Monday, December 28, 2015

On the new TSA opt-out rule

There has been regular media coverage of this story about the TSA'S "You can opt-out, except when you can't" rule.  However, it had been uniformly boring and uncritical. It also seems that the lower the TSA  is in existence, the more the public is cowed, so most quotes from travelers and comments on media reports are not critical of this absurdity. What a pleasure to see someone take the TSA to task at the New American!

Friday, December 25, 2015

Masters of arbitrary rules

Just before Christmas travel began, TSA announced yet another "rule" that defies the traditional definition of a rule. Let's review:
When you go to the airport, you may be asked to go through a naked scanner. Unless,
a) There are no scanners installed.
b) The installed scanners are not in use due to maintenance or staffing.
c) You happen to be at the front of the line when the scanner is being used, but a metal detector is available.
d) You have Pre-check. Unless,
d1) You are directed to a scanner anyway.
e) You are randomly selected to participate in Pre-check (but see d1).
f) You opt-out, in which case you will get a physical pat-down.

And now,  the  newest rule:

f1) If you opt-out, you may still be directed to go through the scanner anyway.

Got that?  Here's the TSA's own words:

"'Passengers undergoing screening will still have the option to decline an AIT screening in favor of a physical screening,' agency spokesman Mike England said in a statement. 'However, some passengers will still be required to undergo AIT screenings as warranted by security considerations in order to safeguard transportation security.'"

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Yikes! Qylatron?

Sometimes there is something unassuming in the news that shocks me.

I wonder how many 49ers fans are aware that they may soon be guinea pigs for some invasive screening. I have no idea what this technology is, aside from a brief explanation from USA Today:

Radiation and chemical sensors survey the passers-by for explosives, X-ray machines scan for weapons, and a color-coded light array gently guides users through the process with green, red and purple prompts.
It is supposed to passively search large crowds so that there are minimal bottlenecks (since private companies are quite interested in not irritating their customers). But, will there be some sort of notification in the fine print on tickets?

(I also find it interesting that the article notes that Disneyland Paris tried this technology.)

Friday, October 23, 2015

An Administrative Victory

Eight years after the TSA began installing naked scanners (and five years after wide-spread airport scanning), it has finally been told to comply with the basic administrative procedure of gathering public comment and issue a final rule. It has 30 days to comply (on top of the 4 years spent ignoring the original court order to comply, on top of not doing it at all for the 4 previous years).

I'm a cynic, so, while I appreciate the Competitive Enterprise Institute's standing firm on this, I don't see any significant changes on the horizon due solely to the TSA finally complying. However, this should at least alert some of the public and Congress to the status of TSA as a rogue agency. Even their final rule will have to ignore comments like mine if anything short of removing the scanners occurs.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Double-speak from the TSA

I was so bored by the predictable calls from the Congress to Do Something! that I didn't blog about it here. I didn't expect any elected officials to acknowledge that there might be fundamental issues with a system that peers under passengers' clothing. Sure enough, it is only how a small fraction of the passengers subjected to such incredible invasive procedures are treated that the elected officials think is an issue.

So, we now have a response from the TSA. It is a typical non-response, where they are going to make some superficial changes and promises (always more training!). What is very interesting, though, is that their story is contradicted by an advocacy group:
However, after reading this story and reviewing TSA's comments, NCTE Director of Policy, Harper Jean Tobin, issued a clarifying statement walking back the organization's involvement with TSA. In an email to The Advocate, Tobin said:
"TSA's response completely misses the point. Whatever they call it, a machine flagging someone for questions or pat-downs of intimate body areas just because of their body parts is unacceptable — no matter how politely officers handle it.
While NCTE offers training to government agencies as a matter of course, our training has so far reached a small fraction of TSA staff who don't actually screen people — but most importantly, they haven't retrained the machines. If TSA is going to rely on body scanners at all — and there is plenty of evidence they're not only too invasive but ineffective — they have to be able to tell the difference between a body part and a bomb. Right now they can't, and that needs to change."
Three chears from Harper Jean Tobin for pointing out that these scanners really oughtn't be used on anybody!

Saturday, October 3, 2015

NAS finally tested scanners

According to this USA Today article, the National Academies of Science have finally been asked to evaluate the safety of x-ray backscatter naked scanners. This seems a bit of putting the cart before the horse since the scanners were already used on millions of travelers before being pulled. (And, remember, they were pulled because Rapiscan didn't come up with a software upgrade for "privacy" quickly enough.)

I haven't had a chance this week to look at it more closely, so I am posting it here without further comment. If these machines were truly safe, then that is, of course, a good thing that people were not made ill by government ineptitude in this case.

SPOT Humor

From Reason, a little TSA humor:

Saturday, September 26, 2015

An illustration of how inappropriate airport screening is

Another trans woman recently missed her flight and was put through an embarrassing ordeal at the hands of TSA.

There has been a software upgrade on millimeter wave scanners and removal of x-ray backscatter scanners, which supposedly alleviated privacy concerns. And, yet, the scanner can still tell that a person who is dressed like a woman is not anatomically a woman. Furthermore, such flagging by the scanner leads to a hands-on screening that is so personal, it is unclear to the TSA what the gender of the agent should be.

This is a problem. And not just for trans folks.

We should all be able to have a reasonable expectation of privacy for ourselves and our children when we merely want to travel through a modern, convenient, and affordable mode of transportation.

This means, no machines that can see anatomy (or, euphemistically, "anomalies") under our clothes (which, as I have said many times, we wear in large part to cover said anatomy!).

This means, government employees can not touch our body without a legal search warrant.

(So much for the sensitivity of the New York Times. The headline for their article on this topic is, "T.S.A. Defends Treatment of Transgender Air Traveler." Mouthpiece for the powers-that-be much?)

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Passive body scanners

There is a new technology that is not only on the horizon, but already in use, according to this article. It passively scans an area (that is, it does not produce radiation, but only detects it) to identify anomalies under clothing. There is no health concern here, but there is a privacy concern. Do you have an expectation of privacy when you are wearing clothing in a public place? If an anomaly is detected, is that reasonable cause for an invasive physical search?

Saturday, August 29, 2015

An analogy

I like this succinct article comparing the TSA to a hypothetical retail location. It begins:
Imagine a retail store whose sole reason for existence, it seems, is not to make shopping a pleasure or create satisfied customers but to prevent those customers from shoplifting.
As he points out, this is unimaginable.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

$160 Million

The TSA finally confessed to how much it spent on both the x-ray and millimeter-wave naked scanners: $160,000,000. Awesome.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

A very belated follow-up on Andrea Abbott

My previous post had me searching my own archives to recall what bad publicity occurred before the TSA changed their policies for children. I stumbled across the story of the brave truth-teller, Andrea Abbott. In 2012, she was in fact convicted of disorderly conduct and sentenced to probation. Here's an excerpt from the coverage at the time [emphasis mine]:
Abbott and her daughter went through a metal detector and TSA Officer Karen King was sent to conduct a pat-down. King testified that before the pat-down, Abbott yelled in her face that she didn't want anyone "touching her daughter's crotch."
...[The prosecutor] said the officers reminded Abbott several times that she could file a complaint if she had a problem with the security check proceedings.
"You can speak your mind, but you can't do it in an illegal manner," she said. "What the defendant did was a crime."
The case briefly drew national attention as hundreds offered Abbott support and donations amid debate over whether new, intrusive screening methods should be allowed at airports.
"Since 9/11, we're losing a lot of freedom, and we have to draw the line somewhere," Horst [Abbott's pro-bono attorney] said in closing arguments.
The "illegal manner" that Abbott used was apparently using curse words while otherwise remaining amazingly calm in the face of the legalized molestation of her child and attempted sexual assault of her own person. Nullification, people!

TSA policy on children

Someone I trust kindly let me know that it appears that the TSA is no longer putting children through naked scanners, and, furthermore, that parents get whatever screening the children get (that would be: no naked scanners). I decided I should investigate.

Unfortunately, despite my friend's personal experience and stories (like this one) with similar anecdotes, it is not official TSA policy to keep kids out of naked scanners:
If your child is able to remain standing in the required position for 5 seconds, he or she may be screened through the advanced imaging technology. If a child 12 and under goes through the machine and alarms, they have an opportunity to go through again or the TSA officer may use other procedures to resolve the alarm to reduce the need for a pat-down.
You may not be screened by this technology when carrying an infant or child.
(You may recall that they changed policies for the under-12 set 4 years ago due to bad publicity, including a "modified" pat-down and the above-stated ability to go through the scanner a second time.)

It may very well be unofficial policy to put kids through metal detectors with their parents, and - just to keep us on our toes - they won't acknowledge it. But, it may also just be at the discretion of the supervisor(s) at a given airport.

For a large hub, with several security lanes - some with and some without naked scanners - it is probably quite easy to pick and choose who goes where. The randomized PreCheck may also increase odds if airlines can get families onto the list ad hoc. I do wonder what experiences are like at small airports with a single security lane (such as my hometown airport). What have you experienced firsthand while travelling with children?

Friday, July 24, 2015

At what cost?

Take a look at this blog post looking at the economic costs of making publicly-funded airport security effective. An excerpt:
If a 95% failure rate results in some people waiting longer than 20 minutes, then how would an 85% or 75% failure rate affect wait times? In other words, what is the marginal impact in wait times as a result of improving failure rates?

Read more:
Of course, this is something that the market can answer if security were left up to those with vested interests: airlines, airport owners*, and passengers.

*Unfortunately, airports tend to be "owned" by municipalities, so this can not be a true market, but - as history has shown - is a vast improvement over federal management of security.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Pointing out the arrogance of the TSA

The TSA has, again and again, not followed the law. The Rutherford Institute is fighting the good fight by using the legal system to try to hold the TSA accountable. Since they collected public comments 2 years ago, the TSA has not issued final rules regarding the naked scanners. This lawsuit is another one in the serious to enforce the existing impotent law.

Friday, June 26, 2015

The next generation scanner

Good news! The next generation full-body scanner, now in use in prisons, does away with privacy concerns because, "There are no soft tissue images created by the SecurPASS System eliminating privacy concerns."

SecurPASS image from Mikron
Digital's website
The operator can't see genitalia, breasts, and other private areas, because the machine looks right through the skin. Like an x-ray.

No privacy concerns there. Feel free to not only virtually undress me, but look what's under my skin.

And, of course, it's safe. Trust us.
       Q: Is the SecurPASS Scan safe?
       A: Yes. The exposure received is less than the average            amount of background radiation that a person receives              standing in the sun for about 1 hour.
Why would you even wonder if wardens (and future TSA administrators?) don't have each prisoner's (passenger's?) best interest at heart? We can't just have scientists and doctors given unfettered access to such an important piece of national security equipment!!!

Thursday, June 18, 2015

And here's the band-aid

The string of negative publicity following the IG report of the TSA's 95% failure rate at detecting bombs, combined with a Congressional hearing on other TSA ineffectiveness, was so thrilling to see! With editorials across the country calling for abolishing the TSA or at least a top-to-bottom revamp of the TSA, we instead get: a bipartisan bill insisting that the TSA maintain its equipment better (Yeah. That'll work.)

Rice’s legislation, the Keeping Our Travelers Safe and Secure Act (HR 2770), would require the TSA administrator to develop and implement a preventive maintenance process for airport screening technology within 180 days. The process must include specific maintenance schedules, guidance for TSA personnel and contractors on how to conduct and document maintenance actions, mechanisms to insure compliance and penalties for noncompliance.

Note how that barely scratches the surface of the IG's concerns:
“Our audits have repeatedly found that human error— often a simple failure to follow protocol—poses significant vulnerabilities,” [DHS inspector general John Roth] said. Further, despite the billions spent on aviation security technology, “our testing of certain systems has revealed no resulting improvement.”
Other areas of concern include how TSA plans for, buys, develops and maintains equipment; potential for misuse of the expedited PreCheck screening system; continued vulnerabilities in baggage screening equipment; unreliability of the behavior detection program; cybersecurity; and more.
Not to mention all those lost badges.

Is it too much to hope that this loser bill will fail and something with real muscle will be proposed instead?

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Fresno Bee editorial on the TSA failure

I just love how this story isn't going away! Another editorial in a mainstream newspaper slams the TSA.

Ever optimistic that we'll see some real changes and I can start flying again one day.

Monday, June 8, 2015

What's worse than the TSA?

A good editorial in the Las Vegas Review Journal makes a very good point:

"Close this agency [TSA] down and allow every American airport to retain private security contractors... They certainly can’t perform any worse than the TSA."

Friday, June 5, 2015

TSA failure (and spin in 3...2...1...)

The TSA failed some in-house tests. When a student receives a10% on an exam, it's usually time to drop the class. When the TSA gets a similar score (missing 67 out of 70 bombs), it's "out of context"; an indication of weaknesses to work on; and time for a high-level scapegoat to be fed to the media.

(Melissa Block of NPR interviewed John Pistole, former TSA director, about this. It was completely mundane. My cynical side says she isn't a journalist, but rather just part of the media machine that can get interviews with officials anytime she wants as long as she never really presses then to actually inform taxpayers about what is really going on and how they are culpable.)

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.