Tag: TSA

TSA Should Follow the Law

A year ago this coming Sunday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ordered the Transportation Security Administration to do a notice-and-comment rulemaking on its use of Advanced Imaging Technology (aka “body-scanners” or “strip-search machines”) for primary screening at airports. (The alternative for those who refuse such treatment: a prison-style pat-down.) It was a very important ruling, for reasons I discussed in a post back then. The TSA was supposed to publish its policy in the Federal Register, take comments from the public, and issue a final rule that responds to public input.

So far, it hasn’t done any of those things.

The reason for the delay, stated in a filing with the court last year, was the complexity and expense of doing a rulemaking in this area. But CEI’s Ryan Radia, at work on a legal brief in the case, notes that the TSA has devoted substantial resources to the PreCheck program during this time, rolling it out to additional airports. How can an agency pour resources into its latest greatest project yet claim poverty when it comes to complying with the law?

So on Monday, I started a petition on Whitehouse.gov. It says the president should “Require the Transportation Security Administration to Follow the Law!

By the end of the day yesterday, the petition had garnered the 150 signatures needed to get it published on Whitehouse.gov. The petition says:

Defying the court, the TSA has not satisfied public concerns about privacy, about costs and delays, security weaknesses, and the potential health effects of these machines. If the government is going to “body-scan” Americans at U.S. airports, President Obama should force the TSA to begin the public process the court ordered.

That’s not a huge request. Getting 25,000 signatures requires the administration to supply a response, according to the White House’s petition rules.

The response we want is legal compliance. The public deserves to know where the administration stands on freedom to travel, and the rule of law. While TSA agents bark orders at American travelers, should the agency itself be allowed to flout one of the highest courts in the land? If the petition gets enough signatures, we’ll find out.

Signing the petition requires an email for confirmation, but it does not sign you up for any mailing list unless you volunteer for that. If you’re quite concerned about sharing an email, you can create a throwaway email on AOL or Yahoo! and use it once.

Please pass the word about the petition. If it gets to 25,000 people, the Obama administration will owe the public a response. I’ll report on it, and whether or not it’s satisfactory, right here.

New Underwear Bomb, New Threat Information

It’s a good bet that news of a new thwarted underwear bomber will underlie more than one argument for the strip-search machines American travelers encounter even at the domestic terminals of our airports. According to the AP:

The plot involved an upgrade of the underwear bomb that failed to detonate aboard a jetliner over Detroit on Christmas 2009. This new bomb was also designed to be used in a passenger’s underwear, but this time al-Qaida developed a more refined detonation system, U.S. officials said. … The would-be suicide bomber, based in Yemen, had not yet picked a target or bought his plane tickets when the CIA stepped in and seized the bomb, officials said.

Reading this, you’ve been reminded of the fact that, somewhere in a remote Middle Eastern backwater, someone would like to bomb an aircraft flying into the United States. For many, this will induce a bout of probability neglect, making it very hard to process the upshot of this news: This type of attack, which was already very unlikely to succeed, has been made even less likely to succeed.

How did it become less likely to succeed? Let’s use the Transportation Security Administration’s layered security concept to examine things.

In December 2009, the underwear bomber (well—he failed: the “underwear bomb plotter”), managed to get a deformed bomb onto a plane. It was so deformed that he could not cause it to explode. Instead, he burned himself while other passengers subdued him. In the TSA’s formulation, the plot was foiled by the last security layer (it’s hard to read in the graphic): passengers.

(This is not actually the last security layer. The design of planes to withstand shocks to the fuselage is a preventive against downings that small smuggled bombs will have a hard time overcoming.)

The latest news has it that an updated underwear bomb was seized in Yemen by the CIA. That’s the first layer of security in the TSA’s graphic. Intelligence—the first layer.

(This is not actually the first security layer. A benign, phlegmatic foreign policy would produce fewer people worldwide wishing to do the United States harm and more people intolerant of those who do.)

Now, it is not all 100%, unalloyed good security news. As the AP report says:

The FBI is examining the latest bomb to see whether it could have passed through airport security and brought down an airplane, officials said. They said the device did not contain metal, meaning it probably could have passed through an airport metal detector. But it was not clear whether new body scanners used in many airports would have detected it.

There may be an innovation in underwear bombs that make them easier to smuggle on to planes. At its best, this innovation may render the body scanners useless against them. (Again, watch for arguments that, despite their impotence, this news makes body scanners all the more essential. A news report yesterday said that new vulnerabilities in the machines have been unearthed by government investigators.)

On balance, I think this news shows just how much the threat is diminished. Innovations in bomb-making, happening on the far outskirts of modern society, are being thwarted at their source, long before they begin the journey through the many other security layers that protect aviation and air travelers. You may continue to move about the country even more confident of your safety than you did before. I’m hopping on a plane again Friday morning, and I will be just as polite and cheerful as ever in declining to go through the strip-search machines.

The TSA Won’t Be Reformed

Why is it that the head of the Transportation Security Administration comes out with his ideas for reform three years after leaving office? Is it the book he’s got coming out next week? That’s part of it. But he supplies the real answer: “TSA’s bureaucratic momentum and political pressures.”

It’s possible to imagine an agency that isn’t directed by bureaucratic momentum and political pressures, but it isn’t possible to produce one. The litany of nonsensical procedures, indignities, and privacy invasions at the airport will not go away until the TSA does.

Viral Video Strips Down Strip-Search Machines

The TSA’s response yesterday to a video challenging strip-search machines was so weak that it acts as a virtual confession to the fact that objects can be snuck through them.

In the video, TSA strip-search objector Jonathan Corbett demonstrates how he put containers in his clothes along his sides where they would appear the same as the background in TSA’s displays. TSA doesn’t refute that it can be done or that Corbett did it in his demonstration. More at Wired’s Threat Level blog.

More than six months ago, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals required the Transportation Security Administration to commence a rulemaking to justify its strip-search machine/prison-style pat-down policy. TSA has not done so. The result is that the agency still does not have a sturdy security system in place at airports. It’s expensive, inconvenient, error-prone, and privacy-invasive.

Making airline security once again the responsibility of airlines and airports would vastly improve the situation, because these actors are naturally inclined to blend security, cost-control, and convenience with customer service and comforts, including privacy.

I have a slight difference with Corbett’s characterization of the problem. The weakness of body scanners does not put the public at great danger. The chance of anyone exploiting this vulnerability and smuggling a bomb on board a domestic U.S. flight is very low. The problem is that these machines impose huge costs in dollars and privacy that do not foreclose a significant risk any better than the traditional magnetometer.

Corbett is right when he urges people to “demand of your legislators and presidential candidates that they get rid of this eight billion-dollar-a-year waste known as the TSA and privatize airport security.”

Abolish the Department of Homeland Security

We’re ten years past 9/11, and over the last decade we’ve shed a number of our liberties and spent wildly to counter a terrorist threat that, as the recent model airplane plot demonstrated, isn’t existential. The bureaucratic legacy of 9/11, the Department of Homeland Security, has proven an unwieldy and pork-laden nightmare. It’s time to abolish it.

My recent policy analysis, Abolish the Department of Homeland Security, makes the case for doing so. To begin with, DHS is a management disaster by its very nature:

In creating Homeland Security, Congress lumped together 22 previously unconnected federal agencies under a new Cabinet secretary. That’s a problem, not a solution. And while members of Congress routinely clamor for consolidating Homeland Security oversight in one committee, that seems unlikely: 108 congressional committees and subcommittees oversee the department’s operations. If aggregating disparate fields of government made any sense in the first place, we long ago would have consolidated all Cabinet responsibilities under one person — the secretary of government.

Apart from the structural handicaps that DHS faces, the whole notion of “homeland security” is problematic. The “odiously Teutono/Soviet” concept trends us ever closer to a police state and is particularly prone to pork-barrel spending. As I said in my recent op-ed on the topic:

It allows politicians to wrap pork in red, white and blue in a way not possible with defense spending. Not every town can host a military installation or build warships, but every town has a police force that can use counterterrorism funds to combat gangs or a fire department that needs recruits or a new fire station.

Congress must reform its grant programs and end this wasteful spending. While we’re at it, let’s end federal funding for fusion centers, local- and state-organized intelligence cells that duplicate FBI efforts in counterterrorism and end up labeling nearly anyone who expresses political dissent as a potential terrorist, a point I made at this Capitol Hill Briefing. I’ll be speaking at another Capitol Hill Briefing with Jim Harper today on abolishing the Transportation Security Administration. More information available here.

Behavior Detection as Interrogation

With the Department of Homeland Security constantly spinning out new projects and programs (plus re-branded old ones) to investigate you, me, and the kitchen sink, it’s sometimes hard to keep up. But I was intrigued with a report that behvaior detection officers are getting another look from the Transportation Security Administration. Behavior detection is the unproven, and so far highly unsuccessful (Rittgers, Harper), program premised on the idea that telltale cues can reliably and cost-effectively indicate intent to do harm at airports.

But there’s a new behavior detection program already underway. Or is it interrogation?

Due to a bottleneck at the magnetometers in one concourse of the San Francisco airport (no strip-search machines!), I recently had the chance to briefly interview a Transportation Security Administration agent about a new security technique he was implementing. As each passenger reached him, he would begin to examine the traveler’s documentation and simultaneously ask the person’s last name. He confirmed to me that the purpose was to detect people who did not immediately, easily, and accurately respond. In thousands of interactions, he would quickly and naturally learn to detect obfuscation on the part of anyone carrying an ID that does not have the last name they usually use.

As a way of helping to confirm identity, it’s a straightforward and sensible technique. Almost everyone knows his or her last name, and quickly and easily repeats it. The average TSA agent with some level of experience will fluently detect people who do not quickly and easily repeat the name on the identity card they carry. The examination is done quickly. This epistemetric check (of a “something-you-know” identifier—see my book, Identity Crisis) occurs during the brief time that the documents are already getting visual examination.

Some people will not repeat their name consistent with custom, of course. The hard of hearing, speakers of foreign languages, people who are very nervous, people who have speech or other communication impediments, and another group of sufferers—recently married women—may exhibit “suspicious” failure to recite their recently changed surnames. Some of these anomalies TSA agents will quickly and easily dismiss as non-suspicious. Others they won’t, and in marginal cases they might use non-suspicious indicia like ethnicity or rudeness to adjudge someone “suspicious.”

The question whether these false positives are a problem depends on the sanction that attaches to suspicion. If a stutterer gets a gauntlet at the airport each time he or she fails to rattle off a name, the cost of the technique grows compared to the value of catching … not the small number of people who travel on false identification—the extremely small number of people who travel on false identification so as to menace air transportation.

We used this and closely related techniques, such as asking a person’s address or the DMV office where a license was issued, at the bar where I worked in college. It did pretty well to ferret out people carrying their older friends’ IDs. Part of the reason it worked well is because our expert doormen could quickly escalate to further inquiry, dismissing their own suspicions or denying entry to the bar very quickly. The cost of getting it wrong was to deny a person entry to the bar and sometimes possession of a license. These are relatively small costs to college students, unlike the many hours in time-costs to a traveler wrongly held up at the airport. According to my interview, suspicion generated this way at the airport requires a call to a supervisor, but I did not learn if secondary search is standard procedure, or if cases are handled some other way.

TSA agents are not doormen at bars, of course, and the subjects they are examining are not college kids out to get their drink on. These are government agents examining citizens, residents, and visitors to the United States as they travel for business and pleasure, often at high cost in dollars and time. The stakes are higher, and when the government uses a security technique like this, a layer of constitutional considerations joins the practical issues and security analysis.

I see three major legal issues with this new technique: Fourth Amendment search and seizure, the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, and Due Process. When questioning joins an ID check at the airport, it’s a deepening of a search that is already constitutionally suspect. The Fifth Amendment issues are interesting because travelers are being asked to confess through their demeanor whether they are lying or telling the truth. It would seem to cross a Fifth Amendment line and the rule against forced self-incrimination. The Due Process issues are serious and fairly straightforward. When a TSA screener makes his or her judgment that a person is not responding consistent with custom and is therefore “suspicious,” these judgement calls allow the screeners to import their prejudices. Record-keeping about suspicion generated using this technique should determine whether administration of this epistemetric check violates constitutional due process in its application.

In its constant effort to ferret out terrorist attacks on air transportation, the TSA is mustering all its imagination. Its programs raise scores of risk management issues, they create constitutional problems, and they are a challenge to our tradition of constitutionally limited government. The threat that a person will use false identification to access a plane, defeating an otherwise working watch-list sytem, to execute some attack is utterly small. At what cost in dollars and American values do we attack that tiny threat?

The founding problem is the impetuous placement of federal government agents in the role of securing domestic passenger aviation. There are areas where government is integral to securing airports, airlines, and all the rest of the country—foreign intelligence and developing leads about criminal plots, for example—but the day-to-day responsibility for securing infrastructure like airports and airplanes should be the responsibility of its owners.

If the TSA were to go away, air security measures might be similar in many respects, but they would be conducted by organizations who must keep travelers happy and safe for their living. The TSA hasn’t anything like private airports’ and airlines’ incentives to balance security with convenience, privacy, cost-savings, and all other dimensions of a satisfactory travel experience. Asking people their names at airport security checkpoints is an interesting technique, and not an ineffective one, but it should probably be scrapped because it provides so little security at a relatively great cost.

TSA’s Partial Retreat From Full-Body Scans

It’s tempting to believe that the Transportation Security Administration’s move to change the software in strip-search machines is a response to the court ruling finding that it violated the law in rolling out the machines, but it’s almost surely coincidence.

The new software will show items that the software deems suspicious on a generic outline of a body rather than showing a detailed body image. The change will indeed reduce the invasiveness of the machine strip-search process. And because the image is less revealing, it can be viewed in the screening area instead of at a remote location. That means there doesn’t need to be a person dedicated to looking at denuded images of travelers. A major cost of running these machines—payroll—drops by a substantial margin.

The software will almost certainly not do as good a job of discovering hidden weapons as a human looking at a detailed image would. If it’s calibrated to over-report, TSA agents will rightly start to ignore its alerts on belt buckles and underwire bras. If it’s calibrated to under-report, well, it might fail to alert on an actual weapon or bomb. But those things are exceedingly rare, and the increased risk probably won’t make a difference.

In fact, that’s the interesting thing happening here: the TSA is allowing a small increase in risk in exchange for large gains in privacy and cost savings. The reason it took years of complaints, litigation, legislation, and other conflict is because the TSA did not analyze the risks and its responses before going forward with strip-search machines as it did. Trial-and-error isn’t costly to the government. The taxpayer fronts the money and gives up the privacy.

None of this means the TSA has now gotten the balance right. The airport security gauntlet will still be an overwrought mess and an affront to constitutional liberty. We will have to remain insistent on principle, on dignity and privacy, and on sound risk management while TSA gets a public relations bump from being less awful than it was before.