tedious it has become.

But what can be tolerated for 5 minutes, at the airport security checkup, is unacceptable when extended indefinitely and indiscriminately. If at all times I have to avoid congregating with more than 4 other people, refrain speaking French, my native language, maintain a meek behavior and otherwise beware of all my neighbors less they report me as a suspicious character, I might as well be living under a dictatorship, e.g. East Germany.

The Airport Syndrome, i.e. the need to adopt a permanently prudent profile, the studied blandness of the spy, lies ahead at the convergence of three trends:

  • the rise of diffuse threats such as terrorism, especially terrorism by one's own citizens, which justify such invasive measures as:
    • data mining, to develop target profiles (1)
    • universal surveillance, to spot targeted patterns within all available data (2)
  • the unchecked accumulation of confidential data by Internet companies to increase sales to advertisers, as they
    • acquire third party data bases containing user personal profiling information (3)
    • deposit invisible cookies on users' machines to keep track of their activities (4)
    • archive user search requests over time (5)
    • process and archive the content of every email (6)
    • prepare to archive users' every movement, e.g. via public wireless access tracking (7)
  • the necessary compliance of Internet companies with requests from the legal authorities of the countries in which they do business:
    • monitoring interactions and postings for forbidden activities (e.g. China, France and the US) (8)
    • access to records (e.g. China and the US) (9)

If you believe the US laws protect you, remember that data archives outlast governments. The Weimar Republic was a vibrant democracy before it was perverted by Hitler and a part of its territory later became East Germany.
So should we be resigned to have Internet companies accumulate more than the Stasi could ever achieve with the help of neighbor, coworker, friend, relative, brother, spouse? Or should we defend our rights to eprivacy and seek control of our personal data?
Should we live under Damocles' sword or should we push for solutions which do away with central control of personal data, such as ePrio's?

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*). 5 on Plane Are Detained at Newark, but Later Freed, by Manny Fernandez and Kareem Fahim (New York Times) - May 7, 2006
  • (**) disclaimers: the following cases are merely illustrative.
    While Google is mentioned several times, this reflects no judgement except a nod to its market leadership.
    While similar in principle, legal actions by Chinese, European and American governments vary widely in actual reach and implementation.
    • (1) Taking Snooping Further, by John Markoff (New York Times) - February 2006
    • (2) Privacy under pressure in Europe, by Bob Sherwood (Financial Times) - February, 2006
    • (3) 1999 purchase of Abacus by Double Click (
    • (4) How to Foil Search Engine Snoops, by Ryan Singel ( - January 2006
    • (5) What Google Should Roll Out Next: A Privacy Upgrade, by Adam Cohen (New York Times) - November, 2005
    • (6) Gmail Privacy Page, (EPIC) - August, 2004
    • (7) Google aims to track users with wi-fi, by Chris Nuttal and Kevin Allison (Financial Times) - April, 2006
    • (8) Skype says text messages censored by partner in China, by Alison Maitland (Financial Times) - April, 2006
    • (9) Google Ordered to Submit Data For Child Pornography Study (New York Times) - March, 2006
May 2006
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