Not Saussure

December 20, 2006

Murder suspect may have fled in pantomime horse outfit, police reveal (but he won’t be able to do it when we’ve got e-borders).

Filed under: civil liberties, press, Spin — notsaussure @ 8:14 pm

As Reuters reports,

Asked whether Mustaf Jama had used a full Muslim veil to evade checks, a spokesman for West Yorkshire police said: “It’s a possibility. He could have been wearing a pantomime horse outfit as well. But until we get him, we won’t know for sure.”

The evidence for my theory is, as 5CC‘s comments suggest, quite as strong as that of the Daily Express for their interpretation of the officer’s remarks (I realise that probably more people have been observed leaving the UK wearing veils than dressed as pantomime horse, but at least I’ve reported what the police actually said, which is more than the Express front page headline did). As The Flying Rodent says,

Newspapers are reporting today that Mr. Jama has fled the country, passing through customs at the airport using his sister’s passport while wearing a veil.
He achieved this incredible feat while the enhanced security measures following the 7/7 bombings were still in place. As anyone who had the misfortune to fly in those unpleasant months will tell you, this is something of a surprise, to say the least. [...]

“The idea that in any circumstances you could be let through passport control wearing a veil is barely credible,” said David Davis, Shadow Home Secretary, this morning. I reckon he could be onto something there.

Be that as it may, and however he’s evaded capture, the real story isn’t about veils but about port security. A rep from the Immigration Services Union seemed perfectly sanguine on The World At One today about checking the identity of women wearing veils; if they’re worried about someone’s identity, they apparently just ask her to remove the veil and, if she demurs, invite her so to do in in a private room in front of a female official. Perfectly simple, and that seems to be what happens at the moment; the BBC quote

one reader who said his wife was always asked to remove her veil when checking in at UK airports.

Jonathan Marshall said there would not be a problem “provided that it is a female who conducts this identity check in a private location – which has always so far been the case”.

Meanwhile, the Opposition parties have had their say;

Shadow home secretary David Davis said the UK’s borders “are not just porous, but non-existent”.

“We are calling for an inquiry into exactly what happened. The idea that someone could leave the country is extraordinary. And the fact that this happened only five months after the 7 July bombings makes it even worse.”

He said the government should reintroduce some form of exit control ahead of any new scheme.

“It’s a relatively quick thing to look at somebody’s passport, look at their face and wave them through if they are who they say there are,” he said.

Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Nick Clegg has said if the reports are true it “beggars belief” that there are no visual facial checks when a person leaves the country at an airport.

It is, indeed, a relatively quick thing to look at somebody’s passport and it would indeed ‘beggar belief’ if the airlines failed so to do before allowing you to board, not least because, if someone’s refused admission at the other end, the airline normally faces hefty fines in the receiving country.

David Davis took the opportunity on The World At One to plug his idea for a uniformed border police force, apparently on the grounds that airline staff ‘may feel’ they don’t have sufficient powers to verify people’s identities. If this is the case, I suggest the airlines send their check-in staff for assertiveness training at Birmingham International, where the check-in staff frequently call the police to apprehend people attempting to travel — always to Toronto — on false or stolen passports. They’re then hauled before Solihull magistrates, remanded in custody and eventually find their way to Warwick Crown Court, where they’re normally sentenced to 15 months (recently gone up from 12) and recommended for deportation.

Quite what setting up — and paying, of course — a unformed border police, which would be national force under (I assume) the control of the Home Secretary and whose officers would, if Michael Howard’s idea of combining them with HM Customs and Excise were implement, enjoy some truly scary powers that their colleagues in the existing police forces would doubtless envy and ask for (and probably eventually get), would achieve in this instance that properly trained airline staff don’t already do is a bit of puzzler.

With some justification, Immigration minister Liam Byrne was rather dismissive of these complaints (links to video); if you’re bothered about this, don’t worry, he says — we’ll soon have e-borders.

This will involve, among other things, collecting everyone’s biometrics such as fingerprints and iris scans when they leave the UK on business or for holidays and then again when they return, collating this with their itineraries and flight information, and putting them — us — through a complex series of algorithms to see if we’ll repay further scrutiny. For an example of how this is done by our American cousins, and the sort of personal data they record, see The Register, here. The data will be shared among police forces and other agencies, and doubtless parts of it will go abroad as part of general international police cooperation and the war against terror.

It’s being tested at Heathrow 3 at the moment, in the form of something called misSense, and is modeled on the US-VISIT Program, which has cost $15 billion so far — don’t worry, we’re assured e-borders won’t cost anything like that, which is certainly a weight off my mind — and caused chaos when, last year, it caught a nasty dose of the ZOTOB worm.

This, added to the ‘virtual strip search’ performed by terahertz, or ‘backscatter’ scanner system, already being introduced at Canary Wharf (and apparently being tested at Heathrow, too) and being tested at US airports on domestic flights (this last link being to a Murdoch paper, you can see the results of this when the ‘privacy filter’‘ is turned off — not that it ever will be here, of course) should certainly solve all our worries about criminals leaving the country disguised as Muslim women (or pantomime horses).

Now, if I were charged with getting the public to accept what some of us might regard as a gross invasion of privacy and a further step towards total surveillance, I might take advantage to present all this in terms of solving a problem supposedly posed by a very small minority who’ve already been demonised in the press. Get people thinking in terms of how we solve the ‘problem’ of people disguising themselves as Muslim in veils rather than how we feel about this rather intrusive electronic surveillance on all our comings and goings.

But I’m not an idealistic politician. And anyway, if you’ve nothing to hide, you’ve nothing to fear, have you?


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1 Comment »

  1. Damn, wish I’d thought of that headline. That’s a beauty.

    Comment by Flying Rodent — December 20, 2006 @ 10:01 pm


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