It was bad enough when the airlines started running all of our names against "watch lists" of potential terror suspects -- lists so troublesome that they ensnared anybody named "David Nelson," subjecting them to an extra dose of hassle at security checkpoints. Even Senator Kennedy found himself on the watch list -- a measure of rough justice that, nevertheless, demonstrated the TSA combines incompetence with a lack of an institutional survival instinct.
The matter doesn't seem to be improving, either. Just last year, the Department of Justice's Inspector General examined the watch lists and found (PDF):
[O]ur examination of the routine quality assurance reviews revealed continued problems. We examined 105 records subject to the routine quality assurance review and found that 38 percent of the records we tested continued to contain errors or inconsistencies that were not identified through the TSC’s quality assurance efforts.
As if that wasn't bad enough, the TSA now plans to centralize the process of checking names against the watch lists in its own offices. Under the Secure Flight program, airlines will be required to supply lists of scheduled passengers to the TSA's crack clerical staff, who will then issue a "yay" or "nay" to each individual's travel plans -- essentially formalizing the process of making air travel a privilege to be dispensed by government officials.
Hmmm ... Passing more personal data through the hands of bureaucrats. What could go wrong with that?
Well, in case you have a lack of imagination on the subject, you could ask the Government Accountability Office. Two years ago, as Secure Flight was being planned, the GAO warned (PDF):
Secure Flight’s system development documentation does not fully explain how passenger privacy protections are to be met, and TSA has not issued the privacy notices that describe how it will protect passenger data once Secure Flight becomes operational.
Not so encouraging, eh?
Oh, but it gets worse.
The information the government compiles on travelers -- in particular, their comings and goins -- is about to get a lot more detailed. The Border Crossing Information system, recently announced by the Department of Homeland Security, will track, to the extent possible, everybody's movements into and out of the United States:
BCI shall contain border crossing information, as that term is explained above, for all individuals who are admitted or paroled into the United States, regardless of method or conveyance, and information for all individuals who depart the United States by air or sea and, in certain circumstances, by land. ...
For records first collected through APIS, the BCI record will contain all the data of the APIS record (including complete name, date of birth, travel document type (e.g., passport), travel document number and travel document country of issuance) as well as information pertaining to the instance of the border crossing (for example, airport or place of embarkation, where the person began their travel to the United States; for persons destined for the U.S., the location where the person underwent CBP clearance). Such data will also be maintained in accordance with the APIS SORN, DHS/CBP-005 August 23, 2007 72 FR 48349.
The tracking of land travelers -- including casual shoppers and day-trippers across the Canadian and Mexican borders -- is a new development, and one that will give the government expanded knowledge of people's movements to retain (for 15 years, under current plans) and use as it pleases.
That weekend you snuck away from your wife to go to Rocky Point? It'll be a matter of public record.
And given the government's track record on securing data, all of that information really will be public.