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Why The TSA Fears Thirteen-Inch Laptops, But Not Eleven-Inch Ones (techdirt.com)
90 points by ukdm 2053 days ago | hide | past | web | 42 comments | favorite

I'm not the best person in the world to write about TSA experiences, given that I have a prosthetic, and so the TSA's general assumption is that I'm a futuristic cyborg capable of firing bolts of directed energy from it.

That said, I've actually had different iPad experiences based on the particular iPad case I used at the time. n = oh, about 4, so take this with a grain of salt. But when I used a generic, black leather case, I had no problems leaving it in the bag. After awhile I became a bit more stylish, and I bought a case resembling an old-school composition notepad (by Portenzo, makers of awesome iPad cases). That flashy little number got my bag searched on a consistent basis, until I developed the good sense to just take it out of the bag and put it in a separate bin. Seems that the case is just clever and novel enough to set off the "This guy is up to something" alarm with TSA agents.

All of which makes me think that they're looking for anomalies. If something becomes standard enough, they gradually start to let it slip into the background. If they've never seen something before, they'll on it like flies on a dungheap. To me, this seems like a frighteningly simplistic security stance -- but what do I know?

Yes, they seem to look for "fingerprints." Your second cover may have interfered with the fingerprint just enough.

I overheard one TSA agent mentoring another on the x-ray machine just a couple days after the iPad 2 was available. The first TSA agent got confused looking at the new iPad2, and the second agent explained how many batteries each had. I overheard something like "iPad 1 had 2 batteries and the iPad 2 had 3, and the batteries should be in these spots." Did you know there were multiple batteries a few days after shipping?

I was impressed. My expectations were low to begin with, but the second TSA agent had legitimate technical knowledge.

Edit: I'm not supporting TSA or saying this is the right approach. This anecdote seemed to support your supposition for how they screened items. I still was impressed an x-ray tech knew the insides of an iPad 2 better than even engadget. Thank you for making your point, though :)

That seems impressive, I agree, and I'm all for giving credit where it's due. But the problem with looking only for "fingerprints" is that you're inherently narrowing your search spectrum. By doing so, you're actually making the job easier for terrorists -- whose goal, roughly speaking, is to move to wherever the spotlight isn't shining.

Bruce Schneier does a much better job explaining this phenomenon than I can ever hope to. But essentially, there's a good argument to be made that totally random searches are superior to fingerprint searches. Terrorists operate on probabilistic scenario analysis. They will only attempt a plot if they're close to 100% sure that they can pull it off, because a failure embarrasses them in the eyes of their sympathizers and would-be financial benefactors. It makes them look like amateurs, and nobody wants to fund an amateurish organization. So even doing something like randomly screening every Nth passenger (where N changes daily) inherently reduces the odds of success by a fixed daily percentage. Terrorists are more scared of dice rolls than they are of fingerprint searches.

I'm no security expert, and for all I know, some combination of random searches and fingerprint searches is the optimal portfolio. I can, at least, understand the logic there, and it makes some sense. But focusing solely on fingerprints creates loopholes everywhere else. And it seems that the TSA has become more and more laser-focused on fingerprints in recent years.

Not long ago some Israeli security hard cases explained how they handle this issue at Ben Gurion. You can probably still find it online somewhere, basically their monitors are highly trained in profiling and they use psychology and hyper profiling to spot potential threats.

I want to say it works like a bomb but...

I've heard bits and pieces about the Israeli methodology, and I've also heard critiques of its potential for application in the US (mostly, centering on the idea that our population is too big, too diverse, and too spread out to accommodate the training and consistency of the Israeli program).

Whatever the case, one thing does seem fairly clear: that the Israeli investment in people, rather than machines, seems to be paying a good dividend. And I'm tempted to say that we'd be better off staffing airports with better people and slightly older / less intrusive machines, rather than cutting-edge machines and bottom-of-the-barrel staff.

This adds hardly anything to the original, which is here:


These rules would mean something if they bothered to train their screeners. Just this week I got conflicting direction about iPads, and that was at Chicago O'Hare and Detroit Metro, two busy airports.

It seems that nobody worries about phones and kindles, and anything that is laptop-sized has to come out. The iPad seems to be the point where the confusion starts.

Considering how popular the iPad is, it would be nice if there was a consistent, definitive answer.

Yes. I've got a so-called "TSA-friendly" laptop bag that supposedly allows the computer to go through the machine without taking it out. It turned out to be a 50-50 proposition as to whether it went through with no problem or whether I got yelled at for not the computer out, so I started just taking it out. Irritating.

I'm pretty sure their "the need may arise to take a closer look" language exists solely to cover the fact that most of their agents are so poorly trained that they don't know and can't be bothered to worry about consistent definitive answers.

The TSA also fears a 300ml container of liquid but not 3 100ml containers and an empty 300ml one. What's new?

I traveled to Romania and Turkey last week, and airports in both countries required me to remove my iPad from my backpack after I had put it through the X-Ray machine and put it through separately (I also had a laptop that I had already removed). Of course, my iPhone was in my backpack and they didn't ask me to remove that. So maybe international screen sizes vary from the US?

The "metric system of security theater"?

I don't think there are specific written rules for many countries. One hyperactive Romanian border officer requested me (in a threatening tone) to remove all the "large electronic equipment" from my backpack - even my SLR camera and all the lenses. This never happened in ~10 other countries where I traveled with the same backpack and contents.

I travel with an 11" Air and iPad in a backpack very frequently. The article does explain some confusion I've encountered when dealing with the tray stackers association, but I wouldn't limit to them since I've encountered the same confusion abroad.

The iPad has been examined several times (in particular, the first couple of weeks after release), whereas the laptop has only been inspected going into a State Department building.

"Please boot the laptop so that I can see that it works normally," was a bit of a problem because it booted so fast off of the SSD. I had to restart 3 times to convince them that it was normal. The first two times, the guard thought I had just done a sleep/wake cycle.

"The essential principle of totalitarianism is to make laws that are impossible to obey" - Christopher Hitchens

Aside from a few well-publicized cases of TSA shenaniganery which could easily be chalked up to incompetence, the rules are not difficult to understand, or follow for that matter.

The rules are stupid, arbitrary, pointless, and irritating, but hard to follow? No.

The headline claims to explain why the TSA "fears" 13 in laptops, but does not do that.

Yeah they do, there is a part approx. 3/4 of the way down, where they say something to the effect of (supposedly as a result of TSA interviewing):

You have to give people the impression that you are doing something, and with rules, essentially the reason is security theatre.

No, that sort of says something about why they differentiate, but it doesn't say anything at all about why they fear.

Some years before 9/11 I was doing a fair amount of international travel for work. On one return trip from Germany I was bringing back a small, 12" replica crossbow. I had it in my checked luggage but still made the point to declare it was there to avoid the hassle of an untimely search later. They took my bag to a spot off to the side to open it up. They glanced at the crossbow for about 5 sec. However, they were much more interested in the alarm clock I also had. (With as much travel as I did to Europe, I had purchased one there that had the correct electrical plug) They spent a good 15 minutes scanning and weighing it to determine that it was just a standard alarm clock. But I don't even want to think about what that same bag I had back then would do to security today.

Also, the rules are not followed with any sort of consistency. I've forgotten to take that Ziploc baggie of liquids out of my carry-on so many times and not been questioned about it that I hardly even try to remember any more.

I've always assumed that the laptop rule was because it blocked X-rays, and so you could hide something under it. In that case, the size is irrelevant. It's just to prevent having to check manually too much.

Besides, rules just change depending on the airport/country, simple as that. I've had situations where I've been asked to take out "all electronic devices" (phones, tablets, ipods, I had like ten of those). In other cases, I passed with the laptop still inside (or even a bottle of water in my jacket ! I'm definitely a terrorist).

I wonder why people care about this, though. Can't you just accept that you will spend five or ten minutes taking out your laptop ?

I find the interdiction of liquid/razors much more annoying, because it actually costs me money. The inconvenience of empty your bag is pretty harmless.

Any complex equipment could have stuff hidden inside it, e.g replace the battery with a brick of explosive. That's why the Israelis commonly ask you to switch computers on in front of them. Putting them in a separate box makes sure there aren't two items superimposed on top of each other in the scanner image, so it's easier to inspect.

If you've never been through Ben Gurion or any Israeli checkpoints, it's a real experience. They are very thorough, sometimes requiring items be disassembled as far as is possible without tools. I don't find it annoying though, it's for everyone's safety and they are very professional. I understand that the main purpose of the checks is to allow them to observe your behaviour and reactions. They know that even with all their check stuff can get through, so they put a strong emphasis on psychological profiling. Honestly, that makes me less upset about the checks themselves. If I have confidence these people really do know what they are doing, and it is effective, then I will put up with the procedure even if it's mainly a ruse. The problem with the TSA is the public isn't confident that the procedures are effective, so if thats the case who wants to put up with the process?

People care because it demonstrates exactly how pointless the rules are. Why should we "just accept" spending however long it takes to empty a bag when to do so provides no gain whatsoever other than to perpetuate a myth?

our officers are trained to look for anomalies to help keep air travel safe

Number of times air travel kept safe by TSA: zero.

Please show me the list of incidents they have saved anyone from. It would be a huge public relations bonus so that list must be somewhere right? I mean you cannot take hundreds of millions of dollars and criminally hassle that many people without results - or can you?

I think most of us agree that the TSA is very ineffective at what it tries to achieve. That being said, saying they've had zero success is a little unfair, because this would be very hard to measure. After all, in the case of 'success', nothing happens - had they not been successful, something might have happened. We can't even compare the number of things that happened before and after a change was made by the TSA, because that presumes that there are always an equal number of people trying to make things happen.

So if they're right, they're right, and if they're wrong they're right because they could've been right?

Oh come on, if they stopped an actual weapon they would certainly do a full press release about it. In all the years with all the money spent, there is NOTHING?

What you are saying is they are awesome at stopping invisible pink elephants, they just cannot show them to us because they are invisible.

Every place in the USA has city, county, state and federal police with incredible laws that let they do almost anything they want, yet there is still crime. Somehow the TSA magically has no crime to show for their presence.

if they stopped an actual weapon they would certainly do a full press release about it

It's so common they don't even bother doing a press release anymore. Sometimes they write about interesting finds on their blog:

"Over 1,200 firearms were discovered at TSA checkpoints across the nation in 2011. Many guns are found loaded with rounds in the chamber. Most passengers simply state they forgot they had a gun in their bag."

"Small chunks of C4 explosives were found in passenger’s checked luggage in Yuma (YUM). Believe it or not, he was brining it home to show his family."


Not convinced this really makes travel safer, but they do find a lot of stuff...

> if they stopped an actual weapon they would certainly do a full press release about it.

They stop about 20 to 30 handguns each week. I don't know how many guns they don't stop.

Some of those are loaded. TSA doesn't care about handguns in checked in baggage, they even advise people how to travel with guns. They do care about handguns in carry on bags.

At one point, it was a pretty good idea to travel with a checked in gun to keep photographic equipment safe. You buy a starter pistol which is considered a gun by their rules. Put it in your luggage with your expensive equipment. Since losing a bag with a gun is a no-no and those bags were locked - no "lost" equipment.


Hmm, where are the auctions for all these weapons?

I mean since they are seizing thousands of nailclippers each month across the country and then auctioning them, they must be seizing the handguns too.

Where the TSA sells seized goods by state: http://www.eyeflare.com/article/where-buy-goods-confiscated-...

This articles says they don't sell the handguns (perhaps that varies by state?): http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/46934445/ns/local_news-lancaster...

WHo says they keep the guns? I guess (but I don't know) that the weapons go to law enforcement for further action; maybe a "citation"[1] or maybe arrest and prosecution.


looking at the "Week in Review" posts you see the number of guns, handily broken down into loaded and unloaded. The charts list how many guns had a round chambered.


I have no idea how many people the TSA screen each week; nor how many guns make it through screening; nor whether any of the people trying to take guns on board a plane have any intent to harm people.

I'm not a fan of the TSA, but this isn't exactly fair. To put into perspective that a lot of people here might understand:

Hey, Sysadmin person, prove why we should keep paying you! You sit here all day doing things, and yet nothing has happened to our servers since you got here. Why do we need you?

Acutally, a sysadmin can do exactly what you say he cannot.

1. Wait for a server hdd to crash, and tell people that they suffered no interruptions because he had the foresight to do disk mirroring on the servers.

2. Wait for somebody to do 'rm -rf' on an important dir on their laptop, and help them recover from the hourly backup procedure he'd implemented on the day he joined the company (this has happened in a company i've worked).

etc etc.

While I agree with you, the sysadmin would be able to provide evidence of specific actions that prevented something bad happening. TSA has made zero arrest related to terrorism so far.

Plus quoting the end of the article :

He said that the laptop rule is about appearances, giving people a sense that something is being done to protect them. “Security theater,” he called it.

Haven't you heard that "Prevention is better than cure"

Even if what TSA does is just a "security theatre", it must be a deterrent to atleast the less determined person intending to do harm.

So you cannot easily make a statement saying TSA doesn't keep air travel safe.

Two things have done more than TSA to keep airplanes safe:

1. Hardening cockpit doors and policies that keep travelers away from the cockpit.

2. Travelers fight. Both the Shoe Bomber and the Underwear Bomber were discovered and foiled by travelers who have learned that resistance is the difference between life and death.

Frankly, TSA could be replaced by private security firms today and air security would not significantly change.

Let me tell you about my tiger attack-preventing rock.

The nature of security is that when it works it is frightfully expensive and nothing happens.

One can only imagine what kind of inane ridiculousness we'll be put through as they race to keep security theater entertaining and fresh.

I have an 11'' laptop that I never take out. 80% of the time I'm okay. 20% of the time they make me take it out and when I tell them that according to their own rules I do not have to, they ignore me.

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