From World War II Dossiers To Today's e-Dragnet

Hawaii is the only state with a haunting history that struck me this summer as I stood at the counter to renew my state driver’s license.

That history reminded me of the dossiers of newspaper clippings, photographs and documents compiled on residents of Japanese ancestry by American authorities before World War II.

Within hours after the bombing of Pearl Harbor 71 years ago, these dossiers enabled the individualized nabbing of hundreds of such targeted leaders of the Japanese communities as a newspaper editor and a priest.

Rounded up without probable cause of committing crimes but feared because of presumed loyalties to then-enemy Japan, these leaders were interrogated and shipped to oft-described concentration camps, in contrast months later to the mass uprooting from the West Coast and incarceration of about 120,000—from toddlers to grandpas, aliens and U.S. citizens alike. Decades later the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 and President Reagan acknowledged the nation’s injustice and gave an apology and redress.

This history of Hawaii’s singular claim to shame hit me as the cherub-faced matron at the counter instructed me to peer into the camera at her fingertips. I had already passed the vision test and had handed her my valid U.S. passport that verified my place and date of birth plus my about-to-expire driver’s license listing my sex, current address, height, weight, driver’s license number, color of eyes and notation that I wore glasses. She hardly inspected my personal information as she scanned the documents into a small machine near her elbow that had not been used four years earlier when I renewed my license.

Expecting my photo would be laminated onto my new driver’s license, I grinned happily. No, she explained, another photo for the license would be taken later; the photo she snapped was required under the new federal law that Hawaii began implementing on March 5, 2012.

Then she spotted a hitch. My social security card. It carried my maiden name, not my husband’s surname that I had assumed decades earlier, that was listed on the other documents she had scanned and that had carried me through 29 years of employment at the University of Hawaii. Not good enough, she told me. I had to prove my name change.

Off I went to retrieve my marriage certificate; the next day I visited another clerk. She digitalized the marriage certificate and handwrote detailed notes about its issuing authority. Then, I received the paperwork necessary to be photographed for my license.

A New Age of Covert Surveillance

Suddenly, I realized, the paper dossiers compiled more than 70 years ago to pinpoint and snare individual “enemy aliens” had morphed into an unseen and un-told digital network supplying elements of an e-dragnet on anyone. We had entered a new age of silent, invisible government surveillance.

This e-dragnet has come into play. Shortly after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, U.S. authorities employed elements of this e-dragnet to detain, sometimes indefinitely, and interrogate — without recourse to counsel — 5,000-plus non-citizens, mostly men of Arab, Middle Eastern or South Asian origin.

As Law Professor Natsu Taylor Saito concludes, “Striking similarities exist between measures now taken in the name of fighting terrorism, the internment of Japanese Americans, and the U.S. government’s long history of incarcerating people on charges of sedition or ‘disloyalty.’”

Those not wanting or needing a driver’s license repeat a similar process to obtain a state-issued I.D. card. Those without a Social Security card are directed to contact the Social Security Administration and request it to verify that they are ineligible for a social security number. Personal information and digital photographs also register men between the ages of 18 and 26 with the Selective Service System for possible military duty.

After finishing my second photo, I received only a temporary card before the laminated license card arrived weeks later. That delay gave officials time to verify personal information with interlocking nodes on their digital network.

An Alphabet of Network and Nodes

What I had sensed but could not see was illuminated in Hawaii’s statutes and administrative rules: the Digital Image Access and Exchange Program (DIAEP). That Program permits Hawaii’s license examiners to obtain from and provide to another state my personal information and digital photograph so as to verify visually my identity; facial recognition technology may be used.

Enter SSOLV, a network node that permits examiners to query the Social Security Administration’s Online Verification system. EVVER encompasses the Electronic Verification of Vital Events Records to permit checking birth certificate information, as does NAPHSIS, the National Association for Public Health Statistics and Information Systems.

The HAVV node contains centralized, computerized voter databases that states and cities are required to develop for verification purposes under the Help America Vote Act of 2002.

Enter SAVE and ICE. Non-citizens are required to supply authentic papers proving their legal presence before their license can be issued for the duration of their legal stay. Their digitalized documents can be transmitted to Department of Homeland Security nodes called Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements (SAVE) or to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which handles deportations. Employers may access non-citizens’ data to verify workers’ eligibility.

This invisible, yet all-seeing government surveillance is sensed and unsettling to some, as evidenced in unpublished readers’ comments appended to a news report of l.3 million law enforcement requests for cell phone subscribers’ text messages and caller locations.

Daniel in San Diego wondered “if in the dark days of the Soviet Union the government spied on its own people to the extent that our government does today.”

Within hours on July 8 Sergio countered. “To be fair, the Soviet Union did spy on its own citizens even more than the current US government does.”

But, he added, “Today, the US government spies on its own citizens more than Russia does.”

About the author: A co-editor of “U.S. News Coverage of Racial Minorities,” Beverly Deepe Keever is the author of “News Zero: The New York Times and the Bomb” and a professor emerita of journalism and communications from the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

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