DANA MILBANK: ‘Homeland security’ ranges farther away from intent

By Dana Milbank

WASHINGTON – You can find just about anything at the annual homeland security expo: X-ray machines, infrared cameras, a police cruiser with heat-sensing capability, a hovering “gyroplane” – and a GPS device that can spy on your spouse.
The salesman for Blackline GPS Corp., maker of “professional-grade covert tracking” equipment, explained that his devices, in the shape of a legal envelope ($700) or an electric razor ($300), can be tucked behind seat cushions, under floor mats or into backpacks.
“We’re getting more requests from husbands and wives,” he explained. “I’ve seen guys throw it in their wives’ car and cover it with a hat. It keeps honest people honest.”
That, in one convenient package, is what has become of the homeland security effort. What began as a well-intentioned campaign to harden targets and protect the nation from terrorists has metastasized into a sprawling and diffuse enterprise that has little to do with terrorists and a lot to do with government and employers spying on the citizenry – and citizens spying on each other.
The GovSec expo last week at Washington’s convention center reflected the shift. Billed as “the premier government security event,” it began after the 9/11 attacks, its organizers told me, with vendors hawking security barriers, razor wire and the like. Now the 2,500 conventioneers can visit the booth of a vendor called ECM Universe, which specializes in monitoring Twitter.
Its “social media surveillance” package helps universities monitor online activity for evidence of bullying, among other things, ECM’s Scott Raimist told me.
States and private industry, too, have spent billions of dollars. But that money is going further and further afield.
Government agencies and corporations are, for example, buying “Pocket Hound” cellphone detectors, which indicate who is carrying a mobile phone (among the suggested uses: schools and airports). A competitor, Cellbusters, can locate where a cellphone is inside a building or whether someone in your conference room is violating a company’s no-cellphone policy.
Catch many terrorists with this technology? “Not so much,” Cellbusters’ Derek Forde said.
Neither is Fulcrum Biometrics likely to apprehend al-Qaeda operatives with its ID system using fingerprint, face, iris, palm and voice identification. Recommended uses include voter registration and “civil ID,” said Fulcrum’s Kathleen Erickson. Also, gym memberships: “You can use it in guest management, like a loyalty program.”
“Can I scan you?” Erickson asked me. She waved a scanner at my convention badge, and with a “boing” sound my registration information was transferred to her.
There are, of course, legitimate uses for all such gizmos, as there are for gun vaults, portable bunkers and military gear. But Big Brother’s display space at the expo is expanding.
Emergency Vehicles Inc. can convert a Honda Odyssey minivan into a “covert surveillance platform” with heat-detecting cameras. “They can focus in on a person and follow that person wherever they go,” explained salesman Michael Cox.
Nearby, International Surveillance Technology is selling hidden cameras and audio recorders in alarm clocks, iPod docks, water coolers and suitcases. Among government security agencies, “there’s nobody who isn’t buying this,” said chief executive Donald DiFrisco. “Imagine: hookers in a hotel room with a clock radio.”
That’s the homeland security mission creep: from Osama bin Laden to hookers in hotels.
Dana Milbank’s writes for The Washington Post Writers Group. Contact him at danamilbank@)washpost.com.