Maher Arar: terrorist? Innocent computer scientist? It's who you know.

Maher Arar — a dual Canadian-Syrian citizen who operated a computer consulting business — was arrested by US officials during a stopover at New York's JFK airport, then and deported to Syria by the US government. The FBI flagged him as a "suspected terrorist." After year of torture in a Syrian prison (he describes having been beaten with objects including shredded electrical cables, and living in a urine-filled, rat-infested 3'x6'x7' "grave"), they seem to have decided he was innocent, and safe enough to ship back to Canada. From Joi Ito's blog:

Obviously, it's probably easier for a Syrian national to get on a "list" than a Japanese, but this really scary. They say he had had a relationship with another suspected terrorist who is also being imprisoned and tortured now in Syria. He says he barely knew the guy. So what does this mean for us? If we meet someone, we should not "become friendly" with them until we are certain that they are not a suspected terrorist. What does this mean? We need to make sure they don't hang out with other suspected terrorists. So if you believe in six degrees, it's likely at some point you will be a suspected terrorist.

How do they know if you hang out with someone? Friendster? LinkedIn? Your email? We need to be VERY careful about the privacy of not just the content of our communication, but the privacy of who we are in touch with, often called sigint, or signal intelligence. Seriously though, this will cause a chilling effect on meeting, calling, emailing or otherwise "being in touch with" anyone who you don't know very well that could land you on the "suspected terrorist" list.

Among questions being raised by Arar's advocates: why was he deported to Syria, notorious for violating the human rights of prisoners, instead of being returned back to Canada — where he lived for 15 years, and owned a technology company? There are now calls for an open investigation in Canada — and in the US. Here's a link to one article in which Arar describes his imprisonment, Another in which his Canadian citizenship is said to have prevented more severe torture, and here's a link to the Google News search. (Thanks, Ned)