Saturday, May 29, 2004

U.S. Airport (In) Security

US Airport (In)Security: politics of cutting only the right locks
U.S. Airport (In)Security

On a recent trip, the U.S. Transportation Security Agency (TSA) that now does all baggage screening decided to cut open my TSA-approved Travel Sentry (link) lock.

Now, travelers through U.S. airports these days are told to use plastic ties rather than locks, because locks might be cut by the TSA. However, the TSA has keys to the locks made under their Travel Sentry program, and, as the poster (photo) shows, the TSA isn't supposed to cut these locks.

The lock (photo) clearly has the TSA Travel Sentry logo on it, and is labeled "TSA 001", presumably meaning TSA key 001.

Now I don't know if TSA-approved locks are a good idea. All of the ones I've seen use key TSA 001, and it's not clear how well they keep these keys under control. Presumably, TSA key 001 is the same key that came with my locks, so I now have a key to all of the TSA-approved locks in the world (or at least a significant fraction thereof). So, using a TSA-approved lock is sort of like using a lock that everyone has a key to. sort of like no lock at all. The plastic ties with serial numbers might be a better idea, since with the numbered ties one at least knows if the bag has been opened.

It was nice of TSA, however, to return the (now useless) lock to me. The pieces were taped to a part of the "Baggage Inspection Notice", right over the paragraph that explains that the TSA is absolutely not accountable for any damage it does to luggage or locks (no matter how stupid, as in this case, cutting their own TSA-approved locks). The taped mess was then taped inside the bag, and the blue TSA seal (photo) with identifying serial number (photo) was used to re-seal the bag.

The TSA notice (photo) gives an email and photo where one can presumably call, give the serial number of the TSA tie, and they will then explain how they are not accountable to the people, no matter how inexplicable their actions are. I didn't try this --- presumably calling up the TSA to complain about opened baggage is, in itself suspicious --- maybe they'll open all of my bags from then on. (More below on TSA antics).

This is sort of the opposite of democracy. In democracy, governments are supposed to be accountable to the people. But the TSA loudly proclaims that it is not accountable, even when it does something inexplicable like opening its own locks.

This is a $5.00 lock, so this isn't about the money. If the TSA training is so poor that they can't recognize their own TSA-approved locks (or find the key to open these), how can they possible recognize sophisticated terrorists?

U.S. Comedian Mark Russell, in a recent comedy TV special, commented on his experiences with the TSA. "If anyone meets the INS [terrorist] profile, it's the baggage screeners." He then cites the statistics, of how "only 60%" of simulated dangerous weapons, such as a simulated guns or large knives, were successful confiscated by U.S. airport security. "But 100% of tiny cosmetic tweezers" were confiscated by the TSA, citing his own experiences.

One of the linked blogs talks about that author's experiences having (dull) butter knives taken away by security, only to have very similar metal knives distributed by the cabin crew during meal time. He photographed the cabin crew giving him one such dull butter knife. He then stashed the dull knife in his carry on bags for another trip, and when foreign airport security later tried to take it away, he showed them the photo of the same knife being given him by a cabin crew, and asked to have them pose for a photo of it being taken away. "Oh, it's not dangerous; you can keep it." When he tried the same thing at US airports, the knife was unceremoniously taken away.

My own experiences have been equally strange. During the days of secondary screenings back in 2003, one TSA inspector found my business cards, about 10 of them. "That's quite a stack" he said, and carefully examined the business cards. "That's a small number of cards for a conference!" I protested. What really seemed to irk him was not the business cards per se, but what was written on their --- the title on the cards was much more impressive than his own. (Now I keep my business cards in checked-in baggage.)

Satisfied there was nothing hidden in the business cards, but still intimidated by the information on the cards, he then accused me (out of the blue) of hiding "shivies" in unusual places on my person, and said he would need to strip search me. This suggested to me that he had recently worked as a prison guard. (People out free in the "real world" don't need to make their own knives.)

I asked whether he wanted me to strip here and now in front of everyone in the terminal (the plane was about to leave because the screeners had waited until the last minute to conduct the "secondary screening"), or whether there was a screened-off area where the strip search was to be done.

At this point, he accused me of not being cooperative, and threatened all sorts of nasty things. I thought I was being very cooperative --- I was eager to get the strip search over with and get on the plane before it left and I missed my meeting. Maybe I was being uncooperative by being suspiciously over cooperative, I don't know.

At this point I simply fell silent and looked at him as if he was crazy (which, at this point, I strongly believed he was). He backed down and let me board the plane without a strip search --- I don't think he seriously believed I was hiding weapons. He just felt intimidated by my job description and decided to try something sadistic. The TSA baggage screener, in this case, definitely fit the profile of a potential terrorist, I would say --- violent, sadistic, and slightly crazy.

As I've read elsewhere, some believe the main point of the new airport security is actually aimed at Americans. Americans figure, 'no pain, no gain', so there are now a bunch of nasty people at airports whose job it is to harass everyone (from the young to elderly Swedish grandmothers) trying to board an airplane. Sort of like the "people greeters" at Wall Mart, except they make you feel unwelcome rather than welcome. Everyone feels harassed, so Americans now they feel much safer --- something, at least, is being done to improve their security. This has sort of been my experience as well.

Maybe this is part of the Administration's plan. The government figures that there are the potential terrorists are out there amongst the flying public (about one in 100 million or so). There's no easy way to tell potential terrorists from everyone else, so they'll just have these mean guys routinely accuse just about everyone --- young, old, rich or poor, male or female --- of being a terrorist before they board the plane. By intimidated everyone, they will intimidate the terrorists as well. It's simple logic, and the current Administration is good with simple logic.

And, yes, the TSA hasn't yet been properly trained, either. So they will cut your TSA-approved lock as well, even though they aren't supposed to. Maybe they'll cut these locks just because they aren't supposed to. It'll intimidate terrorists more if the TSA (and other parts of the Administration's security efforts, like the intelligence operatives in Iraqi prisons) frequently do things they aren't supposed to. Especially things that don't inspire confidence or make much sense. Or promote a rational functioning democracy. Maybe that's the point.

Maybe cutting your TSA-approved locks is just another part of their vast evil scheme.