After a change of plans on a recent business trip to Los Angeles, I purchased a one-way ticket to Las Vegas to visit my parents. My ticket was tagged SS, special security, which put me in an airport security line that requires a complete body and luggage search, including an electronic scent detector, which, according to the Homeland Security officer, spotted TNT on my Sony Vaio.

Though the computer was checked twice more without a trace of TNT, the HS officer asked for my driver’s license and began filling out a form on me.

Despite my protests, my name was entered into the official HS database. UGH.

I objected not because I had anything to hide, but because I believe conspiracies are often ones of incompetence, not sophisticated secret collaborations. Keep in mind that this is the same government that gave us the U.S. Housing Department, sent ambassadors to countries where they don’t speak the language, Waco, Texas, Social Security and the U.S. Postal Service lines.

Though I am a big fan of technology, databases are the easiest innovation to abuse and the most difficult to maintain.

Moreover, government lists are inherently dangerous; they were tools of Hitler, Latin American despots and Richard Nixon, not a constitutionally fit America.

A friend of mine was active politically in Latin America in the 1950s during the McCarthy era; he was no more left of center than a Kennedy. But out of vengeance, a political opponent reported him as communist to the U.S. State Department when he was planning a visit to the U.S. on academic business. This stalled his entry to the U.S. and the mistake haunted him for years to come.

Nearly 30 years later, his daughter had difficulty getting a request for U.S. residency; she later learned she was denied because of that list in the 1950s.

Databases, like plastic in a landfill, survive much too long. Passed dangerously into the wrong hands, they can unfairly rob people of their basic rights.

Now, the U.S. government has begun the process of fingerprinting and taking pictures of people who enter the country from selective countries. I imagine there are officials in the Bush Administration who would like to keep files on all 6 billion people in the world.

HUD had trouble keeping track of just 120,000 foreclosed homes in the 1970s. What kinds of mistakes will the same government make keeping track of us?

It already made one: me.

***

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