More on the TSA's power trip.

Nov 28, 2010

Note: I started working on this article the day after the first one went up. Since that time, I've been keeping an eye on things while on vacation in Pennsylvania and collecting another queue of a few dozen links to sort through. I've also had a couple of disressing conversations with people which went something like this: "The TSA is there to keep us safe when traveling. It's worth being imaged nude to stay safe. It's worth being skin searched to stay safe. No, the TSA would never hire screeners who abuse their power. No screeners are abusing their power. Any evidence that you show me is fake. The videos taken by other travelers were faked to make people afraid of the government. The analyses of the TSA's security model were written by people who don't know what they're talking about."

I really doubt that I can add anything at this point because I've said everything that I can say without going completely into the echo chamber and wasting everyone's time as well as my own energy. Exactly how effective National Opt-Out Day was is a matter of debate; the TSA says that not many people opted to get the grope and not the porn shots (surprise, surprise). Travelers are reporting that the pornscanners at many airports were deactivated. Without hard numbers from reliable sources and a statistical analysis, it's down to who gets the best press coverage to shape opinion.

I find it a bit of a surprise that the Transportation Security Agency playing at police state has garnered the media attention that it has in such a short period of time. The horror stories began piling up rapidly, and it's good that it has because it means that people are finally willing to act. The airline pilots' unions have been pushing back as hard as they can and a few small changes have been made: airline pilots are now exempt from screening seeing as how professional pilots undergo background investigations before they're allowed to fly for anyone. It's gotten so bad that some of the unions are telling pilots to call in sick with a variant of the blue flu if they're uncomfortable with the new detection measures. Last week the administrative chief of the TSA, John Tyner, was hauled before Congress to testify about the new measures put in place but unfortunately no good came of it (here's the transcript if you're curious). Despite the voicemail boxes of the representatives overseeing the committee being stuffed to capacity with complaints common sense was not levied and, surprise surprise, Representative John Boener of Ohio, who chaired the committee, appears to be exempt from any scrutiny whatsoever as he was seen blowing through one of the checkpoints of Reagan International without so much as a first glance. Mind you, this was after Boener defended the TSA's draconian policies as necessary to keep people safe.

Funny that.

It would seem that the people in power no longer have to be subtle about making full use of class privilege because the rest of us have to submit to indignities only a step or two up from what you usually have to go through when being thrown in jail. A woman who opted out of an x-ray backscatter scan because she survived cancer a couple of years ago and wanted to minimize her exposure to radiation had to produce her prosthetic breast to screeners. Two years ago, another woman had her breasts exposed in front of everyone during a screening in Texas, and what's more they had a grand old time reminiscing about what they saw for a while afterward. Some of the comments from people are just as hair-raising, in particular the anecdote from the person whose insulin pump was fried by the x-ray backscatter scanner. One child was strip searched in front of everyone at a security checkpoint (20101128: Video taken down. Anybody got a copy?). A survivor of bladder cancer with a permanent urostomy was humiliated as the screeners damaged the apparatus and was forced to wait until on board the plane to clean himself up. A woman who had requested alternate screening for her infant's breast milk found the TSA waiting to teach her a lesson (note: Looks like securicam footage so there isn't any audio.)

Now, if hearing about this would make you prefer going through the pornscanner, I beg you to keep in mind just what the screeners will see. If you're a woman wearing a sanitary napkin it'll show up bright and clear. As predicted by everyone out there with more than three neurons to hook together in parallel over a hundred scans pilfered from the scanners' hard drives have been leaked to the Net. Those images have been stitched into a video montage in the Gizmodo article I just linked to, and they're all from a single courthouse in Florida. If all of these pictures are from a courthouse, and given some of the fun their screeners have been having at our expense, do you really expect them to not do the same thing to us at SFO, BWI, or LGA? Once power is abused, not only does it become difficult to stop abusing it but those abuses of power tend to grow out of control unless something checks it.

The hell of it is, the TSA's security measures don't really make any sense because... whoever came up with them doesn't seem to have any common sense. They certainly don't seem to have a cohesive threat model underlying what they're looking for and if they do they're not talking about it. They're entirely reactive instead of proactive in their measures and take into account threats that won't be used anymore and don't seem to leave much flexibility of thought. For example, a squad of soldiers bearing automatic weapons had to surrender nail clippers and knives when returning to the US. Let me make this perfectly clear: they were carrying fully automatic weapons (granted, with no ammunition) but they had to give up their nail clippers. Pilots still have to remove their belts for screening just so the TSA's procedures can be said to be appplied evenly all across the board.

In fact, it's getting so bad that a few airports around the country are exploiting a little-known loophole in the bill that formed the TSA back in 2001 which allows airports to opt out of having a TSA presence on site. Legislators in the state of New Jersey went public with their opposition to the TSA's actions last week. The Sanford Airport of Orlando, Florida has also told the TSA to take a hike. Councilman David Greenfield introduced legislation for the state of New York on Thursday that would remove the pornscanners from airports in New York state, citing their known and documented ineffectiveness. The district attorney of San Mateo county, California has stated his willingness to prosecute screeners who go too far and get charges of sexual battery filed against them.

So, what else can we do?

Don't fly if you can help it. Period. Full stop. I'm not going to spend a dime on air travel if I can help it. I don't have any illusions that casual travelers refusing to give the airlines money is going to stir things up much, but I and others have also told our employers that we're not going to fly for them, either. The key here seems to be getting a lot of corporate money moving away from airlines, and the airlines are in a prime position to push back on the TSA for hurting their business. Declining numbers of passengers can put a dent in the bottom line. Power applied in the right place can redirect a lot more power.

More organizations have put out the call for people who've been imaged in the buff or groped by someone wearing blue nitrile gloves and feel violated by it. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has information online for how to do it, including addresses, phone numbers, and websites at which you can register complaints, and there is even a free iProduct application to streamline the process. The blog Savvy Traveler has put together a double-sided brochure in PDF format that you can print out and give to fellow travelers which gives the specifics about the lack of safety and show that you put on every time you go inside that tube. It takes guts to actually go through with it but if one person can do it, we all can do it. Demand Progress has started a petition to state legislators to regulate the use of pornscanners, though at this point I have to wonder just how much good a list full of names is going to be to anyone but the TSA. Congresscritter Ron Paul has proposed a bill called the American Traveler Dignity Act which would make TSA screeners legally actionable in the event of abuse, and would also make it possible for the airlines to provide their own security forces. While I'm not crazy about private security concerns I'd trust them a hell of a lot more than I trust the TSA because they can be sued, and their stock prices can be affected in many interesting and creative ways. As Sean Kennedy so famously said, dollars are the new ammunition. The National Center for Transgender Equality put together information that will be of use to transgendered people when considering travel.

I would be remiss in failing to mention all of the legal entities who are turning a profit due to the TSA's new policies. Michael Chertoff, former Director of Homeland Security and now lobbyist inside the DC Beltway is pushing a pre-screened biometric travel ID that will cost $179us, the better to breeze through the security checkpoints. He's also been making personal recommendations to deploy the scanners for almost a year now. This comes as no surprise because L-3 Communications, who manufactures one or possibly both of the types of scanners in use doubled the amount of money they spent in pushing for them to be put into use; however, it's hard to fault them on this because that's how companies get anything done on government contracts inside the beltway (lobbying, I mean.) One of the stimulus packages passed to get money flowing in the US economy a few years ago involved acquiring, deploying, and making use of the full body scanners in US airports; you can check out the official report here if you've got some time to read it.