Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Your travel plans are not just your business

If you mess around with people's privacy, the result is that there is resistance to every new measure that involves wholesale collection of personal information. CDC wants to collect personal information on all domestic and international travelers, they say to help track an epidemic.
"What we're asking for is the authority to collect the information in the context of modern travel on airlines," Dr. Marty Cetron, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's director of global migration and quarantine, said Tuesday in a telephone interview with The Associated Press.

"There's just a number of conditions where acting quickly with electronic access to passenger information is going to make a lot of difference," Cetron said.

The CDC wants to be able to easily find, notify and recommend treatment to airline passengers who have been exposed to bird flu as well as such diseases as plague, dengue fever or SARS -- even if the travelers' symptoms don't appear while they're traveling. (Boston Globe)
The financially fragile airlines industry hates the idea, saying it will cost billions of dollars to get full name and address, emergency contact numbers and detailed flight information on every passenger and keep it for 60 days in a form ready for instant retrieval should CDC ask for it. One impulse for the measure is the difficulty public health authorities had tracking down SARS cases in the 2003 outbreak. CDC got information from paper customs declarations but much was inaccurate or useless.

But this isn't the only effort to get personal information of travelers. The Transportation Security Agency (TSA) has been trying to get airlines to share their electronic domestic manifests so names can be checked against the notoriously inaccurate terror suspect watch lists. International flights already give names to the Department of Homeland Security who has agreed to give them to CDC, in violation of an agreement with the European Union that such information can't be shared. Clearly this Administration doesn't care about international agreements and probably wouldn't care about any agreements they made about CDC data.

And therein lies the problem. This wouldn't stop a bird flu epidemic, although it is conceivable it could be useful in some cases, like SARS. But no one trusts the Bush Administration to use private information solely to protect public health. The Bushies are notorious violators of civil liberties, not to mention international law, which they flagrantly ignore, making this a rogue nation in every way but name.

Here is the expected (and rational) reaction to these proposals:
Infectious disease experts and the American Civil Liberties Union raised concerns on Friday [April 22, 2006] about an agreement that would allow U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and customs agents to detain anyone who looked sick with bird flu.

The memorandum of understanding, a copy of which was provided to Reuters, also provides for Customs and Border Protection agents to give personal details of airline passengers to the CDC.

It was signed in October by Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. HHS spokeswoman Christina Pearson denied it was secret or sinister.


"CDC is authorized to isolate and/or quarantine arriving persons reasonably believed to be infected with or exposed to specified quarantinable diseases and to detain carriers and cargo infected with a communicable disease," it reads.

It also provides for Customs or Border Patrol agents to forcibly detain, if necessary, anyone coming in who appears to be sick while the CDC is contacted. (Maggie Fox, Reuters)
Not surprisingly, the threat of a bird flu pandemic is being used as a lever to get this unpalatable measure accepted, although the idea it would stop flu is just plain stupid, or, as Dr. D.A. Henderson said more kindly, "silly."
But Dr. Donald Henderson, an expert on influenza, smallpox and other infectious diseases who has advised the administration of President George W. Bush on such issues, calls it "silly."

"I was absolutely astonished when I saw that proposed federal regulation," Henderson said in an interview.

"It's so silly," added Henderson, who now works at the Baltimore-based Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

Henderson noted that people can be infectious with influenza and other diseases long before they begin to feel sick or show any symptoms.

"You are spending huge amounts of money and have we got any evidence that this is going to do anything? Is it worth all the energy we are going to be putting into it?" he said. (Reuters)
This comes as many suspect the core of the Bush administration's "plan" for doing something about bird flu is forced quarantine:
The ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union] believes that protecting the public is not the motivation.
"The tracking of data on airline passengers, which can amount to building lifetime dossiers on Americans, has been a hotly debated issue for many years -- and now we find out that two government agencies may have agreed, behind the public's back, to share data," said Barry Steinhardt, director of the ACLU's Technology and Liberty Project.

ACLU legislative counsel Tim Sparapani said: "Once again, we are seeing that DHS cannot be trusted to exhibit restraint in the handling of personal information.

"They collect information, say they'll use it for one purpose, and then they turn around and use it for another."

The Center for Biosecurity's Penny Hitchcock, a former National Institutes of Health infectious disease specialist, said the CDC risks losing the public's trust.

"The information that will be collected by CDC/HHS is part of this quarantine effort -- sharing information collected for disease prevention could be harmful," she said.

"The harm being that it will create suspicion and encourage people to regard the public health service as 'disease cops.' Why would people want to cooperate under those circumstances?" (Reuters)
Fear of disease brings every crooked quack out of the shadows to prey on people. It also gives license to crooked governments to do things they couldn't do otherwise. So it's not enough to "just" worry about a truly worrying disease, avian influenza. We also have to watch our backs for a truly worrying government, the dishonest and malevolent Bush administration.

Maybe on balance it doesn't bother you that much. If you trust them, then I've got a used car you might be interested in. You can drive it across the bridge in Brooklyn I'll give you a 99 year lease on as you head for the beachfront lot I'll sell you in the Everglades.

That's where the WMDs are.