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Opinion: Columnists

Civil liberties may not survive the 'Gorgon Stare'

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Gene Healy,Columnists,President,Homeland Security,Secret Service,CIA,Terrorism,Analysis,Constitutionality,Civil Liberties

Meet the new BOSS, short for Biometric Optical Surveillance System, a crowd-scanning technology under development for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Last week saw the release of documents describing DHS's latest efforts in "facial profiling." The agency has awarded a $5.2 million federal contract to the defense firm Electronic Warfare Associates to develop facial recognition technology allowing video cameras to pick "watch-listed" suspects out of crowds at distances of up to 100 meters.

Meanwhile, the New York Times reports on the expansion of a DHS initiative that's bringing roving squads of armed Transportation Security Administration agents to trains, buses, and stadiums near you.

Random stops, bag searches, and interrogations are among the services TSA provides with its "Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response" program. Clearly, somebody in the TSA brass thought it would be really cool to call these units "VIPR" squads.

Some might find it unsettling to learn that the federal agency in charge of crotch-groping aspires to strike with the speed and ruthlessness of a venomous snake -- but I'm all for truth in advertising.

These militaristic monikers show us how the permanent security bureaucracy sees the relationship between the rulers and the ruled: They believe they are the BOSS of you.

At the top of the executive branch, President Obama and his team favor Orwellian euphemism, preferring wordblobs like "disposition matrix" to the harsh Anglo-Saxon of "kill list" -- mumbling "kinetic military action" when what they really mean is "war."

But further down the administrative ladder, the language sometimes gets admirably blunt. The National Security Agency has programs with names like "TRAFFICTHIEF" and "PANOPTICON."

And DHS has even expressed interest in "Gorgon Stare," a drone-mounted camera array under development by the Air Force that can watch whole cities at a time (and turn the inhabitants to stone?)

At the Constitutional Convention in 1787, James Madison warned that "the means of defense against foreign danger have always been the instruments of tyranny at home." That's worth remembering when you consider the origins of the BOSS program.

It began "as an effort to help the military detect potential suicide bombers and other terrorists overseas ... but in 2010, the effort was transferred to the Department of Homeland Security to be developed for use instead by the police in the United States."

As Ars Technica's Cyrus Farivar points out, "if the government's current path down license plate reader deployment is any indication, once this technology becomes good enough, there will likely be federal grants to encourage local law enforcement to use such capabilities" -- raising the possibility that Americans' "day-to-day activities [could be] recorded, aggregated, analyzed and linked back to them by name by law enforcement officials."

The dangers of "mission creep" are apparent with the VIPR teams as well. VIPR got an unwelcome dose of public scrutiny back in 2011, when agents witlessly set up a checkpoint for Amtrak passengers disembarking a train in Savannah, Ga., and made female travelers lift their shirts, to be checked for brassiere bombs. That mini-scandal hasn't hurt the program's bottom line, though, as its budget is now around $100 million, funding 37 teams.

"TSA officials would not say if the VIPR teams had ever foiled a terrorist plot or thwarted any major threat to public safety," the Times reports, "the information is classified."

Still, it's generated some arrests for "minor drug possession" and outstanding warrants. "Did we need to have TSA in here for a couple of minor busts?" asked a Houston resident after a VIPR-squad search of city buses.

There's little to admire -- and a lot to worry about -- in intrusive homeland security programs like BOSS and VIPR--but at least they've got good, honest names.

Washington Examiner columnist Gene Healy is vice president at the Cato Institute and author of "The Cult of the Presidency."

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Gene Healy

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The Washington Examiner