Air Fair 2: Dyspeptic Bugaboo – TSA rules hard to swallow

I’m a fan of They have several ongoing threads regarding the current state of the Security Theater™ under the oppression of which we now live. Among the heart-rending stories of children being forcibly removed from planes and grandmothers being accused of paedophilia for taking pictures of empty playgrounds, are numerous stories about the malfeasance that is the TSA. One of the more recent is the TSA employee who managed to walk out of Newark “Liberty” (ha!) International with a couple hundred thousand dollars of high-end electronics (cameras, laptops, GPS’s) from passengers’ bags over the course of (at least) several months, with not even the TSA noticing.

So, I’m flying out of Newark this trip. Didn’t have any issues this time (unlike others, see below). I even went through with the Swiss Army nail clipper that I had meant to take out of my bag. (it doesn’t have a knife, but the nail file is rather pointy. and then there’s that miniature screw driver…) After reading all the stories of people having things like nail clippers confiscated, I was surprised to find it there later. Either they’re allowing people to trim their nails on planes now, or they just didn’t notice. Past experience would suggest the later, but since they did find the two 1 oz. bottles of shampoo and conditioner I saved from the hotel’s refuse on the return trip, I have to assume they saw it and let it go.

Do you know what else they’re apparently allowing on planes now? Knitting needles.

Knitting fucking needles.

Yeah, I know, you can’t really see them in the shot, but trust me, that old lady was pearling two while I was trying to surreptitiously snap a pic with my phone. I was wary of being frog marched off the plane for the “suspicious act” of taking a picture. Because only terrorists use cameras and only little old ladies use 8-inch metal spikes. On planes.

They’re apparently also exempt from the “please put all carry-on items under the seat in front of you” rule. You put the loose stuff that’s not tied down under the seat so that it doesn’t fly across the plane in an accident. The damage you’d take from the “rapid deceleration trauma” of the plane suddenly meeting concrete isn’t made any better by metal spikes suddenly meeting the back of your head.

(I probably would have let it go in this case, too, as where she was sitting they would likely only fly through first class.)

Bruce Schneier [] is my hero. I’ve read many articles and blog posts written by him in the realm of computer security. His expertise is not limited to mere computers but encompasses Security in general. He should be granted sainthood. He contributed to an Atlantic Monthly article recently [“The Things He Carried”] which showed just how easily airport security [theater] can be circumvented. If you think a bunch of near minimum wage, marginally educated, authority abusing, blue-shirted baggage [mis]handlers are keeping you safer, you need to read this article.

And if you think it the height of irresponsibility to show just how easy it is to create a fake boarding pass, walk right around things like no-fly lists, with prohibited items in your pockets, consider this: I used to share your opinion.

I once considered it morally and ethically reprehensible that someone would publish ways of circumventing the things that keep us safer. A number of things changed my mind. One, of course, was Mr. Schneier. Another was the book Little Brother by BoingBoing contributer Cory Doctorow. They caused me to see the instructions on how to defeat most padlocks with a soda can in a new light.

You buy locks to keep your things yours. You now know that a great many people know how to walk right through that lock like it’s not there. After you get over the initial fear that nothing is safe anymore, you go out and buy a new, functional lock. And that makes you safer.

My mother lives in a “gated” community. I say that in quotes because the “gate” is operated by people who are not working for the TSA, for what ever reason, and can be walked right around – and frequently is. When you pull up and say, “hi, I’m here to see my mom,” they ask, “do you have the number?” being too lazy to look it up. (I’m only assuming laziness – there could be other reasons they might not be willing or able to discern the numbers and their order in a book.)

“Sure,” I say, “it’s [my wife’s cell phone number].” My wife, sitting next to me, answers the ringing phone in her hand when the “guard” calls and says, “OK, let them in.”

Did I harm anyone (besides the gate operator’s feelings)? Did I point out a flaw in the system? If you live there, do you feel safer knowing this? Do you really think no one of criminal intent has already found – and possibly already exploited – this flaw? Should you chastise me for pointing it out to everyone (put the keyboard down, mom) or should you find a way to fix it?

Not only are the TSA’s rules seemingly arbitrary, they’re capriciously enforced. (big “DUH!” if you’ve flown recently.)

  • My wife and I are waiting on the security line to board a plane. I take from her hand, by mistake (because I would never purposefully try to create a stir that could get me arrested), her ticket and passport. Handing them to the agent who took enough time from talking his buddy to hold out his hands, he looks them up and down, determines they’re valid, and hands them back to me all without looking at my face. Many men have feminine-sounding first names, and it’s possible dye one’s hair from blond (in the photo) to brown (mine) or vice-versa, but the scruffy, unshaven man holding the boarding pass is decidedly not female.
  • I’m flying out of Newark, not long after one guy tries (and fails) to light the shoelace fuse on his shoe bombs. Everyone now has to take of their shoes. On the return trip from a, shall we say, less urban airport, I ask, “do I have to take my [boots that lace all the way up past my ankles] off?” “Nah, g’head.” So, is rural America safe from us big city folk, but not the other way around? Wait…
  • Coming back again from said not-so-urban-but-then-I’m-an-east-coast-elitist airport, Sheriff J.W. Pepper pulls my bag aside. “Is this your bag, sir?” I’m expecting a world of crap for the rat’s nest of cables and wires for all of the electronics I’m carrying. Pulling items from my bag, he takes the time to remind me that all liquids must be carried in a sealable, zippered, clear plastic bag. He then proceeds to take my toiletries from the zippered, clear plastic bag that came with my luggage, and so doesn’t say “Ziploc” on it.
         When I foolishly attempted to argue with the double-digit IQ that was detaining me, saying, “I flew out of New York with everything like that,” he says, “New York is a very busy area; they don’t take security as seriously as we do here.” Truth be told, no one’s crashed a plane into anything near there recently. (And then there’s those knitting needles…)
         After my dangerous toothpaste was secured in a provided baggie, we all became safer and could fly again. I proceeded down the end of the corridor to put my shoes back on, and my deodorant et al. back into my toiletry bag, in full view of TSA personel. (because real terrorists are not able to get into plastic bags, once they’re sealed.)
         In case you were wondering, the only thing this policy keeps safe is your shirt, when the change in cabin pressure makes things like shampoo bottles pop open and drip down out of the overhead. But then perhaps you should be threatened with arrest for being inconsiderate and careless.

As Schneier points out in the Atlantic Monthly article, even when it works, it only keeps you safe from the stupid terrorists.

  • On another trip, I headed to the automated check in kiosk, instead of the attended but otherwise vacant ticket counter. Attempting to get my boarding pass, I was asked for the credit card on which it was purchased – a corporate card, which I don’t have. Next choice was scanning my passport, which I didn’t bring for a domestic flight, then my driver’s license, which didn’t cooperate. Typing in the confirmation number manually produced no results, so it was off to the ticket counter. They were very friendly (really) helping check in the man with only basic ID, without the card under which the ticket was purchased, who attempted to get a boarding pass with no human interaction and failed. It was when I was going through the security check that I noticed the “OOO” on my boarding pass (when the person checking my ID highlighted it).
         Singled out for “additional screening,” I waited for someone to go through my bag and wipe my laptop with one of those papers that turns blue or something when you’re pregnant or there’s explosives inside. Unfortunately it was lunch time, so no one was available, except the supervisor (I think) who x-rayed my bag. He said, since he’s the one who x-rayed it, he’s not supposed to be the one to check manually. This makes perfect sense. He was very apologetic, admitting how silly it was that he had to be the one to look through everything, since he just looked through it on a screen.

The bomb only needs to get through once. If anyone really meant us harm, how many times would they attempt to get truly hazardous things like beer past security, when the worst that happens is they get turned away? 100? 1000? At how many different airports? No amount of Dramamine® can help the sick feeling in your stomach that should cause.

Published in: on October 24, 2008 at 1:05 pm  Leave a Comment  

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