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TSA: Fail (gmancasefile.blogspot.in)
452 points by vamsee 1943 days ago | hide | past | web | 116 comments | favorite

As someone who travels regularly and is not an American, I've had nothing but frustrations generated by the "TSA". Initially it caused me to unfairly assume all Americans are like TSA agents (i know this isn't true, but i guess its just my human bias). A few things that frustrate me:

- They are not friendly, have a real attitude problem and treat you as if you are guilty before proven innocent. You are the face of the country, the first impression every traveler gets. When i say "how are you doing?" as i approach, its what i say to everyone. Have the common decency to say "Yeah i'm ok" or "Not so great" rather than just looking at me like i'm an idiot.

- The TSA doesn't make it clear that they are just specific to the USA. When boarding planes in another country you hear about the "TSA" and you're like "who the hell is this International body that rules transport?". They are private agents of the US, no different to the guards that any other country has. This should be explicitly clear, because they act like gods.

- They seriously invade my privacy and treat me as if i have no rights just because im from somewhere else. Nothing says "Welcome to the USA" like having your body photograph, fingerprints taken (the finger printing seriously bothers me...i cant explain why because i dont know why, but it seriously bothers me is all i can say) and some border guard with an attitude problem treating you like you've turned up to take all the jobs. So much freedom, give me a break...

Moving all invasions of privacy aside, forgetting about how effective or ineffective the TSA is...i just hate the way they treat people. They have a reputation to up hold, they are everyone's first impression of the US and...given the USA's global reputation today, they could really do with some advice from Rackspace on how to deal with customers.

EDIT: Fixing my spelling of "planes" :-(

If you think all of that is bad, imagine how it feels getting the exact same treatment as someone who helps fund the salaries of these assholes. For you, it's simple hostility. For Americans, it's a simple betrayal by our government.

Haha dont stress, i'm equally upset when i review the taxes and fees on my plane ticket...i too am funding the fun times!

Ah, but there's one fatal flaw in your logic. The problem is that we're NOT the TSA's customers. The TSA answers only to the Department of Homeland Security, which answers to nobody. See, the TSA is meant to protect us but cannot be held accountable by the people it protects.

If they depended on us for their survival (like they claim we depend on them for ours) then you'd see them become much friendlier and much more effective. Really, that's why most (not necessarily all, but the majority) companies provide good customer service. They know how far a bad review or an outspoken customer can go. Speaking out against the TSA gets us nowhere on an individual basis because they lose nothing. We need to make sure our government officials set the TSA straight.

Sorry, the TSA disagrees with you. Here is the link to their "Customer service" page


Having a customer service page is not synonymous with being accountable. The thing is, whether or not we are satisfied with them, we still have to deal with them until the government changes it. So they aren't held directly accountable. Instead, we have to effect change in the government in a way that will then effect change in the TSA. That extra layer makes things much harder.

You know, i totally agree...i just ask myself "would it hurt if they were friendly" and i don't see why not. They are citizen facing, treat others as you would like to be treated. It just feels like common sense to me.

/agree. It doesn't cost anything to _not_ be an asshole.

This varies a great deal airport to airport. In Sea-Tac, I think they are pretty professional and friendly. In LAX this is not so much the case.

There are actually two groups you don't like: the ones who greet you when you enter the USA are Customs & Border Protection agents. They have a lot of power. The TSA employees are the folks in blue shirts who screen you &/ frisk you once you're inside the US & trying to fly. As an always-clean-shaven-when-flying US citizen, I have never had the displeasure of being treated poorly by CBP, though I know (and regret) it's par for the course for non-citizens.

I've been harassed for 15 minutes straight by CBP as a clean, white, male US citizen. I can't imagine what it's like for people who don't fit that description.

I am not a citizen, but I crossed into the US many times, and never had any trouble with CBP. But I know they do have a lot of power and I can totally believe some of them can't deal with it, especially when suitably provoked or think they are. Unfortunately it is very hard to estimate the extent of the problem based on third-party anecdotal evidence.

There is no consistency across border crossing sites. I spent most of my life living on the Ontario/NY border and I can say for sure that I've never had a problem at the border crossing at the Thousand Islands Bridge. Everybody there, from both sides, are nice and polite. The Niagara Falls crossing is a decidedly worse experience.

Might I join your frustration team? (I am also not an American) Which country in the world has something called as "Federal Inspection"; it's not "immigration", it's "federal inspection". By the mere wording, it sounds like I am walking into a prison.

I have traveled good handful places and most places are frightening friendly - I carry the paranoia of TSA/Immigration to all these international places and get surprised always.

The only one friendly experience I've had in the last 8 years was in ABQ, where this friendly TSA agent 'inquired' in a very friendly way. I somehow felt respected, which got me thinking if there was something to it - are they going to get me telling something irrelevant and make a case. That's the paranoia that the TSA/Immigration has trained my brain from the past years.

Just to balance things, I just returned (literally an hour ago) from SF, having flown in to SF for a week, then to Seattle and back to SF before flying back to the UK, and the TSA were all very welcoming, greeted me and made conversations, jokes and all engaged in a very pleasant manner. I was very impressed!

In SF, I believe they are private screeners. In SEA, they are unbelievably friendly and professional. Same goes for customs enforcement btw. Plus there is nothing to make you feel safe than having security that is obviously more competent than average, however low a bar that may be!

Actually, it is a fact that as a visitor you have almost no rights towards US border agents. Well, of course they could not murder you or anything like that, but they can search any of your belongings and your person without any reason and any suspicion of actual crime, can refuse your entry on their sole discretion, can detain you if something looks wrong to them, etc. etc. I'm pretty sure though it's the same in other countries.

And why would TSA agents care about TSA reputation? They are just a hired clerks, and their pay is not that spectacular, and they get very little respect for what they are doing, and for many of them that job is just a step towards a better federal job. I'm not saying that to justify them - it was their choice to go for this job and stay on it - but it is what it is. TSA is a bunch of semi-professional clerks following instructions which they by now must know do not really contribute much to anything and they by now must also know many of the people they meet on the job every day are either disgusted by what they are doing or consider them useless and annoying. It's very hard to be happy doing such job, and even harder to find as many people as needed to do it and be happy about it. So no wonder you meet some unhappy ones, it's a natural consequence of TSA being TSA.

I was discussing the congressional report with my TSA agent friend. My reading is that while it makes some good points, it is overly partisan and ultimately shows Congress fails to grasp the necessity for a systematic view of airport security. This agent and I have argue many, many times about AIT machines ets and I think was surprised to see me sticking to my guns on that issue while noting that the report largely as off the wall. I am worried about the growth of DHS, but until Congress gets realistic, they are the problem and that goes for both parties.

hahaha, love how you throw Rackspace at the end (I deal with them everyday and can say they are top notch!)

I hate TSA as much as I do. I hate them more because I can imagine how this show will look in the future (further on this one)

> They are not friendly, have a real attitude problem and treat you as if you are guilty before proven innocent

I think this is one of those places where presumption of being guilty should proceed the one of being innocent. Otherwise, would you really care that now its about the time to point a finger that this guy is guilty [for planting a bomb] where your eardrums exploded from sudden cabin decompression and you free-falling into the ocean?

If you been watching the terrorism scare-show in US for a while now, you would easily came up with impression its a money show and nothing more than that. You throw some drugged loser on a plane [under CIA agents supervision] and he "fails" to detonate his bomb, then TSA asks for more money to "tighten up" security while boarders are wide open.

I found this particularly disgusting: "Michael Chertoff has been an advocate of enhanced technologies, such as full body scanners. It is important to note that his consulting firm Chertoff Group (founded 2009) represents manufacturers of the scanners" [1]. +300MM "market" paid off by taxpayers money. Still his 300MM is a drop in the ocean comparing with privately owned military complex.

The sad truth is, that noone in their sound mind would assume things will get better and security will loosen up. It won't. Based on the past, one could assume the following:

- some idiot will hide explosives inside his rectum, - some other idiot will construct powerful enough bomb but small enough to hide in his cavities.

So, after we spend $300MM on all those scanners, next turn will come to spend another $300 on upgraded version that can shoot x-rays through your ass and teeth. Otherwise, those nasty terrorists will get us. It won't happen tomorrow or next year, but next 5-15 years will make today travel look like a breeze.

[1] wikipedia + http://gawker.com/5437499/why-is-michael-chertoff-so-excited...

"I think this is one of those places where presumption of being guilty should proceed the one of being innocent. Otherwise, would you really care that now its about the time to point a finger that this guy is guilty [for planting a bomb] where your eardrums exploded from sudden cabin decompression and you free-falling into the ocean?"

You don't get to toss out innocent before proven guilty just because you come up with a particularly uncomfortable way to die. The risk of dying from terrorism in the US, with or without the TSA, is incredibly low. It could get ten or a hundred times worse and still not be noticeable next to the ~40,000 road fatalities in this country every year. Why is terrorism so special that it causes people to want to do anything and everything to stop it, while they don't even bat an eye at things that are far more dangerous?

What do you mean by "toss out" ? Ok, the checkup goes quite far: shoes off, jacket off, backscatter machine, but if nothing is found on you ,you are left alone.

The 4th Amendment is pretty clear that you need to have some reason to suspect a person of committing a crime before you search them. What did you mean by "presumption of being guilty should proceed the one of being innocent"?

I've never flown before, except my grandfather has his own plane, but that's way different i'm sure. I feel bad as an American to know that they are being ridiculously rude and invading privacy like that. (Also I get what you mean about the finger printing.)

Short of the finger printing they do about the same to Americans returning home. I went to Oktoberfest in Munich several years ago and couldn't believe how easy it was to leave, how easy it was to enter German (they were very nice, took 5 minutes tops), and how much of a pain it was to get back into the US. Apparently 2 mid 20's males returning from Oktoberfest was suspicious and required 20 minutes of backpack searching and questions (not an interrogation by any stretch but still annoying).

IANAL but I do not believe you have to answer any questions about your travels as a citizen re-entering the country. It probably worth your while to avoid lengthy delays but they cant deny a U.S. citizen entry into the U.S.


I appreciate your assumption that Americans are everywhere and impossible to avoid, but it wasn't the case for me. I'm Australian, my first ever encounter with an American in real life (aka not CNN or the Simpsons) was during a flight from Sydney Australia to LAX in 2005. The 30 second interruption you referenced was not the case for me, i was held up for about 20 minutes while they searched my everything and quizzed me on why I was in the US (I was in transit headed to Canada)

These days i travel regularly, as I mentioned and you pointed out. At that time (in 2005) i had never had the pleasure of talking to a TSA guard, nor any American for any more than 30 seconds. I've been Star Alliance Gold (blah blah blah...) for several years now, but it doesn't change the fact that my first ever face to face conversation with an American was in 2005 at LAX airport. It wasn't fun, i felt a bit frustrated at the end...what more can i say? I'm an honest person, i was new to international travel...they treated me like i had something to hide (which made me feel like i actually did have something to hide)

I don't think all Americans are like TSA guards (like i said that was an unfair impression from that 20 minute encounter during that first time in the US) and clearly you don't either. I have had good encounters with the TSA here and there, even one who smiled once...but clearly the up votes tell a story that I'm not going to try re-create in this block of text.

As an American, I found Australian security professionals just that: professionals. What a bliss to work and interact with. The average Aussie street cop has better manners than an American maître d'. I really love this country: far superior culture.

The Aussie border guys are awesome! I went there with my family and they were friendly, joking with us and in general were absolutely awesome. American border guys are hardass assholes. I just can't stand how they make me feel bad for coming back home (green card holder working in America at a startup) from my vacation. It is frustrating.

The lack of courtesy is due to the sheer antagonism which comes with the job. I dislike flying as much as the next guy, but I can't help but feel bad for the grunts carrying out such an unwelcome job. Distrust breeds contempt which makes the whole experience worse for everyone.

Forgot: they fuck up your luggage.

even at fascist regimens they would have the decency of opening the bags in front of you and not spilling powders all over your stuff

"I am stunned, quite frankly, that the same people who fought against the Patriot Act because it was invasive and violated privacy rights have not howled about this invasion of personal privacy rights."

Say what? I see the same people railing against both, all the time.

I think he's referring to politicians more than private citizens. A portion of the Democratic party, after voting for the PATRIOT Act, spent the last 4-6 years of Bush's time in office speaking out against it. But TSA has generally maintained strong support.

I'm not 100% sure that this is all true, but it is my own impression and, I suspect, the author's as well.

Definitely not all of them. A lot of left politicians raised a living hell about Patriot Act while Bush was in power, but shut up and silently agreed with its extensions and never raised their voice agains TSA and such once Obama came to power. Some were more principled, but I definitely not seeing the same fuss in the same places about it as there was when the people who are now in power were in opposition.

As this terrific article says in many different ways: the TSA is a fundamentally flawed institution. It's an example of something that anybody who has spent too much on consultants will recognize: if you have money, there are people who will gladly say they will solve a problem, even if the problem doesn't make sense and there is no solution. It's like that old demotivator image says about consulting "if you're not part of the solution, there's good money to be made in prolonging the problem" (http://www.despair.com/consulting.html)

Don't get me wrong, the agency can be full of the most wonderful and talented dedicated intelligent people imaginable. I kind of doubt it, but it doesn't make a difference. If the paradigm of the agency is seriously broken, it'll never do anything but prolong the problem. If anything, it'll make the problem of terrorism worse (for many reasons too involved to go into here.)

After 9-11 we overreacted and created a monster. We've created a system where the general public is the "enemy". Is the system so broken that even after this is obvious to 90% of the public we still can't get rid of the TSA? </rant>

I know when I go on like this about the TSA that I sound like somebody running around with their hair on fire, but dammit, out of the dozen or so major intrusions on my privacy and life by the security state and corporate system over the last 20 years, the TSA is like a poster child for what's went wrong. Good intentions, a real (but very small) threat, bipartisan support, a mission to support air travel safety (something everybody is for). The problem is although it's great at getting votes, it's just not worth the trade-off. And it's such a political football that nobody can touch it. We're giving up too much for way too little in return. And it looks from here like the change is going to be permanent, no matter what we say or do about it.

Great post, I do however much prefer the quote,

"If you can see the light at the end of the tunnel, order more tunnel"

I have a friend who works for the TSA. We argue about the value of the organization a lot. And about airport security a lot.

Here's my view. It's not just the TSA that is to blame. It's the fact that American politics is often driven by hysteria. As an American, I say the answer is teaching people about real security strategy.

The hard truth, and one the American people have not accepted is that any idea of security must be firmly conditioned on the idea of acceptable risk. No matter what we do, the risk will never reach zero, so we are better balancing risk with the intrusiveness of the effort to eliminate it. Any security professional in any field worth his or her salt will tell you that.

So the TSA folks on the ground are put in a bind. They are sold as the answer to security and told they must prevent all future attacks. But the TSA is not in a position to do that. What they are in a position to do is to make it hard enough to carry out an attack that the real security folks (FBI, etc) can stop the plot before the terrorists get to the airport. This means that the right screening measures are important because by the time a terrorist gets to the airport, having planned and prepared with airport security in mind, it's simply too late for airport security to stop them. Therefore you have to see airport security as an assist to security rather than as the mechanism as a whole.

In that regard, the TSA has failed miserably. The article lists a few points, but misses one of the biggest problems with the way the bodyscanners are currently implemented: they replace metal detectors.

Nobody has ever brought down a plane with a bomb detonated by a non-metalic detonator. There have been a few attempts (the shoe bomber, the underwear bomber, etc), but these require a lot more human intervention to set off, and therefore provide crew and passengers a better chance to react. In many cases they are also more difficult to get to work in the first place.

So the bodyscanners eliminate a small security hole but in the process create a much larger one. Metalic devices can be hidden in body cavities and are invisible to the scanners. And without metal detectors we don't even have a chance to detect the worst of them.

The TSA has shown that they are worried about this. They have repeatedly said they are concerned about, say, radio-controlled toys and cell phones, but they have created a situation where they can't do anything about it.

Security is a process and not a product. When it becomes a product, we see what happens. The TSA is both a product of the product mentality (pun intended), and a product that was sold to the American People after 9/11 as the answer to our security woes. Until we can get the American people to go through the security assessment process, we will be stuck with more of the same.

TL;DR: Bruce Schneier is still right.

Its natural to read your comment as though the article disagrees with Bruce and you think the article is wrong and Bruce is right.

We all know that the article is completely in line with Bruce and he even blogged it: www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2012/02/fbi_special_age.html

Just clearing that up ;)

Erm... I honestly didn't read that from what he said... I thought the article was in agreement with Bruce. Where would someone get the opposite idea?

It's in the interpretation of the "TL;DR". GGP could be read as, "Don't bother with TFA, listen to Bruce."

For the record, I interpreted it the same way you did.

It's funny to try to predict what's going to spark the inevitable huge flame war on a thread like this, given that there isn't a soul on HN that thinks the TSA is a good thing.

(I didn't flag this article; it's pretty great.)


So it turns out that even though the only display up to -4, it keeps going down from there on the karma score. Good to know.

Carried to its logical end, TSA policy would have to require passengers to travel naked or handcuffed.

I always just assumed that sooner or later they'd start issuing us some sort of jumpsuits and we wouldn't be allowed to fly in "street clothes". Sadly that sounds almost reasonable in this climate. Or at least no less reasonable than some of the other stuff they do.

I disagree, he missed a vital point.

TSA: Success

The worlds most expensive security theater. Making you feel safer for your troubles.

US Citizen here. I don't feel any safer. I feel like I'm a cow in a herd of cattle. Every time I see the security line I think about how much more effective detonating a bomb in the security line would be compared to crashing a plane. At an airport like Altanta International, there are more people in the line than would be on a fully loaded 474. I'm far more afraid to stand in the line for screening than sitting in a plane.

All it takes is one terrorist to get this bright idea in their head and then I lose more of my rights to the next level of security theater. :(

>The worlds most expensive security theater. Making you feel safer for your troubles.

And humiliating you so you're more likely to accept whatever the federal government doles out in the future. Psychological conditioning.

Most of school is psychological conditioning. This would be a wonderful conspiracy theory if the government was a bit more efficient about it. :)

I'm not feeling safe. When I'm talking to Israeli security who actually try to evaluate who I am and if I'm dangerous, I feel safer. When I meet TSA agent that grabs my ass because his instructions says he has to do that to everybody, I don't feel safer. I feel I just participated in idiotic spectacle. I also get reminded that as a taxpayer I am paying a capable healthy person to spend his day touching other people's asses because instructions say so, when he could actually be earning a honest living instead doing something productive. Feeling safer is never even nearly there.

The TSA actually makes me feel less safe, enough that I avoid flying if at all possible. It's like we're trying to replicate the Stanford Prison Experiment at scale. I wish they would focus on things that keep us safe and dispense with the security theater.

They should listen to his recommendations. He's saying nothing new here. Every other security expert is saying much the same thing, but is still being ignored.

Before the TSA, didn't you have to wait in a similar luggage screening line anyway? Other than the addition of the backscatter machine, checking your id before you enter the line and some other procedural changes what is different?

Take off your shoes, get rid of all liquids (unless they're in a plastic bag, of course -- those are always safe), look up at the anxiety detection cameras, and enjoy flying in Complete Safety (R) (TM).

Care to count the billions spent on those "differences"?

Having to dig my laptop and iPad out and put them in a separate bin than the rest of my things.

Not being able to bring an expensive bottle of wine on the plane.

TSA should be and should have been funded directly from air fair increases. That way it will end tomorrow or would never had happened.

True Story:

A friend of mine was traveling through various airports in the states. He had accidentally left his pencil bag in his back pack which had a pair of scissors in it. The scissors were over the length allowed on a plaine (Something like 4" is considered safe.)

He went through 2 security checks in the states, and boarded planes with these scissors in his back pack. It wasn't until he went through a simple, small security check in a small Canadian air port that they were found and confiscated.

I find it funny that he made it through all this elaborate security in the States, and a simple security check in Canada with a Security guard who did his job well found the scissors.

I accidentally carried a box of .45 ammunition through several checkpoints in D.C. one day, in the bottom of my backpack.

Gave me a start when I found it that evening on the train.

Now, I don't know how security in the capital compares to that found in airports - but you'd think it would be comparable.

Turns out all you need to do to foil security is jam a pair of socks down on top of bullets and you're set.

This happens ALL THE TIME. I accidentally boarded a plane (through SEATAC) in 2007 with this knife in my pocket: http://www.amazon.com/Gerber-45860-Ranger-Serrated-Knife/dp/...

With an item like that there is no real excuse for them to miss it. There is no mistaking that as something else. It is clearly a knife. It just proves the whole thing is "Security Theatre".

It was in my pocket. I walked through a metal detector. It was just a matter of the detector not being calibrated correctly or not being set to an adequately high sensitivity setting. That such things are possible is a testament to the uselessness of the system, if they can't manage to promulgate standards and procedures sufficient for the proper operation of a metal detector what hope is there that any other equipment is being operated correctly?

Some folks might say it's just proof they need to spend a tonne of your tax dollars on better, bigger, scanning machines.

I think this is as much ( more ) about harvesting tax dollars as anything else

I saw exactly the same thing happen on Grand Cayman. At the end of the summer, Cayman Islands security found a pair of scissors in a girl's backpack that she'd evidently been traveling with all summer.

It proves that technology doesn't solve these problems. Diligent employees who do their jobs solve these problems.

My buddy was told that there was a faint line on the xray machine and they wanted to check it out. He didn't even know he had those scissors.

At the same time, a couple of years ago they gave me a HUGE hassle over a fucking snow globe. Even going so far as telling me that I had to ship it because it was banned from checked luggage.

I wish I could remember the source where someone determined the most confiscated items by looking at the government auctions. The TSA likes to issue self-promoting press releases like, "we confiscated over 300,000 prohibited items last year," but it turns out they're primarily bottled water, snow globes, and Swiss Army knives.

Incidentally, states sell confiscated items at auction.

My life-long dream of becoming a TSA Agent is a little tarnished, i suppose. This Post is full of excellent lines.

E.g., "Another time, I was bypassing screening (again on official FBI business) with my .40 caliber semi-automatic pistol, and a TSA officer noticed the clip of my pocket knife. "You can't bring a knife on board," he said."

"With the congressional spotlight on the organization, TSA is finally feeling what it's like to be screened."

While I agree with his points, this is yet another rant with no solutions.

I'm not as convinced by his arguments as everyone else seems. He starts out with a huge -- and admittedly hugely impressive -- appeal to authority. The tilting at windmills argument -- you can't fix all security holes, prison inmates can macgyver deadly weapons out of iPod cables (not to mention laptop batteries), you'd have to tie up people naked to make it safe -- is well taken, but nothing new.

His argument for random screening was more original (to me, at least): Certain terrorist organisations shy away from risk. Make the risk of failure high enough, and they won't strike. He proposes that 10% risk of failure is the sweet spot (based on his own experience with Al Qaeda) and says that thoroughly searching a random selection of 10% of the passengers will result in 10% failure.

Two things don't add up there, in my eyes. First of all, you just told us that there is no security anyway: the iPod cable thing, naked tied up people. What if a terrorist was among the 10% "unlucky" ones, and he had simply been clever enough to think of a solution not covered by your screening process? Granted, the more thorough searches will be harder to "beat", but allegedly even very ordinary items can be used to do bad stuff. And while the fact of the search will be unpredictable, the process of the search will probably be just as predictable as before: with 10% of all passengers being searched, the procedures can't hope to remain secret. So I guess you have to rely on being extremely thorough; with the thoroughness of a search probably coinciding with the amount of inconvenience caused by it.

Secondly, he does rely on the failure probability of 10% being enough to stop an attack. That might be what it takes to stop some organisations now, but other organisations might not be as risk averse, others might change their mind in the future (particularly if such a strategy is adopted). Obviously operations other than random screening will increase the failure probability beyond 10% anyway, but that is beside the point; as is the fact that he only addresses screening while also reporting that many threats originate from persons that are never screened because they are not passengers.

Apart from the random screening argument, he addresses the impropriety of backscatter scanners. There is nothing new there at all. Apparently this is a huge issue to a large percentage of the population. Apparently, having a person of the same sex look at your naked picture would be an improvement. I don't really get it, personally. Maybe I'm a hippie.

All that said, I guess his random search procecure would be a net improvement to most passengers, with his argument standing and falling depending on whether or not you buy into the risk-aversity argument. And of course if you assume that neither procedure gets you any notable amount of security, as could be argued from his first point, the procedure with the least amount of convenience -- his -- wins.

You need to consider what threat you are defending against.

Before credit cards were popular, it was common for aircraft passengers to be armed with handguns and carrying a lot of cash -- yet there were few incidents. Think about that.

An organization planning an operation against any nation-state relays on secrecy and anonymity to function, period. That is what random screenings will help combat.

The current TSA regime is really trying to stop crazy people. I believe there is some documentation to establish that they are somewhat successful at that too. The problem with the TSA approach is that they are too big to be competent at what they do, and the near universal contempt that they are held in hurts that mission -- even deranged people hunk the TSA is dumb.

You don't stop crazy people by strip-searching them. You stop them by asking them questions to detect the crazy ones. The TSA focuses on the mechanism instead of the person, and that never works. There's a reason israel's airports are safe from terrorism, and it's not because of fancy body scanners.

True. The problem with that approach in the US is that our laws demand an "objective" approach to dealing with this stuff. We don't trust police to make subjective decisions.

There needs to be a webapp that grades airports for hassle index. So we can steer our dollars away from them.

So we can steer our dollars away from them.

How would that work? Most cities only _have_ one airport.

If I live in Tulsa, I use the airport there. It's that or drive two hours to Oklahoma City.

It would decrease tourist dollars, dollars of people moving to tulsa, and encourage young upstarts leaving and never returning. The government is accountable, technically, but only when people vote with their actions and dollars.

One problem with this.

TSA is a federal organization.

The pain would be felt at the local level.

TSA is like the phone company. They don't care - they don't have to.

Aside: the idea that anyone would go to _Tulsa_ as a tourist is bizarre. But I grew up there so it's hard for me to see it as anything but a good place to leave.

But won't somebody please think of the children!

They already did. That's why they started patting them down.

"I am, as I have said before, a political conservative, a law and order kind of guy and I get misty when the national anthem is played at a football game and jets fly over in salute. If anything, I am pre-disposed to support the United States government."

This doesn't sit quite right with me. I could be wrong but I don't imagine a conservative would fancy themselves a "supporter of the United States government." That sounds more like, right or wrong, what a liberal thinks of a conservative (and what a conservative thinks of a liberal, for that matter).

Supporter of "the troops" or "the nation" sure, but "the government" seems a bit off.


Yeah I guess you're right. I was going to give a long counterpoint but it's all about how it came off to me, it just didn't seem like the sort of wording that would come from a conservative (and I grew up with conservative parents and listened to plenty of talk radio, I never take liberals at their representation of what a conservative believes). But looking again, I was just nitpicking.

I don't really buy the argument "TSA has never [...] foiled a terrorist plot or stopped an attack on an airliner.": it could be argued that the TSA measures act as an effective deterrent.

A stronger argument could be to show that in none of the countries that do not adopt TSA-like measures there have been any terrorist attempts, let alone successful.

How easy would it be to board in, say, Mexico or Canada, and hijack the flight to the US?

EDIT: looking at the comments (and the downvotes) I have the feeling that I wasn't clear. I agree with the article pretty much on everything, I'm just trying to say that where there are no body scanners deployed, for example in Europe, there have been no terrorist attacks, and I think that this is a stronger argument than "the TSA hasn't prevented any attack".

Yes, it could be argued. But I've never seen it argued with convincing data, and for something so expensive and invasive, convincing data is the least I expect.

As he said in the article, if they HAD stopped someone, that someone would have been charged with a crime. Where are the charges?

Actually there have been would-be bombers and terrorists stopped since 9/11. And they have been charged.

The problem is that the TSA is not responsible for any of them. Either they were discovered and apprehended before carrying out the act by intelligence agencies (that predate the TSA and DHS, and have been doing this for a long, long time), or they were stopped by passengers and bystanders, in which case the TSA has demonstrably already failed.

Either way the DHS is just an embarrassment.

That's a fairly naive argument. My local bank discourages potential robbers with armed guards, alarms, and a locked vault. Just because they've never charged anyone with bank robbery doesn't mean those measures didn't prevent potential robbers from deciding to become actual robbers.

It's really not any better than the argument that of course the TSA keeps away terrorists and tigers because there haven't been any hijackings or tiger maulings on airplanes since they took over.

Let me tell you about this new product of mine. It's called Rhinoceros powder, and it does - you guessed it! It scares away Rhinos. As long as you spread Rhino powder everywhere, you will not be attacked by a Rhino. It works particularly well in urban areas.

It clearly works, too! I've been using it for decades, as have many of my customers, and wouldn't you know it! None of them have ever been attacked by a Rhino.

$60b a pack.

I'm not sure if it's intentional, but there was a Simpsons parallel in "Much Apu About Nothing":

  [Later, a full-force Bear Patrol is on watch.  Homer watches proudly.]

  Homer: Not a bear in sight.  The Bear Patrol must be working like a 
   Lisa: That's spacious reasoning, Dad.
  Homer: Thank you, dear.
   Lisa: By your logic I could claim that this rock keeps tigers away.
  Homer: Oh, how does it work?
   Lisa: It doesn't work.
  Homer: Uh-huh.
   Lisa: It's just a stupid rock.
  Homer: Uh-huh.
   Lisa: But I don't see any tigers around, do you?
          [Homer thinks of this, then pulls out some money]
  Homer: Lisa, I want to buy your rock.
          [Lisa refuses at first, then takes the exchange]

This story archetype is centuries old.

specious not spacious. FTFY.

I don't really buy the argument "TSA has never [...] foiled a terrorist plot or stopped an attack on an airliner.": it could be argued that the TSA measures act as an effective deterrent.

The thing is that's the wrong metric.

The TSA isn't in a vacuum. The metric is whether the security measures have made it hard enough to mount an attack that law enforcement could disrupt it before it began.

Right now, I don't see enough evidence to evaluate that either way. However I can say without a doubt that there are plenty of huge issues with the way the TSA is going about things and a lot of things, like body scanners, do not support an effort to score high on the above metric.

On the other hand, there have been numerous attempted terrorist attacks on planes in the United States. All of them have been foiled without assistance from TSA, even the ones that weren't stopped until the would-be terrorist was on the airplane.

This isn't proof that TSA hasn't stopped any attacks. You could be correct that fear of the TSA has stopped terrorists from trying, or trying as often. However, given that there have been actual attempts and TSA has failed to foil any of them, it seems doubtful.

> How easy would it be to board in, say, Mexico or Canada, and hijack the flight to the US?

Arguably harder than it would have been before 9/11, as the U.S. has insisted on security standards for flights destined for American airports. That's why you frequently have to go through an additional gate security check at a European airport when flying to the U.S.

Well just hijack a regional Canadian/Mexican/Whatever flight then.

Take off, eh!

There are body scanners in Europe. I went through one at Schiphol on the way to Washington last week. And I didn't see any sign there to tell me that I could opt for a pat-down, whereas there are screens to tell you that in Washington on the way back.

The scanners we have in the US are using radiation. Some of the scanners used in Europe are using sound waves instead. (I noticed this because I always opt out of the radiation ones.)

I'd recommend not travelling through Manchester Airport then, which have backscatter machines in place and do not allow for opt-out (although this is as-per DfT guidelines). They do only test a random sample, however.

    The Department for Transport has full confidence in the independent assessment 
    undertaken by the Health Protection Agency. We are confident with their assessment
    that the dose from being scanned is far below the allowed levels in the UK and
    does not constitute any unacceptable risks to health

My chief concern is that the security agencies have often been known to lie and/or be technically incompetent when it comes to such things. Case in point: I still remember when we were being told that going through the xray machine doesn't damage film. It does, but it took them YEARS to admit it. So now we're being told that this machine (when being operated correctly and when working properly and when it has been properly calibrated) merely poses "acceptable" risks to health. We know the people running the machines are largely idiots and we have reason to suspect the machines aren't entirely idiot-proof - because almost nothing is. Frankly, I wouldn't trust the TSA to operate a blender safely; they're the last people I want giving me an x-ray scan.

Interesting. So it constitutes only acceptable risks to health. Of course "acceptable" being judged by whatever officials are there at the Health Protection Agency. I'd be curious to know how many exposures did they take into account.... what if you're flying every day? Or say 3 times a week?

Keep in mind that there have been attempted attacks that the TSA failed to stop. In every case the TSA proved useless and other forms of security (vigilant passengers especially) saved the day.

I have some highly effective Elephant Stampede Deterrent spray to sell you. You will be very pleased with it. Any American to use it in the continental US has never been stampeded.

"I have a unique position from which to make these statements. For 25 years, as many of readers know, I was an FBI Special Agent..."

I couldn't believe he didn't finish the last paragraph of his background with "I am the most interesting man in the world."

After reading the same paragraph, I think he is the type we need leading the TSA

Does he really think potential terrorists or criminals are going to hijack a plane using toothbrushes or popsicle sticks? The purpose of the TSA is to screen all passengers for real threats like guns, blades, and most of all, bombs.

He says there was no outcry over the backscatters. That's just out of touch; it was all over the Internet and even major news media back around November of 2010. Liberals and conservatives alike found the idea of their nude images too far. This kept backscatters from being deployed for the most part; have you ever seen one?

Seems to me that the TSA has changed their backscatter approach since then. Instead of showing the full images to security personnel it will do some computational analysis of the images and then represent any anomalies on a simple drawing of a human. The people going through the machine will see the same images the TSA will. See this image: http://www.wired.com/images_blogs/threatlevel/2012/02/TSA-Bo...

Nobody likes waiting in line or taking off their shoes. But I'd much rather do that than let people get onto my plane with explosives. Forget patriotism, it's a matter of your own personal safety.

This kept backscatters from being deployed for the most part; have you ever seen one?

I don't fly very frequently, but my understanding is that nearly all airports in the US now have them. Is this incorrect?

Nobody likes waiting in line or taking off their shoes. But I'd much rather do that than let people get onto my plane with explosives. Forget patriotism, it's a matter of your own personal safety.

The problem with the TSA's procedures has little to do with the minor inconvenience of taking off your shoes. It's about the bigger picture: the extreme reaction to an infinitesimal threat. Even daily activities like driving involve a far greater risk to your well-being than the threat of airline terrorism. If we're not suffering from crippling fear of the mundane but far more significant threats we face in our everyday lives, why do we allow this one far-fetched threat to literally terrorize us into giving up our basic rights and sacrificing billions of public dollars for the "privilege" of participating in air transit? The spectacular violence of a single event 11 years in the past has sent us into a downward spiral in which fear is increasingly winning out over logic and rationality.

There have been no successful terrorist attacks on US flights in the decade since 9/11. And none of the failed attempts were foiled by the TSA; they were foiled by the foolish incompetence of the attackers and the permanently heightened vigilance of the public. For every carry-on item that the TSA can prohibit, "the terrorists" can come up with 100 more that aren't even checked for in the screening process. It's a hopeless losing battle. Like the author says, the holes in the screening process simply cannot be closed unless everyone is required to fly naked and handcuffed.

In short, your personal safety when on board an airplane is not significantly improved by the ridiculous security theater that surrounds the boarding process. So why bother with it at all? Why inconvenience millions of innocent travelers, trample on their rights, and throw piles of money down the toilet just so that people can feel that "something is being done"?

> Does he really think potential terrorists or criminals are going to hijack a plane using toothbrushes or popsicle sticks?

Yes. Actually there's an interesting connection with a recent HN article about how space missions are being severely hampered by an irrational aversion to the risk of loss of human life. In the same way, someone with a sharpened stick holding it at the throat of an innocent woman could very well lead to the hijacking of a plane because the people in the situation may very well consider doing "anything" to save that one life. Hollywood, and all that.

> Nobody likes waiting in line or taking off their shoes.

This is one reason why you may deserve some downvoting - this is a classic straw-man argument, and minimizes the true root of the problem: we have a vast, faceless beauracracy that seriously messes with millions of Americans (and foreigners!) for no good purpose. This is a serious problem, and minimizing it like this won't earn you any influence.

P.S. I disagree with the parent comment, and yet I upvoted it because it is cogently argued, if wrong.

Holding sharp objects at someone's throat was a tactic that worked for only part of one day (on 9/11). Try it now and there will be one passenger with a cut throat, and an entire plane swarming you.

I agree with you, and that they should really just let pocket knives on planes since they are an equivalent threat to a toothbrush and 5 minutes of modification.

  > have you ever seen one?
  > Seems to me that the TSA has changed their backscatter
  > approach since then. Instead of showing the full images 
  > to security personnel it will do some computational 
  > analysis of the images and then represent any anomalies 
  > on a simple drawing of a human. The people going through 
  > the machine will see the same images the TSA will.
Perhaps you don't travel often, but I have not been to an airport in the past 1½ years which didn't have either backscatter or millimeter wave scanners used as primary screening methods for the majority of passengers - PHX, SEA, FLW, MKE, AUS, MCI, SFO - those are just the ones I can think of off the top of my head.

Also, the generic image is only used with the millimeter wave scanners (the clear phone booth looking scanners). The back scatter machines still produce a grayscale nude image.

Every plane is already equipped with hundreds of pounds of explosives. You wouldn't get anywhere without them. The statistical probability of that or any other explosive causing you harm - even in the event that harm is intended - approaches zero. It is far more likely you'll be the victim of assault, auto accident, or of unknown causes than have any harm come to you on or by an airplane and this has always been the case. Statistically, there is absolutely no personal or public safety issue with eliminating intrusive, unconstitutional searches in order to board planes.

Major cities probably all have them, but the US has a large number of smaller non-hub airports that feed into the hubs, and I know that at least some don't have them. In fact, I've only experienced them once, at SFO. When traveling TRI -> ATL -> LHR and returning via Detroit this summer, I experienced none.

So if you don't mind spending an extra $150 per trip and running from the far ends of the airport where the feeders dock, you can still avoid the them, at least for now..

Trying to prevent an -extremely- unlikely event via a lousy ineffective attempt at prior restraint is worth treating everyone as a criminal, ignoring the 4th amendment, and curtailing freedom? In America? Why?

Prior restraint is a great evil that needs to be carefully weighed against its benefit and I just don't see the pre-boarding perp walk actually making us enough safer to be worth it.

The point he's making, which I believe is valid, is that you can take over a plane with just about anything. Also, with some plastic explosive and a detonator in your Rolex, you could easily make a bomb. I've never seen security dogs, and I've frequented some of the busiest airports. So how would they find the C4 in your bag/pocket/butt? Not to mention, it's easy enough to go through security in a smaller airport and then get into the secured zone in a hub with minimal effort.

If you want to blow up/hijack a plane, it's easy. It takes a smart person, ingenuity, and nerves of steel, but I don't think there's anything hard about it...the reason is that instead of the TSA sitting around and thinking for a few minutes about how someone could blow up a plane, they only think about how people have already blown up planes.

Their methods are flawed, and I feel absolutely no safer travelling via air with the TSA around.

I have seen the AIT machines. However, depending on where you are in the country, the machines are used differently.

In Sea-tac for example, they try to pick out people more likely to be at risk and put them through the scanners. This would be correct except that they should be putting such people through metal detectors too. Defence in depth....

In LAX, I have seen separate lines for standard metal detectors vs AIT machines. This is just stupid and justifies so many jokes about LAZ security....

In Nashville TN, I haven't been there, but I understand from TSA employees that everyone goes through the bodyscanners.

I don't think it is just a question of public acceptance. Really you have different courts looking at how the 4th Amendment applies to metal detectors in airports, and although they all agree that metal detector requirements are Constitutional, they arrive at this for different reasons.

The 9th and 3rd circuits have adopted a balancing test (the most important case there in the third circuit was authored by none other than Samuel Alito btw), and this does not necessarily allow the TSA to get from the idea that metal detectors are per se Constitutional to the idea that bodyscanners are.

The 11th and 5th Circuits however, have adopted a view that when you travel you consent to be searched as a condition to that travel, and unlike other consensual searches, consent cannot be withdrawn. This is a very broad ruling and it makes it hard to argue that anything the TSA might do in the course of a search infringes the 4th Amendment rights of the traveller. In other words, in these circuits, airports are 4th Amendment-free zones.

So this varies quite a bit by region and even by airport culture. That doesn't make the use of the scanners any better on the whole, or change the fact that they should be reserved for individuals where there is a reasonable suspicion and that they should be used in tandem with metal detectors.

You are really missing the point. All of this is security theater. It will not catch people who want to exploit weaknesses. The 9/11 hijackers used boxcutters, not much different than a shiv as he describes.

The problem with "outcry" in the US is that it is short lived and most people have short attention spans. Now that the media "furor" has died down, things will progress forward as the powers-that-be wish.

I just flew round trip, BWI-SJO, was directed toward a backscatter machine and opted out. I was treated rather rudely at BWI and had to stand around until a 'male assist' or whatever they called the person that had to pat me down. The whole ordeal made me feel guilty of something when I had done nothing wrong.

I oppose backscatters on multiple fronts. Health, invasion of privacy, corrupt contracts, general ineffectiveness, etc.

Speaking of security theater, the linked image smacks of it. Is that image what they see? Or what they want us to think they see? Who has the password that turns on display of the full images? How long are the full images retained? Who has access to them? If an algorithm is now the only thing handling the security scanning, how hard is it to get a copy, in order to develop an exploit?

...my plane...

Are you a pilot? If so, I'd like to hear more about the subject of the TSA from your perspective.

If not, consider that those of us who might prefer to travel with a slightly higher risk for significantly greater convenience have just as much right to call a plane "ours."

Flew Boston -> New Orleans 2 weeks ago and New Orleans -> Boston last week. They scanned everyone with the back scatter both times.

That is one major international airport (Boston) and one fairly small domestic only airport (New Orleans), both scanned everyone.

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