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TSA Nominee's Snooping Raises Privacy Concerns 134

Posted by timothy
from the full-responsibility-is-more-than-acknowledgment dept.
Hugh Pickens writes "The Washington Post reports that Erroll Southers, President Obama's nominee to head the Transportation Security Administration, gave Congress misleading information about incidents in which he inappropriately accessed a federal database, possibly in violation of privacy laws. Southers accepted full responsibility for a 'grave error in judgment' when he accessed confidential criminal records twenty years ago about his then-estranged wife's new boyfriend. Southers's admission that he was involved in a questionable use of law enforcement background data has been a source of concern among civil libertarians, who believe the TSA performs a delicate balancing act in tapping into passenger information to find terrorists while also protecting citizens' privacy."
"In his letter to key senators on November 20, Southers said he simply forgot the circumstances of the searches, which occurred in 1987 and 1988 after he grew worried about his wife and their son, who had begun living with the boyfriend. 'During a period of great personal turmoil, I made a serious error in judgment by using my official position with the FBI to resolve a personal problem,' Southers wrote. Civil liberties specialists say that the misuse of databases has been common among law enforcement authorities for many years, despite an array of local, state and federal prohibitions intended to protect personal information. Studies have found that police at every level examine records of celebrities, women they have met and political rivals. 'I am distressed by the inconsistencies between my recollection and the contemporaneous documents, but I assure you that the mistake was inadvertent, and that I have at all times taken full responsibility for what I know to have been a grave error in judgment,' Southers added."
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TSA Nominee's Snooping Raises Privacy Concerns

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  • by Ethanol-fueled (1125189) * on Friday January 01, 2010 @05:39PM (#30616348) Homepage Journal
    TSA's mission is the gross violation of personal privacy. The man is perfect for the job!
    • by Larryish (1215510)

      Southers's admission that he was involved in a questionable use of law enforcement background data has been a source of concern among civil libertarians, who believe the TSA performs a delicate balancing act in tapping into passenger information to find terrorists while also protecting citizens' privacy.

      They actually believe that?

  • by MarkvW (1037596) on Friday January 01, 2010 @05:41PM (#30616356)

    Inadvertence is incompatible with "full responsibility."

    Inadvertence doesn't make sense when you figure out the number separate, independent, goal-directed decisions that he needed to make in his effort to use a government resource to advance his personal agenda.

    When he says that the act was inadvertent, either he doesn't know what the word means or he is lying.

    Now they want to give him control over one of the most intrusive databases of all time?

    • by Bigjeff5 (1143585) on Friday January 01, 2010 @06:01PM (#30616496)

      'I am distressed by the inconsistencies between my recollection and the contemporaneous documents, but I assure you that the mistake was inadvertent, and that I have at all times taken full responsibility for what I know to have been a grave error in judgment,'

      Read that again, maybe three or four times if you have to. Focus on one clause at a time really think about what he is saying before you move on to the next one.

      He is saying the discrepancy between what he told congress and what the documents say was inadvertant, that is the mistake he is talking about. In fact he says he is distressed that his recollection was flawed. I.e. misleading Congress was a mistake, as in not what he was trying to do, he simply remembered things slightly differently than they apparently were. That happens all the time to me, I'm sure it does to you as well. Abusing his position, however, he has always claimed full responsibility for as "a grave error in judgment".

      Learn to read, please. It will help.

      All that said, I still wouldn't trust this guy as head of the TSA. It may have been just one mis-judgment in a long career of good judgments, but the TSA is so fucked up as it is we don't need someone who may be going on personal vendettas via airline security.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by rhizome (115711)

        It may have been just one mis-judgment in a long career of good judgments, but the TSA is so fucked up as it is we don't need someone who may be going on personal vendettas via airline security.

        Absolutely. I prefer a standard of putting people in charge who are not prone to grave errors in judgment. That eliminates everybody who has been caught for such.

        • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

          by BlindRobin (768267)
          Actually, I believe it simply eliminates everyone.
        • by bwcbwc (601780)

          Umm, _everyone_ is prone to grave errors in judgment. That knowledge goes back to the doctrine of original sin in the church, and the idea that all humans are fallible.

          I'm undecided about this one. If I could prove a negative that this guy has never made a similar misjudgment since his prior offense, I would actually prefer him as a "once bitten, twice shy" person, rather than a noob who is more likely to slide down the slippery slope into Dick Cheney territory because they haven't experienced the consequen

      • by DJRumpy (1345787)

        Why aren't there more controls in place to prevent this type of random access? Why don't they require a gatekeeper who can oversee and approve these types of requests rather than granting broad access based on 'trust'?

        • by Mikkeles (698461)

          Because then the people in charge couldn't misuse the data for their own personal reasons and benefit.

          • by DJRumpy (1345787)

            I just don't understand why the same rules that apply to wire taps and such wouldn't apply to accessing this database. Why is one protected while the other is not?

      • by u38cg (607297)
        I think the opposite. I'd rather have someone who knows pulling this kind of thing can bite you in the ass.
  • A couple worrying things. He made an error due to great personal turmoil. That's fact.

    Is he saying that he won't make the same error again because the safety of Americans would not cause a great personal turmoil? Would my safety be more casual for him? That's not a selling point to have him appointed, personally.

    If he worried about my safety as he would for his son, would cause a great personal turmoil? If so, what other errors in judgement will be the result?

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Nutria (679911)

      It was 20 frickin' years ago, and he was going (or about to go) through a divorce.

      Him being a Democrat, I'm sure he's Evil in a dozen other ways, but unless he still snoops on a regular (or even occasional) basis, this is one item to give him a pass on.

      • by alecto (42429) on Friday January 01, 2010 @05:56PM (#30616460) Homepage

        Because he had a good personal reason to abuse his access and did so thinking he would never have been caught makes him the perfect man for the job? I disagree--he demonstrated a willingness to misuse a public trust for personal gain that I doubt the passage of time has magically cured so much as made him better at covering his tracks.

      • by khasim (1285) <brandioch.conner@gmail.com> on Friday January 01, 2010 @05:59PM (#30616488)

        And he was under a lot of stress.

        Sure. I'll give him a pass on this also.

        As soon as he voluntarily removes himself from the running. Actions have consequences. Once you make a decision of that magnitude to violate the ethics of your job, you SHOULD know that you are no longer eligible to manage other people who might be under similar stress with similar responsibilities.

        • by furball (2853)

          And he was under a lot of stress.

          Are you saying that being the head of the TSA, being responsible for the safety of millions of flyers, will be less stressful?

          • by Dunbal (464142)

            Are you saying that being the head of the TSA, being responsible for the safety of millions of flyers,

            The TSA are responsible for the safety of no one. As shown repeatedly.... how can that be stressful?

            1. Go to work, shuffle papers around, waiting for the next "attack".
            2. Impose harsher restrictions to prevent that specific type of attack, while trying to maximize passenger inconvenience. If an attack is carried out, claim that the system wor

            • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

              by obarthelemy (160321)

              You're being optimistic.

              It's not "impose harsher restrictions to prevent that specific type of attack", it's "impose very visible restrictions that look to clueless voters like they will prevent that specific type of attack"

          • And he was under a lot of stress.

            Are you saying that being the head of the TSA, being responsible for the safety of millions of flyers, will be less stressful?

            Exactly. Very good point.

            Hypothetical Alert: 3 planes explode over Los Angeles and one man enters a terminal with an automatic weapon and kills 34, injures 12, and kills self.

            Is that enough stress for him to stop caring about privacy or the constitutional parts of his job or those of all of his subordinates (the whole TSA). I would think the political, personal, and social pressures on him to protect people from that moment forward may seriously influence his ability to make good decisions. And with of

        • by Nutria (679911)

          Actions have consequences.

          What then, if he was disciplined 19.5 years ago, thus having "paid his debt to society"?

          • If you, or I, or Joe Sixpack accessed those records, we would be facing a prison sentence. So, what you're asking is, "Had he been properly convicted, and served his time, would he be fit for the job today?"

            Think about it. Do you want a convict running a high profile security agency, protecting you, your special other, your kids, your parents? Think. A convict may have "paid his debt to society", but he remains a convict.

            • by bwcbwc (601780)

              There's a difference between "misuse of system access" and "unlawful system access". Also back in 1990, there was no where near the level of consciousness about online privacy that there is currently. Online was still AOL, not the WWW. So in that environment, looking up someone's personal info was treated about the same as drunk drivers were treated before MADD got going in the 1980's. A slap on the wrist.

              Personally, I think a set of permanent "privacy offenders lists" similar to the sex offenders lists mos

            • by alexo (9335)

              If you, or I, or Joe Sixpack accessed those records, we would be facing a prison sentence. So, what you're asking is, "Had he been properly convicted, and served his time, would he be fit for the job today?"

              Think about it. Do you want a convict running a high profile security agency

              An emphatic YES!
              Otherwise we're encouraging corruption.

              protecting you, your special other, your kids, your parents?

              The moment he misuses his authority he is proven to be unfit to protect me, or anyone else for that matter.

              Think.

          • Actions have consequences.

            What then, if he was disciplined 19.5 years ago, thus having "paid his debt to society"?

            So he can live his life - but he can't be trusted with things that he has proven he can't be trusted with.

            We pretty much do this with everybody else (that is, outside of politicians and political appointees). If you kill someone with a gun (maybe during an emotional confrontation and a lapse of judgment), you can serve your time, and then be released into society. You've paid your debt and should be given another chance. However, we still don't let you own a gun again, because you have proven you can't b

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by selven (1556643)

        We want people in the TSA who don't make sudden emotion-driven decisions but instead can think rationally, even if a terrorist flies a plane into a building again.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Toonol (1057698)
        I agree. It was twenty years ago. We've had presidents who did worse in their past (isn't it established that both Bush and Obama have used cocaine?). Past behavior may be important to establish what a candidate will do in office, but after subsequent decades of personal growth, that one incident is an unimportant data point. If it's a consistent pattern, sure, crucify him for it.
        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by masterzora (871343)
          I agree that this guy deserves not to still be slammed for this, but to say that using cocaine is worse than the violation of personal privacy is just silly.
          • by Nutria (679911)

            to say that using cocaine is worse than the violation of personal privacy is just silly.

            No, it's not.

            We know what cocaine does to the CNS, but "violating personal privacy" is really ambiguous, spanning a wide range of offenses.

            • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

              by masterzora (871343)

              Okay, let me rephrase: abusing power in order to violate personal privacy, which, while still ambiguous, is definitely a Bad Thing, perpetrated against another, unwilling person, whereas cocaine use is a potentially Bad Thing perpetrated against oneself.

              Moreover, specificity is more or less irrelevant. Causing the death of a living creature is really vague, and covers everything from squishing an ant to harvesting a plant to murder, whereas engaging in respiratory functions is rather specific, but the firs

              • by Nutria (679911)

                perpetrated against oneself.

                No man is an island. Your right to snort coke stops when you turn paranoid and assault me or crash your car into mine, killing (or worse, maiming, my loved ones).

                • Which completely and totally occurred in the cases of Obama and Bush? Or for that matter, most users? Hold them responsible for such actions. Even hold them responsible for doing things to increase the likelihood of such actions while under the influence (hence our drunk driving and public drunkenness laws), but until you show me that coke is going to result in such things, your argument doesn't hold.

      • by dkleinsc (563838) on Friday January 01, 2010 @08:17PM (#30617462) Homepage

        I'm absolutely certain that this story coming out right now has absolutely nothing to do with digging through Mr Southers' entire life story to come up with some dirt on him that will give Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC) political cover for leaving the TSA with no director for nearly a year. I mean, one might almost think that the real problem with this guy was that he was open to the possibility of TSA workers unionizing [washington...endent.com].

        • by Nutria (679911)

          to come up with some dirt on him that will give Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC) political cover

          No, unless the ACLU is suddenly in league with the Republicans. I seriously doubt that, though.

      • It was 20 frickin' years ago, and he was going (or about to go) through a divorce.

        Him being a Democrat, I'm sure he's Evil in a dozen other ways, but unless he still snoops on a regular (or even occasional) basis, this is one item to give him a pass on.

        I would disagree on that in the sense that his moral character permits this kind of abuse, and so it may likely be permitted again. The way in which so many people bid/sniff-butt for these kinds of positions, I'm sure there is someone else out there with more trust in his/her past.

        • by Nutria (679911)

          his moral character permits this kind of abuse, and so it may likely be permitted again.

          Do you also think that video games and books should be banned, because they cause children to have bad thoughts?

          • his moral character permits this kind of abuse, and so it may likely be permitted again.

            Do you also think that video games and books should be banned, because they cause children to have bad thoughts?

            No. And what you've said, with the level of information you've provided, is basically unfounded.

            -1 Troll.

            Why are you trolling me? What I said is of value and significance.

      • What a man does in a time of crisis, such as a divorce, defines who and what he is more accurately than all the years of carefree living. Twenty years ago has nothing to do with this story - that is a red herring. The fact is, so long as the "little woman" kept his house clean, and did his laundry, and performed her "duties" for him at night, everything was just find and dandy. When she declined to live in his fantasy world any longer (for whatever reasons) then he used his position of authority against

        • by Nutria (679911)

          Twenty years ago has nothing to do with this story

          Wow. Utterly, and completely wow.

          Are you really so young, arrogant and clueless to think that people can't change from when they are 25 to 45?

          The fact is, so long as the "little woman" kept his house clean, and did his laundry, and performed her "duties" for him at night, everything was just find and dandy. When she declined to live in his fantasy world any longer (for whatever reasons) then he used his position of authority against her for personal reasons

          • Twenty years ago, my second son was born - after I had taken a discharge from the Navy, and spent a couple years working in the civilian world. No - I'm not young and arrogant. I'm quite seasoned, as a matter of fact. 99% of the time, a man who is a shitbird at age 20 will be a shitbird when he is 40, and he'll STILL be a shitbird when he's 60.

            Yeah - people change. In fairy tales and gothic romances.

            If this turkey wanted my respect, he would have stood in front of Congress, and told them something to th

            • by Nutria (679911)

              Yeah - people change. In fairy tales and gothic romances.

              20 years ago, I drank like a fish, masking the pain of divorce; now I'm sober. 20 years ago, I couldn't/wouldn't hold a job more than 2 years; now I've been at the same job 15 years.

              My view of the world, how I act in it, and how I see other people act is different from what it was in 1989.

      • by Thing 1 (178996)
        Yeah, I dunno if your stating that we should "give him a pass" is useful seeing as your .sig states that you want to kill us all, as long as I'm sexy... And your mother...
      • by jcr (53032)

        It was 20 frickin' years ago, and he was going (or about to go) through a divorce.

        Umm. So what? He broke the law, and wasn't punished for it. Putting him in any position where he's got the opportunity to do it again is grossly negligent.

        -jcr

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by haapi (16700)

      I would imagine he's a tad more mature now than 20 years ago and has more perspective on what constitutes "personal turmoil".

      I say confirm him -- he knows the spotlight will be on him, and those under him know that such activities will not be countenanced.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Bigjeff5 (1143585)

      Often times the best people for a job are the ones who've screwed up in a similar way in the past and have learned from the mistake. They can be far less likely to do the same thing again than someone who has never been presented with the same situation.

      However, since it revealed a character flaw, that person is still not ideal. The ideal person is someone who was presented with the same situation and did not abuse their sensitive position.

      In other words, the man (or woman, obviously) you want for this jo

      • by jeko (179919) on Friday January 01, 2010 @06:58PM (#30616878)

        He committed a felony by illegally accessing privileged information. He did this with perfect knowledge and forethought that he WAS committing a felony. He did it for petty reasons and personal gratification. He abused his position for personal gain. He perjured himself to cover it up before Congress.

        Had you or I done this, we'd be writing about it from inside a penitientiary.

        Now, if you're going to argue that he has learned from mistakes, that he is contrite, that he has since reformed, the time and place to make those arguments are at HIS SENTENCING HEARING, not his next job interview.

        After a breach like that, the only public trust this man should be given is a choice between the grill and the fry machine.

      • Often times the best people for a job are the ones who've screwed up in a similar way in the past and have learned from the mistake.

        This is true.

        The question then becomes "Did this particular guy "learn from his mistake"?

        Other than the obvious "don't get caught", of course.

        Personally, I don't really care much at all who heads the TSA. But I'm concerned that Obama seems to have a hard time picking candidates for Senate confirmation that haven't broken a law relevant to their prospective new job....

        • by badfish99 (826052)

          "Did this particular guy "learn from his mistake"?

          Well, he claims to have "inadvertently" forgotten what he did. If he forgot about it, he can't have learned much from it.

  • by alecto (42429) on Friday January 01, 2010 @05:50PM (#30616430) Homepage

    I suspect folks with that kind of access who misuse it at least on occasion are far more common than those who don't. What surprises me here, actually, is that there were any checks that resulted in him having been caught in the first place.

    • by fm6 (162816)

      Well, considering that this nomination has been blocked by a Republican proto-filibuster for almost 3 months now, I suspect this guy has very little privacy left. Ironic, really.

  • What's worse? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by tomhath (637240) on Friday January 01, 2010 @06:03PM (#30616512)

    The fact that he used the police database to get revenge on his ex-wife, or the fact that he tried to mislead Congress about what he actually did?

    Now he's saying his original statement that he asked someone else to do the search for him was wrong, that he actually did the searching himself, twice. Voters are getting tired of government officials who conveniently forget facts.

    • by jmcharry (608079)

      I don't think it is a "fact" that he did it to get revenge on his ex-wife. He claims some concern about the welfare of her and their child. If, as he says, he passed something on to the police, such concern might not have been ungrounded. I suspect it is a hard call for a father with suspicions and access to such information to refrain from sinning.

    • by Bigjeff5 (1143585)

      or the fact that he tried to mislead Congress about what he actually did?

      If you can read, he claims any misleading statements he made were inadvertant, and that he has always taken responsibility for his error in judgment.

      Now, if you want to call him a liar, that's one thing. What evidence do you have that he intentionally misled congress, as opposed to simply not remembering details about something that happened 20 years ago? He readily admitted his mistake when documents showed his testimony didn't match.

      I'm sure you remember everything wrong you did 20 years ago with perfec

  • No moral scruples... check.

    Congratulations. You're just the man we need to institute our plan for Change.

  • by erroneus (253617) on Friday January 01, 2010 @06:11PM (#30616552) Homepage

    I'm sure others will point out that this guy has a history of abusing his position for personal reasons. He will therefore be watched by various people including news people looking for a juicy story and even the appearance of impropriety will likely result in some sort of story.

    I think that abuse of position and power is par for the course. If he does it and is discovered, it would be a huge disgrace to him, his office and the one who appointed him. On the other hand, if he resists the urge or is simply very successful at being sneaky, then maybe it's all for the best somehow.

  • The only way this guy gets appointed is if the politicians all sympathize with him. Not an unlikely outcome, it should be noted.
  • Well, 2010 is 15 hours old where I am. I am so far disappointed. OK, so what have we here. Government official abusing power. Huh. Who woulda thunk.
  • Nothing new here... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by fahrbot-bot (874524) on Friday January 01, 2010 @07:12PM (#30616992)
    "Person in power believes rules don't apply to self, changes mind when caught." - Film at 11.

    If more people respected or even cared about the spirit - heck, letter - of the law (or morality) instead of their personal wants, desires, and goals, we'd all be better off. Would the recent near-collapse of the banking industry have happened if the guys at AIG or Goldman-Sachs cared about the ramifications of their greed on others - and by "others" I mean "us", not the other bastards on Wall Street.

  • Disband the TSA (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Russ Nelson (33911) <slashdot@russnelson.com> on Friday January 01, 2010 @07:32PM (#30617142) Homepage

    Why are we seeking a new boss for the TSA when we should disband the TSA (Terrorist Security Agency). Are you terrorized? I'm not! So why are we being asked to be terrorized when IT IS OUR ENEMIES THAT WISH US TO BE TERRORIZED?

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by fm6 (162816)

      Disbanding the TSA would be the same as admitting that the last 7 years of security theater was totally pointless. No politician is going to touch that with the proverbial 10-foot pole.

  • Irrelevant (Score:5, Insightful)

    by McDrewbie (530348) on Friday January 01, 2010 @07:34PM (#30617160)
    It doesn't matter. Almost everyone takes some sort of advantage/liberties at their jobs, especially when younger. Waiters get free food and drink, office workers look at FB and steal pens. Glen Beck shills for gold. Politicians can "fundraise." He just happened to have the ability to run background checks.
  • It's not people like this one who went WAY over the line and violated the trust of the American people - it's the poor misguided fools out there who think this is OK somehow and that we should give him another chance. Here's a newsflash for you - he had the position of trust and when temptation arose he gave in shamelessly and the lies he's telling now don't make it acceptable.

    I'm not suggesting that this fellow be prevented from living a "normal" life and holding a job - but the proposed job that this fel

    • by u38cg (607297)
      He checked the record of the man that was going to be living with his son and ex-wife. He didn't go looking up the addresses of young single women who lived alone, for goodness' sake. He did it back in a time where accessing records in this kind of way was a cultural norm - and still is, in many places. Equating this with child molestation is just ridiculous.
    • A couple of points.

      1 - it appears that's ALL he did, so I wouldn't call that "systematic" abuse, this is to me more on the level of an expense fiddle or taking a company car home once.
      2 - the guy ADMITS that he was wrong, in other words, he has at least the right view of his actions. To me that runs counter to your argument that he shouldn't be trusted with the guardianship, at least this guy seems to know right from wrong
      3 - because of his admission he will be under far greater scrutiny than any "Mr Teflo

  • See Being There, the movie.

    As much as people enjoy bemoaning a person's past for their mistakes, perhaps it's a good thing that this fellow made a mistake, and maybe has learned from it. This, rather than someone who has not made the mistake.

    I really don't know anything about the guy, and let's face it; despite this article, neither do you.

Faith may be defined briefly as an illogical belief in the occurence of the improbable. - H. L. Mencken

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