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Who Are You and What Did You Eat?

The voracious U.S. appetite for intel on casual tourists pushes the boundaries of privacy without necessarily keeping Americans safe.

One of the most schizophrenic aspects of American border policy since 9/11 is the way Washington treats its friends: "Welcome to America," the government all but literally says to people arriving from Europe. "Line Up Here for Secondary Inspection."

The controversy over body scanners at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport last December — after Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to destroy a plane with his undershorts — was just a powder flash in the ongoing struggle between the U.S. and Europe since 2001 over how to manage America's traditionally open borders. Individual acts of pressure to foist America's security interests onto other countries have become a pattern, and Washington's rules have a deep and counterproductive power to irritate.

Let's start with "biometrics." Washington used to offer full visa-waiver status to participating allies, meaning there was no need for businessmen or tourists from about 35 nations, mostly in Europe, to apply for 90-day visas. But as of 2004, even visa-free visitors had to give fingerprints and a mug shot at the border, like arrested suspects. The U.S. tried to streamline this process by insisting that all governments hoping to maintain visa-waiver status issue "ePassports" tagged with computer chips, which radiate personal information like fingerprints, date of birth and a digitized photo. Europeans now have computer-chipped passports because of this pressure from Washington.


Then, in 2007, the Department of Homeland Security asked travelers from visa-free nations to apply for authorization at least 48 hours before they boarded a flight, and now all paid-up European passengers bound for America have to remember to fill out a Web form before they leave for the airport. Two years later, Washington floated the idea of a $10 surcharge on the same travelers. By then it was impossible to talk with a straight face about visa-free travel at all. Filing paperwork to enter a country — never mind paying a fee — is nothing short of applying for a visa.

The U.S. modeled these visa-waiver restrictions on an Australian system, so they're not unheard of in the free world, but they're a topic of annoyed conversation in Europe. Washington compounded the joke by saying the proposed fees might pay for ad campaigns to glorify U.S. tourism. "Financing a campaign to promote tourism by charging tourists $10," Germany's then-Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble said in September, with deadpan reserve, "may not be logical."

Meanwhile, the U.S. also started requesting loads of private information from airlines, including passenger cell phone numbers and the names of people who'd ordered a special meal. This irritated Germans in particular. They get antsy about invasions of privacy, having both Nazi and Communist regimes in their recent past. Why did America need to know this stuff?

"If we had had a program prior to Sept. 11 where we were able to get information about how everybody paid for a ticket, including a contact telephone number and a seat number," then-Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff told Spiegel magazine in 2007, "we would have been able within a matter of moments to identify 11 of the 19 hijackers who came into the United States."

But Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab stood on a watch list for people with "extremist links," unlike most people who fly over from Europe. In his case, the personal-data filters failed rather woefully — even if someone at Homeland Security can still figure out what I ordered for lunch on my flight from Schiphol in the same part of December.

Finally, Americans criticized Schiphol officials for not using their collection of expensive body scanners. But one reason they didn't, according to the London Times, was that Washington had leaned on Amsterdam, starting near the end of 2008, to scan all passengers from Schiphol, no matter where they flew. "The U.S. didn't want these put in exclusively for American flights," Dutch Interior Minister Guusje ter Horst told the Times, "but as a general rule across the airport." The Dutch refused.

The story fits with another American demand in 2007. Homeland Security wanted Canada to "fingerprint travelers on Canadian soil who approach the border but, for whatever reason, decide not to cross," according to The Washington Post. But Canada, by law, can't fingerprint people who haven't been charged with a crime. Ottawa said no, and Chertoff scuttled the plans.

The American appetite for detailed information on visitors to the U.S. pushes the boundaries of privacy — for people around the world — without necessarily keeping Americans safe. Chertoff told a press conference in Berlin two years ago that he wanted "a worldwide system of tripwires," set off by personal data, "that make it easy for the vast amount of travelers to move along unimpeded but that make it dangerous and difficult for terrorists to do the same thing." That sleek vision, so far, remains a bureaucratic opium dream, as anyone who's been to the airport lately can attest.

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