What’s Yours is Mined: Has your hard drive been frisked lately?

Many people might think that Israel’s legendary security comes from carefully screening those who come into their country. Fact is, it’s getting out that’s the hard part.

My brush with Israeli security came as I was departing with a book written in English and printed in Philadelphia. Carrying it qualified me for a data strip search. And that makes me wonder how much of this is happening here: How much is America’s airport security being used as a pretense for gathering all kinds of information? Has your hard drive been frisked?

To leave Israel, everyone goes through the familiar jauntlet of zapping, sniffing and handling. But this time, I wasn’t. I could have been carrying a gun and strapped to explosives. Still, I walked onto my plane without ever passing through a metal detector – without ever being physically touched. Because what Israel airport officers were looking for was information.

And they are not just looking to get information from me. When anyone leaves leave Israel, you and all your baggage are inspected while you watch. Israel airport security also ask very personal, even insulting, questions seemingly designed to make you blurt something out in anger. Some examples:

“What is your religion?”

“Do you belong to a synogogue?” “Why not?”

“Do you have children?” “Why not?”

“How can you read the Haggadah (the Passover book) if you don’t read Hebrew?” (Answer: It’s also in English.)

Still, for me it is was going pretty well until an X-ray picked up an image of a book in my baggage. And as I pulled it out, the examiner’s eyes grew wide. Where did I get this, who gave it to me? The book was Disclosed: Inside the Palestinian Authority and the PLO by Arlene Kushner. I got it from David Bedein, a journalist with roots in Philadelphia who now lives in Jerusalem.

As a documented journalist, with a letter from Israel’s consul in Philadelphia in my pocket, it seems I was never considered a security risk. As I said, they didn’t even bother putting me through the usual personal security checks. But for half an hour, they scrolled through the calendar of my Palm Pilot, poked around my camera for images and meandered through my laptop. Each item was also taken elsewhere, presumably for further perusal. The book had triggered it.

Bedein knows what’s in the book because he had a large hand in producing it and regularly gives it to journalists. From his office located in the government’s own ministry of information building, Bedein provides translation and other media support services. Using public records, Disclosed demonstrates how the nominally legitimate Palestinian Authority is merely the terrorist Palestinian Liberation Organization in “a new guise.” Bedein’s right-wing views are widely known.

“I put the logo of the Palestinian Liberation Organization on the cover,” he later told me on the phone, “to attract journalists’ attention.” Told that it also triggered a data strip search, Bedein laughed. “Hey, there’s a war going on.” Asked if travelers can generally expect to have their computer files downloaded, Bedein answered, “not usually.”

Frankly, I believe that the Israeli security officers know all about Bedein, but they used the opportunity to data-mine me. Will the American government be following suit with its travelers? Is it already? City Paper reported one American being stopped in Philly as early as October 2001 for a book he was reading. I’ve not seen anything about data-mining in our airports, but if this has happened to you, please e-mail me at bruce@citypaper.net. This being America, I can promise, at least for now, to protect your identity.

This piece ran on May 11th, 2005 in the City Paper, published in Philadelphia, a west bank settlement (on the west bank of the Delaware River, that is)