Friday, April 17, 2015

TSA in the news again: Sexual Assault in Denver

Two great takes in prominent publications on the recent news of Denver screeners manipulating the naked scanners in order to grope the genitals of attractive men: has former TSA screener recommending that
One or two full-body scanners per terminal, through which the occasional passenger could be randomly directed (alongside passengers on watch-lists), would provide that adequate deterrence. The vast majority of the traveling public need not pass through a full-body scanner, and need not be groped at all.
That would be a good start, for sure. But, even better, has an editorial calling for abolition of the TSA.

Friday, January 9, 2015

How many years have you been x-rayed without consent or knowledge?

If you live in New York, you may soon find out. It could be that NYPD has not used van-mounted x-rays to view inside occupied buildings or vehicles, and has not used them near pedestrians. But, they have been stonewalling Pro-Publica for the past three years on even being transparent about their safety procedures. Furthermore, NYPD may have databases of x-ray images of vehicles and buildings (yes, the radiation can penetrate metal and concrete) - and perhaps nude images of people - since they apparently have no privacy protection policies in place. But a judge is requiring NYPD to release documentation regarding how these x-ray vans are used.

(Do you suddenly feel like you have entered a science-fiction novel?)

Furthermore, these vans have been in use by the US military in the countries they occupy (yet more trampling on the natural-born freedoms of foreigners), by US Customs at borders (at least they have a policy in place that requires vehicles are not occupied at the time of the scan), and by other law enforcement agencies at conventions and sporting events;

The most extensive reference to the vans came in a book written by two ABC News reporters who chronicled a year inside the agency's bomb squad.
Describing the security around the 2004 Republican convention in New York, they wrote that every vehicle entering a street in front of the convention hotel was ordered to drive between two white vans, which X-rayed each vehicle for explosives.
Aside from the totally outrageous violations of civil liberties that have been going on right under our noses with almost no public awareness, we could delve (once again) into the issue of whether the government can ever be expected to use technology like this responsibly.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

A TSA apologist in Connecticut

Yes, there are still people who publish about how hard it is to be someone on the state's payroll doing things that are otherwise illegal. Jim Cameron wrote an opinion piece in the Easton Courier that actually says we should lay off because TSA agents are only doing their job. Just like British troops in colonial America, Nazis, Soviet Gulag Guards, and Saddam Hussein's henchmen. The whole point is that it is not heroic to take a paycheck to abuse the rights and privacy of innocent civilians. That's why we must make TSA agents think twice about what they're doing.
He then goes on with "evidence" about how the TSA agents keep us safe. The proof is all of the weapons they seize. Nevermind that these weapons trend to be legal and in the possession of non-criminals who usually just forget to remove them from their bags before they get to the airport. So the TSA agents are not protecting anyone; they are just taking property from innocent travelers. (I'm not sure what his point is about the woman who faked a bomb threat...seems neither here nor there for this discussion.)
The last thing I want to take down from this op-ed is this:
Remember the holy triad of service: Fast, good and cheap. You can achieve any two of those, but not all three. Clearly, the top priority is “good” security. So, in this era of sequestration, we’re unlikely to see quality compromised for speed or lower cost.
The TSA is not a business, it is a government bureaucracy (and a bloated one at that). There is no service being provided, no calculation on the trade-offs between profit and loss. It is supremely naive to think that the institution of federal airport security can ever consistently achieve even one part of the service triad.
So far, the evidence is on the side of those who give TSA agents grief: security is not fast, not good, and not cheap.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Futuristic biometrics at several airports

This is the first I have heard of iris scanners being used to get passengers through expedited security, but they (or fingerprint scanners) have already been in use at several airports. My thoughts:
1) This is not a step forward for liberty.
2) Ugh. Public-private partnerships.
3) If you are already flying anyway, and this speeds up you're travel time sufficiently to warrant the cost and intrusion, I can't fault you for using it. Just know that it is not *really* a good thing (see 1 and 2).

There is always a question of whether this would be appropriate if airports and airlines were operating on a completely free market. The key is that in that case, every action and association is voluntary, and competition would be able to assess consumer opinion. My guess is that, in a free market, airlines wouldn't care if you were who you said you were nearly as much as the government does. At least that's the way it used to be, not too long ago.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

TSA stops yet another kid-who-is-not-a-terrorist

Oh brother! Poor kid!
Apparently Schilling’s 12-year-old son who was also travelling with him, forgot to leave his fake grenade at home...the Schilling family was taken into a private room to explain the incident and were allowed to continue their journey after the incident was resolved.

The last hold-out?

I am surprised that there are any airports left without naked scanners. But, Syracuse is about to get its first one:
TSA had been waiting until a bigger checkpoint was built that could accommodate the expensive devices, Airport Executive Director Christina Callahan said...
This particular write-up is actually less pandering about the scanners than I typically see. Even the final "postive" quote is nuanced:
“I in no way feel uncomfortable when going through a full-body scanner,” said [passenger] Hernandez. “Going through a metal detector is only a few seconds quicker so it’s not really an extra hassle. If full-body scanners are helping airport security be more efficient and trustworthy then I’m all for them.” [Emphasis mine.]
That's a pretty big "If!"

Friday, November 21, 2014

Ad-hoc security, and media bias

From an article about property stolen from air passengers: "The takeaway: Knitting needles and ice skates are welcome on board planes, but not sparklers, nunchucks or fake chain saws."

These are not rules that any rational person can anticipate. They are ad-hoc rules that are not based on what a weapon is, but on what the TSA can get away with.

Also, this article is yet another example of puppet journalism (the bureaucrat-media complex?). I saw 4 identical headlines in my news feed in one day, with links to see all related articles. There are dozens of them. Here's how it works. A state agency, such as the TSA, issues a press release to all of the mainstream media outlets. Each media outlet reprints the press release, sometimes with local details (like a stat for how many things were confiscated at the local airport this year), and with no critical thinking. Thus, the bureaucrat's message gets out - in a big way, since every local and national affiliate Carries the story within days of each other - and any alternative presentations are marginalized to the non-professional, alternative media.

In this case, we are led to believe that the TSA is doing a good job - even protecting airline passengers - because it has so many real and fake weapons that have been taken from passengers. Nevermind that none of these passengers are terrorists, and almost all of them are mentally stable, well-intentioned, non-criminals (in the true sense of that word).

Remember this lazy journalism solidarity with the state next time you you hear about anything you're benevolent government has done. Particularly when foreign nationals' lives are being targeted by the US military.

Friday, October 31, 2014

What the TSA has taught us about Ebola screening

I'm cherry picking some quotes, but this article in Vanity Fair by a former TSA agent is a quick read, so click through:
In essence, Ebola interrogations amount to a new iteration of, “Did you pack your own bags? Andhave you been in possession of your bags at all times?,” asked of passengers by airline securitysince the 1988 Lockerbie bombing. No one is likely to want to admit to having been near an Ebola hot zone at an airport security checkpoint knowing that such a disclosure might lead to a three-week quarantine
Good point. How many times have you thought to yourself when you are asked these questions: "Well, my husband and kids helped pack the bags. They were in the trunk of the taxi on the way over and the cab driver handled them for me. But there is no point in answering these questions in any other way than 'Yes.' and 'Yes.' I don't want to miss my flight!" Now picture that you are a doctor or nurse who went to Africa to help out. Might your thinking go: "I was in Africa and saw some Ebola patients, but I don't have any symptoms and I took all of the necessary precautions. It would be much better to deny I was near anyone with Ebola so I can get home and sleep in my own bed tonight! No harm, no foul."

And, as we already know:
Security theater isn’t just some harmless bureaucratic placebo and fact of modern-day life: it can discourage activities and behavior in such a way as to have real, pernicious effects upon society.  

Saturday, September 20, 2014

The TSA is impotent, and more lessons learned from Phoenix

John Keller, a blogger at, was in the Phoenix airport when the police locked it down to search for a shooter. His first-hand account and observations are at's blog.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Research I missed: Radiation doses of the old naked scanners

I'm currently going through the recent paper by Mowery, et al on the effectiveness and security of the "old" (x-ray backscatter) naked scanners. Along the way, I came across this paper by the American Association of Physicists in Medicine (AAPM) [pdf], which was given access to the same machines by TSA and Rapiscan in order to assess radiation doses.

Their findings (in brief):
ANSI and the HPS have issued a standard (ANSI/HPS N43.17 2009) that “applies to the manufacture and operation of security screening systems that are intended to expose humans to primary beam x-rays, gamma radiation, or both.” Our measurements indicate that the effective dose from a single screening exam is well below the screening limit of 0.25 μSv per screening for a general use, full-body scanner.5 The standard also states that the effective dose (computational adult model) shall not exceed 250 μSv over a 12-month period. For our stimated effective dose of 11.1 nSv to a standard man from a single screening, an individual would need to go through more than 22,500 screenings in a year to reach this limit.
Which is to say, the effective dose (akin to an overall radiation dose) is quite small and is, indeed (as TSA and Rapiscan said), well below the safety standards that were already in place for medical radiation exposure. It is also well below the threshold of what has been advanced for acceptable levels of non-medical radiation exposure - specifically for the purpose of security screening, commissioned by the FDA post-9/11 - which largely draws on the medical standards. However, it is not as if there is a quantifiable individual health costs vs health benefits that can be made for mandatory screening as a condition of air travel. Of course, such a calculation can statistically be made in medicine, the cost/benefit analysis can be presented to the patient by a doctor, and medical scans are voluntary. I'm not saying it's unsafe, rather that it ought to be up to the individual to weigh the risks with benefits without having to forfeit such fundamental rights such as freedom of movement and freedom of contract.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Wow! Real research on naked scanners

I have a lot to say about this, and will elaborate when I have more time. But, for now, I just want to share this report on new naked scanner research.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Testimonial: TSA mistreats remains...again!

This was on the forum:
...Despite being shown the two Certificates, the TSA operative took the box, broke its seal and tipped the contents on to a metal table. Some of the ashes fell onto the floor. The TSAO then took a sample away for testing. He repeated this twice. He grinned at the passenger's obvious distress. A supervisor was called: he, too, thought that the situation was amusing. Both refused to give their names. The passenger (who is not able to stand for longer than about a minute) was also forced to undergo a thorough pat-down....

Free trials of PreCheck were just a standard promotion, except not

Just like the 1-month free trial you get for other memberships, PreCheck free trials were intended to drum up business. However, unlike a private-sector free trial, where the company is always trying to increase its customer base - and where there are competitors that can entice customers away - the TSA has a target number of PreCheck customers, apparently. Why else would they be cutting back on the free trials?

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Yahoo! "Who else refuses to travel because of TSA?"

Here is the comment I just left on Yahoo! answers, when someone asked if anyone has quit flying due to the TSA:
I have not flown since 2010. I have anxiety over 1) the possibility of being touched by strangers, and 2) putting my children through an experience where they are treated like a criminal. 

The last time I flew was an ordeal, as I had a baby with me. Try getting through security with a just-barely walking baby: get your luggage on the x-ray belt, including hiking your stroller up there. Get your jacket and shoes off. Get your child's jacket and shoes off. Carry child through metal detector after fruitlessly trying to get her to walk through alone. Unpack snack bag (which includes milk and ice packs, because children have small stomachs and eat constantly and with security, you're traveling all day) to be tested for who knows what. Now, repack your snacks. Get all of your luggage off the x-ray belt. Dress your baby. Dress yourself. 

No thank you. I have been traveling by train with my children - quite relaxing and enjoyable. Tickets are not bad for long-distances. Sleeper cars are expensive, but worth it for an overnight trip. Station locations and schedules can be a bit inconvenient for some destinations. There are several options for eating, moving around, socializing, etc... When I arrive at the station, I just go right for a red cap now, so it is super easy, but when I traveled lighter, it was a breeze getting onto the train and much less stressful than an airport. 

PS I used to fly about twice a year before quitting. Pre-9/11 was so easy - I actually flew about 10 times in 2000 - such a huge difference in 10 years!
So, now you know!