U.S. Airport Screeners Are Watching What You Read

Marx-Engles ReaderEveryone seems to have their personal stories about being hassled by increased airport security. Mine centers on a trip from New York to Boston I took a few weeks after 9/11. Airport security pulled me aside at La Guardia, searched through all my bags, asked me a few questions, etc. The same thing happened at Logan for the return flight. Not only was I patted-down at the main screening area, I was pulled aside at the gate to have my bags checked one more time before boarding the plane.

I’ve joked about this with friends, noting that the only thing I could imagine would cause concern among the authorities was the fact I had the Marx-Engles Reader in my bag during that particular trip.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be laughing.

Wired reports that airport security agents have been routinely recording the race of people pulled aside for extra screening as they enter the country, along with cursory answers given to U.S. border inspectors about their purpose in traveling — and one’s choice of reading material:

The government stores the PNRs [Passenger Name Records] for years and typically includes destinations, phone and e-mail contact information, meal requests, special health requests, payment information and frequent-flier numbers.

The Identity Project filed Privacy Act requests for five individuals to see the data stored on them by the government.

The requests revealed that the PNRs also included information on one requester’s race, the phone numbers of overseas family members given to the airlines as emergency contact information, and a record of a purely European flight that had been booked overseas separately from an international itinerary, according to snippets of the documents shown to Wired News.

The request also revealed the screening system includes inspection notes from earlier border inspections.

One report about Gilmore notes: “PAX (passenger) has many small flashlights with pot leaves on them. He had a book entitled ‘Drugs and Your Rights.'” Gilmore is an advocate for marijuana legalization.

Another inspection entry noted that Gilmore had “attended computer conference in Berlin and then traveled around Europe and Asia to visit friends. 100% baggage exam negative…. PAX is self employed ‘Entrepreneur’ in computer software business.”

“They are noting people’s race and they are writing down what people read,” Scannell said.

It doesn’t matter that Gilmore was reading a book about drugs, rather than Catcher in the Rye, according to Scannell. “A book is a book,” Scannell said. “This is just plain wrong.”

UPDATE: DHS tries to clear the air on this, with the usual caveat: Homeland Security Not Interested in Your Books, DHS Says.


  1. …talk about panoptic sorting!

    One thing is that this stuff is scary. Another is that it seems totally useless. What can these data possibly be used for constructively?

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