In the wake of the recent wave of terrorist bombings in London, mass-transit officials in New York have implemented a policy of random searches on subway trains, buses and stations.
But the searches may constitute an illegal invasion of privacy, and they verge on racial profiling.
The New York Civil Liberties Union has begun work on a lawsuit that says the mass-transit search policy violates the Fourth Amendment's prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures.
New York authorities have tried to defend against potential court challenges by standardizing the frequency of the searches, thereby making them less subjective.
Authorities are also using megaphones to notify the public about the searches, informing people that if they refuse to cooperate, they would have to leave the station. The city assured people that such a refusal would not constitute probable cause for arrest or even suspicion.
But for a working commuter, the choice to leave the subway is not a fair one.
The intrusiveness of the searches is also a matter of concern for citizens carrying forms of legal medication and other sensitive possessions.
What's more, there is legitimate concern that in New York, riders of Middle-Eastern, African or Asian descent may be disproportionately targeted in the searches. This fear comes especially after police in London shot and killed an innocent Brazilian immigrant, Jean Charles de Menezes, who they mistakenly thought had links to the terrorist bombings.
And on July 24, in New York City, police handcuffed five British citizens of South Asian descent and made them line up on their knees on the sidewalk along Broadway because a double-decker tour-bus supervisor told police the five vacationing men appeared suspicious.
The problems with the current searches point to a woeful imbalance in the way Homeland Security funds are appropriated. Just a week after the London attacks, the Senate voted to cut $50 million for rail and transit security from next year's Homeland Security budget, going from $150 million to $100 million.
While about $15 billion has been spent to increase the safety of airplanes and airports, a mere $250 million of federal funds has been spent on mass transit in the last three years, according to The Washington Post.
We need additional spending on sophisticated forms of technology and surveillance. Instead, local authorities are using primitive, inefficient and possibly illegal stops and searches that even they admit wouldn't necessarily stop a terrorist.
These measure are dangerous because they not only violate our civil rights, they also give us a false sense of security.
The government would be wise -- and we would all be safer -- if it made better use of our tax dollars.
Ed Morales is a contributor to The Village Voice and Newsday in New York, and author of "Living in Spanglish" (St. Martin's Press, 2002). He can be reached at email@example.com.