Saturday, June 4, 2011

The joy of avoiding the airport

I recently took a cruise that departed out of the Port of Baltimore, which meant I didn't have to board an airplane to have a wonderful vacation with my family. I just want to note here some observations about security on that trip.

Boarding the boat

To my surprise, there were metal detectors and x-ray machines for carry-on luggage at the Port's terminal building. The agents working at this checkpoint were Port of Baltimore employees, according to the logo on their uniforms. This makes them employees of the state of Maryland (via Maryland's Port Administration). Their bravado was similar to TSA agents in some ways, but less so in others (which I explain below). Since this is a state agency, and states are always short on money while the ports are never doing as well as they need to, I'd be surprised if naked scanners showed up anytime soon. Such a move would be most likely if the federal government started mandating scanners and/or providing grants to buy scanners.

I'd also like to contrast this with the "good old days" of cruising. First, I recall when my parents went on a cruise in the 90's (from Philadelphia) that we (my grandmother and siblings and I) walked with my parents right up next to the ship. (If you're reading this, Mom and Dad, do you remember what the boarding process and security were like?) My husband and his parents have been on cruises in Europe (one just weeks after 9/11/01). Of course, there weren't metal detectors at the ports - just at the airports getting to and from Europe. There are also photos of a cruise they took leaving from San Diego when my husband was a baby. Before the cruise left port, there was a champagne toast where family friends came on board and toasted "bon voyage" to his family! Yes - times have changed, and not for the better. (Do any readers know when this practice stopped?)

Back to my trip...

A quick run-down on some TSA info

It's odd that this site cites its sources, but doesn't use hyperlinks. In any case, I though this was a nice, concise list of things that you may or may not know about the TSA.

Expedited trusted traveler program? Well...

I wrote about some version of a trusted traveler program being instituted (and, to my surprise, it's been a very popular post). Another article (on a site that apparently caters to the "papers please!" industry) now has this choice quote from the TSA:
The program will be different from previous ones because it also won’t guarantee expedited processing. Participants could be pulled aside at any point. “We won’t guarantee expedited screening,” the spokesperson explains. “There will always be a random element to this.”
Ah, yes. The ever-present element of surprise configured to look like security, but actually a way to cover their butts and let them do whatever they want, whenever they want, and keep us perpetually on our toes in fear of what they might do to us. Did you expect anything less?

Friday, June 3, 2011

'Some science' presented as 'all science'

This month's issue of Minnesota Medicine is all about topics related to flying. One paper, titled "Radiation Exposure and Air Travel: Should We Worry?," is written by two doctors and takes an even tone of science over emotion. However, the authors failed to mention that the airport scanners have not been tested independently and are not subject to the standards that medical devices are subject to. They don't reach any very broad conclusions, so, as a resource with a lot of citations, this article has some merit. But I do think that these authors are letting the TSA off the hook, even on the standing of pure science.

Poll: (Don't) Like the 'Trusted Traveler' idea?

Weigh in at Sodahead.

Don't resist

So says a writer for the Iowa State Daily. What's amazing is that this piece starts out okay, but, as we all know by now, black became white, up became down, and wrong became right after 9/11/01:
The actions of the 9/11 attackers and the underwear bomber started this escalation in security. All these terrorists were affiliated with Al-Qaeda; the former were successful, the latter unsuccessful. Most of us remember the news on September 11, 2001, when two planes crashed into the Twin Towers in New York City. As the towers fell, so did our hearts. All Americans mourned that day, not only in New York, but around the world. ...
We need to take safety precautions to stop terrorists from jeopardizing the safety of passengers. I appreciate knowing that, when I am searched, officials have probable cause for their actions. I want to know they will be just as thorough with the person behind me as they were with me. TSA agents are taking the necessary precautions to keep the general public out of harm's way, so another attack like the one on 9/11 does not happen again.
One question to Ms. Hentzel, though: How do you know that the officials have probable cause? Did a judge sign their warrant? (Do you know that you live in America and not the former Soviet Union or Nazi Germany?)

TSA agents: protect yourself

If you or someone you know work for the TSA, please consider investing in a radiation badge or ring. As a scientist who has worked with radiation in the past, I can tell you that wearing a badge or ring is required by employers and regulatory agencies. The fact that TSA agents who operate X-ray scanners (for both luggage and people) day after day do not wear dosimeters is appalling. Make sure that you are not getting over-exposed. Here is one website I found with a google search for "dosimeter badge reading" that lists their prices, but there are numerous services available that do this. If you don't know where to go, ask your dentist or doctor which service they use (since they use medical x-rays, they'll have a contract with a regular dosimeter reading service).

H/T to Sally in the comments for suggesting this.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

No new scanners

So says our Congress:
The legislation cuts off funding for new advanced airport scanners that have sparked outrage over their revealing images of travelers' bodies. The measure denies the administration's $76 million request for an additional 275 scanners.
Budgetary factors rather than protests from privacy advocates sparked the cut. The Transportation Security Administration is trying hard to modify the machines so that they won't produce revealing images, but the software isn't yet ready.
The underlying measure wouldn't affect the 500 or so machines already in place at 78 of the nation's airports or the 500 just funded in a recent spending bill.
Unfortunately, they aren't cutting the entire TSA out of the homeland security funding... that would save even money and better protect citizens!

Related provisions that were in different variations of this bill are:

Skeptical about scanners

An writer has a skeptical take on airport security:
Summer travel approacheth, and this question will arise if you haven't traveled before or lately: will you walk through a full body imaging scanner at the airport? Personally, if I wanted TSA agents to check out my birthday suit, I'd invite 'em to the hot springs. Since I don't have the urge to do that, I don't walk through the backscatter Xray machines, but opt for the patdown which is sometimes just that -- a pat here and there -- and sometimes a more intimate squeezing than one might expect on, say, a date.
The backscatter (a term which applies to the radiation method used) machines -- also called body imaging -- transmits photos of more than a body's outline to a TSA agent in a remote (50-100 feet away) area. If one chooses the walk of shame through the backscatter scanner, know that the TSA agent viewing the images has complete authority to save them and print them (though the TSA swears that will only happen if one poses a threat to national security). On the other hand, some folks think the backscatter machines keep them safe (evidence shows otherwise, but...). So, what will you do? 

Security loophole (Duh!)

The people who managed to fake some boarding passes are hardly hackers. I'm pretty sure I could do this if I wanted and I'm just a reasonably competent computer user. Also, the solutions that the news team suggested at the end are laughable. The whole boarding pass cross-check to ID's is the reason it's so obvious (to me, at least) that this is all just security theater. There's a whole underground fake ID business, a chunk of which has been mastered by 18 year olds! If you think that the TSA policies can prevent someone who is determined to get on an airplane from doing so, you need to wake up.

Bringing a woman to tears

There is nothing particularly shocking in this video: the assault itself was not caught on tape. Towards the end of the video, we learn that the videographer's mother was given a standard procedure illegal custody search (also called, euphemistically, a "pat down"). When the TSA agent got to her breasts, the woman understandingly reacted with horror and outrage that she was being touched like that.

This is where the video picks up. The woman demanded a police officer be summoned for her protection. Notice that no one said, "Certainly, ma'am." and then backed away until the officers arrived. When the officers eventually did arrive, the woman was taken to a private area without her family being informed of what was going on. (And no word yet on what happened then.)

Meanwhile, the woman's son was threatened by TSA agents as well as a Southwest Airline employee, and told (falsely) that he could not film the events.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Shutting down the site

The TSA has assured us again that the scanners are safe. Therefore, I guess I should just trust them (and not worry about my rights, either). So I'm shutting down this website.

Of course - I'm joking!

Safe, effective, efficient airports

Of course, I'm kidding. But why don't more people realize that the system we have now is t-e-r-r-i-b-l-e. How much worse could it be if we let airlines and airport owners kick the TSA out and handle things themselves? Here's some stuff that has been happening in US airports:
  • A luggage scanner malfunctioned in Jackson, MI, leading to delays in March.
  • An overreaction (is there any other kind of TSA reaction?) to a false alarm at LAX in May led to delays.
  • An agent at the Minneapolis, MN airport actually passes a test and finds a fake bomb. Only problem: no one told the police that the bomb was a fake. The area was evacuated and, I can only assume, that this led to some delays.

Health privacy

We claim, in this country, to have a respect and concern for health privacy. The doctor-patient relationship is right up there with the client-attorney relationship. But when you go through a scanner, a stranger with no medical training may learn about a health condition that is rightfully your own personal business. Whether this is a scar from a surgery, a medical device implant, an artificial joint, or any number of other possibilities, these scanners can pick them up whether you like it or not.

The health profession has been alerted to the anxiety that can go along with air travel these days for patients with medical conditions. A nurse has published an editorial in her field's professional journal, Urologic Nursing, on this topic.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Fixing a train wreck

I get some criticism for not proposing how to "fix" airline security. The thing is, as long as the feds are in charge of airline security, this thing is not fixable. My solution - as I've said before - is that the people who have the most to lose should be in charge of security air travel. That is, the airline and airport owners themselves should be in charge of security. Having your own property blown up and/or used as a weapon (assuming the feds won't bail you out as they did after 9/11) is bad for business, so these owners have the most incentive to prevent terrorism on their property.

But, there are always solutions that are proposed that don't think outside of the TSA box. Like this one - a man who is looking to cash in on security thinks his dog idea is the best one. (This article was interesting to me as a sort of history of airport tech, though). Or this hand-held millimeter wave scanner. Or even castration of TSA agents (okay - this last one is a joke). In my opinion, all of these (including the magnetometers that have been used for decades) violate the 4th Amendment. I realize that the courts have ruled otherwise, but the language of the Constitution is clear:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
Buying a plane ticket does not make you a criminal, therefore all airport searches are unreasonable. And, since the TSA does not have a warrant for each individual, they are illegal. (Of course, they can't get a warrant since they don't know what they are looking for or what crime is alleged ahead of time.)

To the extent that, in my hypothetical ideal security situation, US Air decides that they want to use backscatters, puffers, dogs, and behavior monitoring on all of their passengers, I would probably choose to not be a customer of US Air. In all likelihood, another airline would see an opening here to provide better customer service and draw my business. I'm not saying that the solutions above are bad ideas; it's just that the TSA will never be fixed through a technological or procedural solution. The only solution is to abolish the TSA (and to not replace it with another federal agency).

Texas anti-TSA legislation - Still a fighting chance?

In another twist in the story of Texas standing up to the TSA, we learn that the Texas legislative session has been extended to deal with some loose ends. It is possible that the Governor will add the anti-pat down bill to the docket, so it may not be dead yet!

Privacy vs Security

Many, particularly politicians, are fond of saying, "We must balance privacy with security." That phrase really irks me and I have said on this site before that there is no balance of privacy with security. Thanks to this article about by a law professor about his new book on the topic, I'd like to amend my position:
There is no balance of privacy with security if due process and rule of law are ignored.
 Professor Daniel Solove points out that a false argument in this debate is that security is all-or-nothing.
Rarely does protecting privacy involve totally banning a security measure. It’s not all or nothing. Instead, protecting privacy typically means that government surveillance must be subjected to judicial oversight and that the government must justify the need to engage in surveillance. Even a search of our homes is permitted if law enforcement officials obtain a warrant and probable cause.
I have to agree. The privacy-security balancing act bothers me because I read between the lines and know what it really means: You must give up your privacy so that we can have illegal security. Not true. I only give up my privacy (1) willingly or (2) when I have committed a crime.

The TSA wants to know everything about you...

... and airlines are complying. Heck, even the "libertarian" Reason Magazine appear to be supporting this. What ever happened to the idea that we should be able to travel freely from state to state? I predict that if the trusted traveler program takes off this time (it failed before) that at first it will indeed be voluntary. But, soon enough, all travelers will have to undergo a full background check before being allowed to fly. Also, keep in mind the TSA's functioning definition of voluntary: Scans are "voluntary." The choices are
  1. scan
  2. aggressive custodial search (aka, pat-down)
  3. fines and/or imprisonment
Remember that just two years ago, you didn't have to give the airline your date of birth when you bought your tickets. Your birthday is one of the things that identity thieves can use to cause you harm, but Americans just rolled over and started giving their entire family's birthdays to the airlines so it could be handed over to the TSA to "protect" us.

This trusted traveler idea a bad, bad thing. It sounds efficient, effective and common-sense. But you have to remember you are dealing with a rogue agency. More TSA power is the last thing to wish for.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Update on Texas anti-pat-down law

It's dead in the water for now, unfortunately. Here's how the Obama administration operates. (Remember, Obama is the head of the executive branch, whose function is to enforce the laws of the land. As such, the Department of Justice follows his orders or, at the very least, has his implicit blessing for their actions.)

When the Texas Senate was about to pass the legislation that would make TSA pat-downs a sex crime, a US Attorney (working in Obama's Department of Justice... in case you thought that W's DoJ was still running things, which would be an honest mistake) threatened to cancel all flights in and out of Texas. Here's the text of John Murphy's threat.

After the threat was made, the support for the law in the TX Senate dissipated. The legislation was tabled and, last Wednesday, was put to bed (at least until next term). Nonetheless, at least one TX representative, David Simpson, is not letting the matter go (and good for him!).

Here's a little bit more on the legal fight. And a dumb post from Jaunted (Hey! They called the legislation "dumb" so I'm just returning the favor!). Let's hope, however, that more states stand up to the TSA and force Obama into the awkward position of admitting that he is personally responsible for this, this, and this, just in time for the 2012 re-election campaign.

Declan McCullough on "Blogger Bob"

Declan McCullough writes for CNET and has a civil libertarian bent. Here he gives us the inside story on the "TSA's Internet Mouthpiece." If you're wondering who Blogger Bob is, head on over to the TSA website and read what this shill writes. Not sure how he sleeps at night, myself.

Crying wolf

The problem with trying to keep people in a perpetual state of fear is that they become desensitized and stop believing (or caring about) what they are told they are supposed to fear. Here's a story on a recent poll of travelers (emphasis added):

In April alone, the U.S. State Department issued nine travel warnings, cautioning Americans about the risk of being victims of violence while traveling in places like Iraq, Syria and Mexico.
In the case of Syria, the department urged all U.S. citizens on April 25 to leave the country as quickly as possible because of the violent clashes between protesters and government forces.
But it seems few Americans completely change their travel plans in response to such warnings, according to a new online poll conducted by the Minneapolis-based travel company Travel Leaders.
 The article continues:
Of those polled, 72% said they had no concerns about the use of full-body scanners that can look through clothing to spot hidden weapons. In a similar survey conducted last year, 82% said they had no concerns about the scanners.
Among travelers who worry about the scanners, the top reasons were fears that radiation could pose health risks; privacy issues; and security delays.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Coverage of the second UCSF letter

Here's a round-up of some of the press given to Sedat, et al's letter to Obama's science advisor:
"Rebecca Smith-Bindman, a UCSF radiologist who also was not involved in the letter, told ProPublica: 'There's really unnecessary fear related to these scans," she said. 
"'What I'm not as comfortable with is that there has not been access to these machines. They are not being tested on the same regulatory basis that we see on medical equipment.'"

How can you say the fear is unnecessary when, at the same time, there is basically zero information about them? Dr. Smith-Bindman is going on faith and expects the rest of the public to go on faith as well. But this is precisely the point of the Sedat letter: scientists don't go on faith; they go on evidence, but the scientific community has not been given any evidence on the public health risks of these scanners.
(As an aside, the Daily Mail article is mistaken on the official story on the TSA tests that showed ten-times the radiation. While the report decreases confidence in TSA self-monitoring, the story was not that passengers were getting more radiation, but rather that the report had a math error.)
  •  The story was on NPR's blog.
  • A air travel-specific website briefly recounts the story, but includes at least one mistake. (The original letter from Sedat, et al was from spring 2010, not November.)
  • A consumer advocacy site has there post. It is a little too forgiving for the TSA, but has some good summaries of the science on this issue and some comments from relevant scientists. Notably, the aforementioned Dr. Smith-Bindman is mentioned as having asked the TSA to give her a scanner to test and they invoked state secrets. In a post-Wikileaks era, a reasonable government agency would realize that they need to stop classifying every little detail. Really, how does knowing how a scanner works help a terrorist? (One comment on this article, though: It perpetuates the box-cutter myth. I'm seeing a trend here of poor fact-checking in these articles...)