D'Arcy from Winnipeg
Solution Architecture, Business & Entrepreneurship, Microsoft, and Adoption

The Fine Line Between Security and Privacy

Monday, April 13, 2009 12:46 AM

Let’s play a game of “What if…”. What if you were a Canadian flying from Toronto to Vancouver. The only piece of luggage you had was a metal case containing $5000.00. When you went through security, the officers noticed that you were carrying a large sum of money with you.

Now what is the acceptable response from the security officers? Should they be allowed to question you about the money? How about your job, what you were doing in Toronto, what you’ll be doing in Vancouver? Realize that while carrying that much cash may seem at the least foolish, its not illegal.

Some of you might need more information. “What was the money for or from? What was I doing in Toronto, or going to do in Vancouver?” You may feel that you need to know whether this was absolutely innocent, or whether you were transporting drug money…and that knowing that will form whether you would relinquish information when asked.


But why is that? Why do we feel that its ok for us to share information that we don’t legally have to supply?

Consider the experience of Steve Bierfeldt. Steve works for the Campaign for Liberty, a political group led by Ron Paul. Now there’s huge backstory to this situation, including a report identifying radical militia members released to Missouri law inforcement. In this report, they suggest that militia members commonly associate with third party political groups, and actually identify the Campaign for Liberty by name. So while this report had been floating around since the end of February, Mr. Bierfeldt finishes up at a conference in St. Louis, collecting just under $5000 from sales of books, marketing material, tickets, and other conference-related items that are associated with the Campaign for Liberty organization. He puts the cash and cheques into a metal case and goes to catch his plane to DC.

But when going through security, the TSA officers notice the money. They become suspicious and decide to question Steve further.

The Washington Times has published an article on the incident, but we have more than just words to go on: Steve recorded the questioning on his iPhone. Throughout the questioning, Steve is asked questions such as where the money is from, where he works, what he does there, etc. Steve responds time and time again with: Am I legally required to answer that question?

So let’s go back to the initial game of “What If”. Yes its odd to see that much money go through security. Yes, there may be a totally harmless explanation. But if we aren’t doing anything illegal, why should we feel that we have to explain ourselves? To be nice? Because our social conscience doesn’t want others to think we’re bad people? Because its easier for us just to be cooperative to authority so that we don’t miss our plane?

In an interview with The Washington Times, Mr. Bierfeldt writes…

"I was not refusing to answer the questions. I was only saying, as per the law, 'Am I legally required to answer the questions?'"

"We are becoming far too eager to give away our liberties in the face of false security. We want to make our plane and we don't want a five-minute hassle so we are eager to give up our freedom, and that is unfortunate."

In one of his more famous comments, Pierre Trudeau remarked:

The state has no business in the bedrooms of the nation.

Why should we feel that our privacy is something that should be sacrificed so easily to authorities when no illegal activity has occurred and therefore have no right to investigate?


There’s another sentiment though and another way to look at the situation. By all of us giving up some of our privacy, we somehow make our shared experience safer (or at least that’s the theory).

I was at a casino for dinner one night with friends, and we took a picture of ourselves at the table. Security came over and explained that cameras were not permitted and actually gave the explanation that someone like a pastor or public figure could be there and might not want to be photographed. The *freedom* of taking a picture was taken away from all to ensure that those who probably shouldn’t be there could…and could be there without disguise.

While that scenario sounds twisted, its similar to how we’ve come to view airport security: if we all just provide whatever information is asked we ensure that those entrusted with sniffing out the bad guys will have an easier job and not have to waste time with those that have nothing to hide; we all give up something for the greater security of all.

I’ve read comments on some websites complaining about how they have to take off shoes at airports in the US and how silly it seems. Of course, the fact that a terrorist attempted to set off a bomb in his shoes puts this in perspective, and as a traveller I’m ok with going through this exercise if it means ensuring a safer experience; I’ll gladly give up not having to take off my shoes if it means nobody is trying to set their Nike’s off at 20,000 feet.

There’s also the idea of cooperation between travellers and those entrusted with their safety. Should those of us that travel without illegal intentions or transporting anything illegal not want to help our security personnel do their jobs better, easily filtering out the non-threats while focussing on those that may truly have unscrupulous plans?

The Fine Line

So where does this leave us? What is the correct approach to the What If scenario? I know that in Canada things may be seen as different then in the US. In reading and talking with US friends, there is definitely a distrust of government and authority that I don’t think exists (or at least not as strongly) in Canada. Canadian culture doesn’t have its base in the same ideals as the US, so maybe the line up here isn’t so fine?

Or maybe at the end of the day, in Canada we see our government as truly being a servant of the people…where the US sees its government as an overreaching authority interfering with their freedom and liberty?

But regardless of what side of the border you live on, the discussion on how much authorities should be able to question or learn about you under the banner of national security is still very much active and ongoing.

I’d love to hear thoughts on this, so please comment.



# re: The Fine Line Between Security and Privacy

The arguments in this case are unnecessary, IMHO. Flying is not a right -- it is a priviledge. This priviledge is also not something granted by the government. It is granted and provided as a commercial enterprise. The involvement of the government in security through the TSA, and FAA is mearly out of public interest for the safety of those who are not opting to fly. In other words, TSA is there (IMHO) , to protect those who could be targets of terrorist-redirected airplanes or a flight that might run into another if there were not a governing body dictating flight patterns over residential areas.

It is my opinion that any commercial interest, whether regulated by the government or not, has the right to make any rules that they feel are necessary to provide safety to their passengers. This includes, but is not limited to, discriminatory practices that would limit the rights of anyoen belonging to a particular political party, religious organization, or even nationality. If these commercial interests take mis-steps in those limitations, the back-lash from the public should be enough to balance the security interests against common decency. Unfortunately, that is not the case. We have allowed "priviledges" to be extended into rights -- at least in the US. This is evidenced by the fact that any company can be sued for discriminatory practices.

The question of whether Mr. Bierfeldt was legally required to answer a question was irrelevant, IMHO. As a business owner, if I asked a customer a question that pertained to my standards of safety, and the customer refused to answer, he would have been escorted out and not permitted to return to my business again. The same should apply here. If these commercial airlines have agreed to a standard of safety that requires certain activities to be called into question, and those questions went unanswered, this individual should have been escorted out and not permitted to fly.

I find it ironic that someone from Ron Paul's organization would be in favor of limiting liberty in this way. They have insisted on seeing this as a government action against an individual. I just don't see it that way.

Now if Mr. Bierfeldt had been stopped on the sidewalk with his case, and brought into the police station for questioning, I would likely stand with him. 4/13/2009 1:36 AM | Tobin

# re: The Fine Line Between Security and Privacy


The problem with your argument is that in this instance, the TSA is *not* acting as a representative of the airlines, but rather as a representative of the people or the public interest, or at least that's the justification for having the TSA there at all.

If the government was completely out of the picture, and airlines were permitted to handle security privately, I would agree completely that any questioning a passenger received would (or should) be up to the airline to determine, and those who do not wish to answer such questions could attempt to find transport with another airline, or other means of transportation.

But because the TSA *is* a government agent, I think the matter of which questions are legitimate exercises of their legal authority and which are intrusions into liberty and invasions of privacy is a perfectly reasonable subject for debate.

The government, because it has the power to arrest (and ultimately, to kill), is circumscribed in ways that private agencies are not. The United States Constitution limits what government may do without search warrants, etc. I think one can make a reasonable argument that different expectations about privacy apply when traveling by air, given the need to prevent aircraft from becoming guided missiles. But that doesn't mean that the argument about where the line is is irrelevant.

This is, IMO, *completely* about government agents acting against individual liberty. I'm not outraged about it, though I think it's possible the TSA may have gone too far in their questioning. But the idea that this has anything to do with the airlines exercising their rights as private agencies is misguided, I think. I doubt that the airlines get much input at all into the kinds of questions TSA representatives ask of passengers. 4/13/2009 8:17 AM | G. Andrew Duthie

# re: The Fine Line Between Security and Privacy

What Canada really needs is a Watergate scandal to shake her faith in government. 4/13/2009 8:27 AM | Kyle Baley

# re: The Fine Line Between Security and Privacy

This opens up an interesting train of thought...

What if all security responsibility *was* given to the individual airlines or, more likely, to the airport authority itself? Could you make an argument that it would then be in the best interest of the airline to ensure that their security is of a high standard to draw business from competitors (in the case of the airport authority, for people to fly out of their port on connecting flights)?

The airlines would then have a vested interest, not just from a marketing/business side, but also to prevent litigation from damage caused by security breaches.

The danger of course is that some airlines might roll the dice or just not invest in security, which puts their passengers and people on the ground in danger.

I think altering the industry in this way is obviously not realistic considering where we are in history, but its an interesting idea.

D 4/13/2009 8:29 AM | D'Arcy from Winnipeg

# re: The Fine Line Between Security and Privacy

Kyle - I don't think we need that to shake faith in our government, at least not if you believe what the news says. Personally, I don't think our present government is doing too badly even with some of the blemishes. I have more faith in them and their initiatives than I would with any of the opposition parties in power. 4/13/2009 8:33 AM | D'Arcy from Winnipeg

# re: The Fine Line Between Security and Privacy


Some points:

> Flying is not a right -- it is a priviledge.

As are so many things. It is easy to hide behind this as a reason to allow liberties to be removed. In a country where *almost* all travel is private industry of some form it is very easy to retreat to that corner when the argument is easiest.

> This priviledge is also not something granted by the government.

As an American, I am not *granted* any rights, The Declaration Of Independence "grants" nothing - it enumerates rights that are already there. To assume that a government should be able to *grant* rights is the opposite of what at least I believe The American founding fathers intended. That is up to some interpretation

> It is my opinion that any commercial interest, whether regulated by the government or not, has the right to make any rules that they feel are necessary to provide safety to their passengers.

See any post that Bruce Schneier has made about "security theater". Most of the "rules & regulations" are not about true safety but the illusion of safety. So, it gives me no relief to hear any company proclaim regulations based on "security". Also, Duthie's point about the TSA being a representative of the government is a reasonable one. 4/13/2009 8:51 AM | David L. Penton

# re: The Fine Line Between Security and Privacy

>> What Canada really needs is a Watergate scandal to shake her faith in government.

We have faith in our government? I haven't had much of that for 20 years now...

I think D'Arcy will really need to avoid TSA and Border Protection agents for a while after this series of posts. 4/13/2009 11:34 AM | Kent Sharkey

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