Saturday, February 12, 2011

Before the hoopla

Before the public anger over the TSA scanners reached a climax last fall, the TSA was using the scanners in an insensitive recruitment campaign.The job ads, at gas pumps and on pizza boxes (I'm not kidding) said:
A career where x-ray vision and federal benefits come standard.
Now I know where Obama's speechwriter got the idea for the joke about gate rape!

Robert P. Murphy, Ensuring—and Insuring—Air Security | Library of Economics and Liberty

Economist Robert P. Murphy has an excellent article on the free market alternative to the TSA. It fits right in with the commentary I've had up here, but in the typical clear-headed Murphy style. An excerpt:
The controversy over the Transportation Security Administration's (TSA) "enhanced patdowns" and body scanners has focused on the standard dichotomy between individual liberty and national security. The real focus, though, should be on this fact: We can achieve the goals of consumer privacy and airline safety much more efficiently in the free market. If airlines were held liable for damages resulting from the criminal use of their property, they would work with insurance companies to provide a much more sensible approach to air travel than the Department of Homeland Security provides.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Old news on images

I had started writing the following post last fall, but never put it up:

A TSA spokesman is repeating the same lie that has already been debunked. In an article about the installation of another scanner in Utah, Dwayne Baird is quoted as saying:
“There’s no ability to store [images]. They can’t be transmitted, printed or saved in any way,” Baird said.
In the meantime, I recalled that one of my very early posts was about actual images from the scanners and, at the time, EPIC had not released the ones it obtained from its FOIA request. As most of you know, they released 100 such images in November, and I figure I should have the link somewhere on this site. The images they released are significantly less graphic and I find it odd that you can see people walking to and from the scanner. I don't know what the set-up is at the courthouse where these were taken, but it certainly begs a few questions:

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Reply to Allan Sanford

Yesterday, I posted Allan Sanford's proposal to use nanotech to solve our privacy vs security problem. I don't think that Allan will mind if I say that in private correspondence, he urged me to put forward "positive" solutions to airport security rather than my "negative" solution of just denouncing the TSA. I think Allan's heart is in the right place, but I very much disagree with him here.

The airport security problem is not technological. Technology does allow us to be more productive as a whole, but the problem here is the nature of the beast. That beast is called government. Governments are bureaucratic and they operate through force and coercion. This second point on how they operate is important: it means that they do not buy and sell goods and services on the free, voluntary market. Rather, they force their customers to use and pay for their services. So there is no feedback mechanism by which any government agency can determine whether they are doing a good job. I would argue that most people inherently understand this, and that is why there is always talk about "inefficient government."

But the alternative - "efficient government" - is an oxymoron. There is no measuring stick by which anyone can objectively determine whether the TSA is efficient, because its stockholder (taxpayers), its clients (airports/airlines), and its customers (passengers) are all being coerced into dealing with them. It would undoubtedly be cheaper for the TSA to fire all of its employees: it would have a "profit" of the amount of taxpayer money issued to it by Congress less the cost of paying Pistole and keeping the electricity running in his office. On the other hand, air travel would be safer if all passengers had to fly in their bathing suit without any luggage. It would be safer yet if no one was allowed to fly except Pistole and the President. But you can't objectively apply accounting to any decision the TSA makes, because there are no voluntary transactions here.

It is not about the TSA adopting the right or wrong technology - we have no way of knowing if nanotech sniffers are more efficient than x-ray scanners from our armchair position. Each has costs and benefits, and these can only be measured objectively through voluntary exchange.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Gee, Thanks

To two Democrat Senators, protecting my privacy means: it's okay for a government agent to look at me naked, without a warrant, as long as they don't take a picture and pass it around. If that's how they "protect [my] privacy" I'm very worried about how they will "protect [my] safety." Oh wait, 30,000 fatal crashes a year on government roads, 11,000 veterans warned of possible STD exposure during VA colonoscopies, 25% of mortgages underwater in the Fed's boom-and-bust... maybe these guys have been in Washington so long that they believe the definition of "to protect" is "to put at risk."

Cross-posted on

Guest blog: Proposal to solve the clash between security and privacy

A regular reader of this site sent this essay to me to post. It got lost in my mail box and to-do list, but I here it is. I will post my thoughts on this tomorrow, but am interested to see what my loyal readers think before giving my own opinions away.

Getting TSA “Junk” Gropers Out of Our Lives

By Allan Sanford

Coming soon to an airport near you…maybe, is a small, wall mounted device that employs nanotechnology to instantly detect and identify many different types of explosives. I say “maybe” because if there’s one thing as sure as death or taxes, it’s that no bureaucracy in the history of mankind willingly gave up its death grip on power and money. Expect the TSA, Janet Napolitano and Mr. Chertoff to fight to the end to keep their people and machines in the airports they are in, and to continue to place more machines and people in airports that don’t yet have them. Gotta make a living, you know, even though you are tearing up the Constitution.

Technology from Israel has come to the rescue. Developed at the University of Tel Aviv, these small devices can passively be placed on a wall next to every entrance to an airport, and detect, from a distance, anyone carrying an explosive into an airport, or anywhere else, for that matter. Train stations, ports of entry that handle tens of thousands of huge containers arriving in the US every day, and pass unscrutinized through the ports and onto trucks that then disperse them throughout the country. In airports, they could possibly be hooked up to automatically lock every door in the airport, when they detect an explosive. A dog’s sniffer is many thousands of times more sensitive than a human being’s, and these nano devices, comparatively, classify Fido’s nose as sensitive as concrete.

Monday, February 7, 2011

The failure of journalists

As I keep up on TSA news, I am finding article after article parroting the TSA's sales pitch on the new scanner software they are testing. I won't link to any, but do a search for yourself and you'll see headlines boasting of the "modest" scanners that "protect passengers' privacy."

Wrong. The millimeter wave scanners are still capable of looking underneath a person's clothes, meaning that a very personal search is being done without a warrant.

I will link, however, to this silly reporting on the TSA's "response" to Drs. Carlson and Kaufman's article from last year:
Nonetheless, the TSA says, “Advanced imaging technology is a proven, highly-effective tool that safely detects both metallic and non-metallic items concealed on the body that could be used to threaten the security of airplanes.”

“TSA employs many layers of security that work collaboratively to form a system that gives us the best chance to detect and disrupt the evolving threats we face,” the agency’s statement says.
Note that the TSA is not saying anything it hasn't said already, and it is also not specifically addressing any of the data or interpretation put forward by the UCSF researchers. Nice try!