You never know when you’ll be called upon to play a minor role in life’s ongoing stage of security theatre.
I found that out yesterday morning after printing out a boarding card at my hotel the morning I left Nuremburg, where I’d been sent for a seminar. I’d asked the front desk if I could use the lobby computer terminals, but they told me that before they could give me the access password, they’d need a copy of my ID.
OK, I thought – maybe they think I’m going to damage their computer, stuff the wide-screen monitor into my back pocket or cram the desktop tower into my carry-on – whatever. I just needed to print out that boarding card, so I handed them my passport to copy.
After five minutes online I returned to the desk to say I was through, and could I please have the copy of my passport back.
“But I’m finished,” I said. “Why do you have to hold onto it?”
With a big smile and a double head-bob, she cheerfully said, “Because just now, you could have been planning a terror attack.”
I was stunned. Flabbergasted. I’d say blown away, but the slaughterhouse floor scenes from the smoke-filled Moscow airport terminal suicide bombing are still too fresh in the mind.
“I beg your pardon?” I said. “My passport contains vital personal information.”
“Your document copy is safe with us,” crooned her male colleague. “We have a locked safe.”
“That’s not the point,” I said, but decided not to press it further, leaving for the breakfast buffet shaking my head.
But while gathering my plateful midst the morning crowd I couldn’t just forget it. I got to wondering if somehow my information might be stolen sometime over the next 10 years. I wondered how long they’d hold onto it, whether it would one day be destroyed, and whether I’d receive any notification of that.
So I went back to the desk and asked them how long they intended to keep my passport copy.
“We have to keep it for 10 years,” she chirped. “It’s the law.”
“Do you mean to tell me that for five minutes of online time you are going to keep a copy of my most important personal document for 10 years?”
What seemed like farce to me they took as routine. “It’s the law,” she repeated. “We have to do it.”
“Good,” I said, not wanting to debate the existence or strict interpretation of a law I’d never even heard of. “In that case, I think you should inform your customers before they use the terminals that their personal information is going to be on the files of your office for 10 years. If I’d known that, I’d never have bothered. Never.”
I returned to my breakfast – chewing over the screenplay and script of yet another production of security theatre and how I could have played my role better – and suddenly realised that I had no proof that I’d logged out.
Carrying out their absurd scenario to its bizarrest extreme, I wondered: what if someone were sitting at that terminal logged in under my login and password – the one with a hard copy of my passport copy attached to it – and were in the process of sending coded messages to fellow cell members to blow up another airport? I had no physical proof that my session was over, nor that I’d logged out. What if nine and a half years from now someone stumbled upon the connection and I’m hauled before a judge and sent to prison for the rest of my life? Hey, and what if there were some sanity in the way we live our lives, and is it any wonder people my age get nostalgic for times when we all weren’t assumed to be guilty before proven innocent?
Overcoming my desire to just forget the whole thing, that it was nothing but trivial bureaucratic bullshit and really doesn’t matter anyway, I went back to the front desk and said, “Look, I don’t want to belabour the point, but about the Internet thing, could you please print me out some proof of when I actually used the computer, and confirmation of the time I logged out?”
The woman with whom I’d mainly been dealing overheard my request got up from her desk in the tiny office off the main counter. As she turned to face me I could see her face was bleeding red with rage. “All right,” she said. “If that’s the way you feel about this, we’ll do it a different way. You can have your passport copy back. I’ll just take down its number.”
As she was searching for my passport copy she added, “Never before have I had to deal with anyone who objected so vehemently to this procedure.”
I resisted the urge to remind her that Germany is full of people who put up with crap simply because someone in authority is shovelling it. But picking up on the word “vehemently” I pointed out to her and the other two desk employees looking on that I had dealt with them throughout in a calm manner, never once raised my voice, spoke with them in even tones, and was merely asking for something that I felt was my right to possess: my personal information. “Data protection and privacy is a two-way street,” I told them.