OpinionMeister

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Fed Ex Enlists in War on Terror

The Wall Street Journal reports of the extraordinary degree to which Federal Express has enlisted in the war on terror. Link. (subscription required)
FedEx has opened the international portion of its databases, including credit-card details, to government officials. It has created a police force recognized by the state of Tennessee that works alongside the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The company has rolled out radiation detectors at overseas facilities to detect dirty bombs and donated an airplane to federal researchers looking for a defense against shoulder-fired missiles.

Moreover, the company is encouraging its 250,000 employees to be spotters of would-be terrorists. It is setting up a system designed to send reports of suspicious activities directly to the Department of Homeland Security via a special computer link. [...]

Supporters of an expanded role for business in homeland security note that U.S. industry has often been a government ally in wartime. After the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, U.S. manufacturers responded by retooling factories to produce tanks, trucks, planes and munitions.

Cooperation between businesses and federal law-enforcement agencies generally isn't advertised and customers are seldom aware of it. In some cases, people waive their right to privacy when they use a particular company's service. With FedEx, customers consent to having shipments inspected as soon as they hand over their packages and sign the shipping forms. [...]

To orchestrate its deliveries, FedEx has spent billions of dollars over the past 15 years on elaborate computer systems. It compiles troves of data about its customers and the six million packages carried daily across the world, tracking them from point of origin to final destination.

The company also maintains a large global security force, currently 500 strong. Before 9/11, it concentrated on combating employee theft and intercepting illegal shipments of narcotics, explosives or hazardous materials. [...]

Two years ago, after intense lobbying by FedEx of the Tennessee state legislature, the company was permitted to create a 10-man, state-recognized police force. FedEx police wear plain clothes and can investigate all types of crimes, request search warrants and make arrests on FedEx property. The courier cops say their main job is to protect company property and systems from abuse and fraud and help combat terrorists and criminals.

As a recognized police force in Tennessee, it has access to law-enforcement databases. FedEx also has a seat on a regional terrorism task force, overseen by the FBI, which has access to sensitive data regarding terrorist threats. Robert Bryden, the recently retired vice president of FedEx corporate security, says it's "remarkable" for a private company to have a seat on the task force. Across the country, FedEx is the only one, the FBI says.

There is a delicate line that Fed Ex must be careful not to cross. It has a responsibility to protect its customers' privacy within reason, but "within reason" allows it to cooperate with authorities when acts of terrorism are suspected. Al Qaeda does not have its own logistics outfit. It must rely on shipping companies, such as Fed Ex, to move things such as bomb-making materials. If nothing else, Fed Ex is protecting its image from the threat that a bomb will move through its system. If I were an Islamofascist bomb maker, I would certainly choose some company other than Fed Ex to ship my work through.

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