July 01, 2004

Somebody's watching you.

Like that truckdriver, for example.

A couple of years ago, public outrage forced Dubya's administration to shelve its Total Information Awareness program, which would have created a nationwide network of informants (including mail carriers, for example) to 'protect' the country against terrorism. While TIA is gone, the administration's attempts to get US citizens to spy on one another are far from finished.

For example, the American Trucking Association has received US $19.3 million from the Dept. of Homeland Security for its Highway Watch program, which has so far recruited and trained 10,000 truckers to be guardians against terrorism. The ATA has bigger plans for Highway Watch, and hopes to create a nationwide network of 400,000 truckers, 'tollbooth workers, rest-stop employees and construction crews' with their eyes on the lookout for 'suspicious' behavior.

After the session in Little Rock, two newly initiated Highway Watch members sat down for the catered barbecue lunch. The truckers, who haul hazardous material across 48 states, explained how easy it is to spot "Islamics" on the road: just look for their turbans. Quite a few of them are truck drivers, says William Westfall of Van Buren, Ark. "I'll be honest. They know they're not welcome at truck stops. There's still a lot of animosity toward Islamics." Eddie Dean of Fort Smith, Ark., also has little doubt about his ability to identify Muslims: "You can tell where they're from. You can hear their accents. They're not real clean people."

That kind of prejudice is hard to undo, but it's a shame Beatty's slide show did not mention that in the U.S., it's almost always Sikhs who wear turbans, not Muslims. Last year a Sikh truck driver who was wearing a turban was shot twice while standing near his tractor trailer in Phoenix, Ariz. He survived the attack, which police are investigating as a hate crime.

The Highway Watch website boasts that the program is open to "an elite core [sic] of truck drivers" who must have clean driving and employment records. In fact, their records are not vetted by the American Trucking Associations. At the Little Rock event, some came in off the street without preregistering. However, the organization is highly security conscious about other parts of its operations. It refuses to disclose the exact location of its hotline call center or the number of operators working there. "It could be infiltrated," says Dawn Apple, Highway Watch's director of training and recruitment.

Like we always say with items like this: Don't you feel so much safer now?

Via Time.

Posted by Magpie at July 1, 2004 09:31 PM | War on Terrorism | Technorati links |

Gyah! It's like "NightWatch" from that Babylon 5 television series!

Posted by: darryl pearce at July 1, 2004 11:29 PM

I got two opposing thoughts on this, the first being that common perception has it that truck drivers are bigoted losers (which is itself a stereotype) and if thats the case we wouldn't want to give them the authority to profile the 'islamists' if it was just another way for them to act out their prejudices.

On the other hand, truck drivers are almost constantly in motion, see nearly every inch of highway in this country at all hours of the day or night, and have probably been driving long enough to recognize irregularities among people on the road.

There are pluses and minuses. We dont want to become a nation of snitches and we dont want racial profiling. At the same time we have a group of people well placed on highways, with cb's and decades old understanding of the flow of life across this nations highways, who may be able to actually spot something if they had the knowledge of what they were looking for.

I got no personal preference, but i do know that some truck drivers wont sweat calling the cops on you if you tilt a beer or are smoking a joint. this is different, and basically comes down to the question of whether you can use such a resource without abusing it.

Would you feel differently if certain truckers were trained more as 'first responders' instead of 'snitches'? Say if they were trained to be brought into the loop after the fact to reduce impact or catch bad guys...truckers could run about anything off the road, you know.

Maybe i'm just going in circles here, que sera...

Posted by: x @ at July 2, 2004 01:08 PM

my distaste for highway watch is pretty visceral. whether these folks are supposed to be 'first responders' or 'informers,' it reminds me of the deservedly maligned 'committees for the defense of the revolution' in cuba and similar civilian based surveillance and ideological control groups in other dictatorships. by having some citizens spy on (and keep records on) other citizens, people learn to distrust each other, keep their heads down, and obey the government. it is a sign of the hypocrisy of the current administration that the people who are pushing highway watch and other measures that threaten democracy and civil liberties are among the first to criticize countries like cuba for having similar programs.

the u.s. pours billions into law enforcement, security, intelligence, border control, and similar activities. if that spending isn't enough to protect the country, then perhaps we should be looking into dealing with the root causes of terrorism, rather than subverting our constitution and democratic principles in attempts to 'protect' ourselves from terrorists.

Posted by: Magpie at July 2, 2004 05:30 PM

This month's DISCOVER magazine has an interesting article on how scientists used truckers to track the spread of venereal disease.


Posted by: Darryl Pearce at July 3, 2004 12:41 AM