Tag: TSA

Strip-Search Machines on the International Scene

This week, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano is pressing countries around the world to use “strip-search machines,” low-power x-ray and radio wave scanning devices that reveal what is underneath travelers’ clothes. The machines provide a small margin of security at a high risk to privacy.

And those privacy risks are manifesting themselves overseas. On AllAfrica.com, news service This Day reports on how strip-search machines have been used to peep at travelers as nudes in Lagos, Nigeria:

[D]uring off-peak periods, the aviation security officials, who are trained on the use of the scanners, usually stroll from the cubicle located in a hidden corner on the right side of the screening area where the 3D full-body scanner monitors are located. They do so to catch a glimpse of some of the passengers entering the machine and immediately go back to view the naked images, in order to match the faces with the images since the faces are blurred on the monitors while passengers are inside the machine.

The report notes that one of the “conventional scanners”—a magnetometer, most likely—was put out of service to corral people into the strip-search machine.

Italy has abandoned strip-search machines after a six-month test, due both to privacy issues and “because they are slow.” This is the sleeper issue that may soon wake as more machines show up in our airports: Strip-search machines take a very long time compared to magnetometers.

There are more than half a billion enplanements in the United States each year. If each traveler is delayed by 10 seconds, strip-search machines would waste nearly 1.4 million hours of Americans’ time directly—much more if you include the schedule-padding that all fliers would have to practice to avert strip-search machine delays.

The margin of security provided by these machines is small. In an interview on Fox’s local affiliate in D.C. last night, I said, “If we go down the strip-search machine route, there’s going to be more methods of concealment, and we certainly don’t want the TSA looking there.”

Hopefully, my poor grammar distracts you from the full import of that line.

Strip-Search Images Stored

The Transportation Security Administration will be sure to point out that it was not them—it was the U.S. Marshals Service—that kept ”tens of thousands of images recorded with a millimeter wave system at the security checkpoint of a single Florida courthouse,” according to Declan McCullagh of C|Net news.

The TSA has taken pains to make sure that their use of strip-search machines does not produce compromising images of the traveling public, but rules are made to be broken. How do you protect privacy in the use of a technology that is fundamentally designed to invade privacy?

Stop ‘n’ Frisk Databases

Via Adam Serwer, New York governor David A. Paterson is expected to sign a bill today doing away with data collection on people the police stop and question, but who have done nothing wrong.

The Transportation Security Adminstration’s “SPOT” program—recently the subject of a scathing Government Accountability Office critique—does similar data collection about innocent people.

From late May 2004 through August 2008, “behavior detection officers” referred 152,000 travelers to secondary inspection at airports. Of those, TSA agents referred 14,000 people to law enforcement, which resulted in approximately 1,100 arrests. None had links to terrorism or any threat to aviation.

The data TSA collects “when observed behaviors exceed certain thresholds”—that is, when a traveler garners TSA suspicion—includes:

  • first, middle, and last names
  • aliases and nicknames
  • home and business addresses and phone numbers
  • employer information
  • identification numbers such as Social Security Number, drivers license number or passport number
  • date and place of birth
  • languages spoken
  • nationality
  • age
  • sex
  • race
  • height and weight
  • eye color
  • hair color, style and length
  • facial hair, scars, tattoos and piercings, clothing (including colors and patterns) and eyewear
  • purpose for travel and contact information
  • photographs of any prohibited items, associated carry-on bags, and boarding documents
  • identifying information for traveling companion.

GAO’s Damning Report on ‘SPOT’

Via the Identity Project’s “Papers, Please” web site, and despite my colleague David Rittgers’ excellent post from yesterday, I note last week’s utterly damning Government Accountability Office report on the SPOT program. “SPOT” stands for “Screening Passengers by Observation Techniques.” In the program “BDO’s,” or “Behavior Detection Officers,” observe travelers in airports, pulling them out of line if a secret list of behaviors signal that they’re a likely threat.

The thing is:

TSA deployed SPOT nationwide before first determining whether there was a scientifically valid basis for using behavior and appearance indicators as a means for reliably identifying passengers as potential threats in airports. … TSA state[s] that no other large-scale U.S. or international screening program incorporating behavior- and appearance-based indicators has ever been rigorously scientifically validated. While TSA deployed SPOT on the basis of some risk-related factors, such as threat information and airport passenger volume, it did not use a comprehensive risk assessment to guide its strategy of selectively deploying SPOT to 161 of the nation’s 457 TSA-regulated airports. TSA also expanded the SPOT program over the last 3 years without the benefit of a cost-benefit analysis of SPOT.

The Israeli airline El Al uses behavior detection, counters the TSA—as did DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano when I asked her about this report at a meeting of the DHS Privacy Committee Tuesday.

The GAO report notes that El Al’s processes, which are different from the TSA’s, have not been scientifically validated. As of 2008, El Al had 34 aircraft, operating out of one hub airport, Ben-Gurion International. There are 457 TSA-regulated airports in the United States. In 2008, El Al had passenger boardings of about 3.6 million; one U.S. airline, Southwest, flew about 102 million passengers that year.

From late May 2004 through August 2008, BDOs referred 152,000 travelers to secondary inspection. Of those, TSA agents referred 14,000 people to law enforcement, which resulted in approximately 1,100 arrests. TSA officials did not identify any direct links to terrorism or any threat to aviation in these cases. GAO noted its inability to determine if this is a better arrest rate than would occur under random screenings.

GAO also determined that at least 16 individuals allegedly involved in terrorism plots have moved at least 23 different times through eight airports where the SPOT program has been implemented. SPOT caught none of them.

The Government Accountability Office is a master of understatement, leaving conclusions for readers to draw. Mine is that the $1.2 billion in planned spending on the program over the next five years will be a wasteful producer of civil liberties violations.

TSA Behavioral Screening

Behavioral screening is a useful tool in deterring and preventing terrorist attacks. As I noted in this piece at Politico, a border patrol agent successfully used behavioral screening to stop the would-be Millennium Bomber. She noticed something “hinky” about a man driving south across the Canadian border. That “hinky” – fidgety and nervous behavior when asked routine customs questions – exposed a car full of explosives intended for the passenger terminal of Los Angeles International Airport.

Two items from the USA Today travel section highlight some mixed results with TSA behavioral screening. Today’s edition reports that behavioral screening, applied by Behavioral Detection Officers (BDOs) missed at least 16 people later linked to terror plots. On the other side of the equation, false positives can impose burdens on those who are nervous or upset for reasons other than terrorism aspirations.

The TSA Blog defended the program: “If you’re one of those travelers that gets frazzled easily (not hard to do at airports), you have no reason to worry. BDOs set a baseline based on the normal airport behavior and look for behaviors that go above that baseline. So if you’re stressing about missing a flight, that’s not a guaranteed visit from the BDOs.”

That would be reassuring if yesterday’s travel section hadn’t revealed that TSA screeners are keeping a list of those who get upset at intrusive screening procedures. “Airline passengers who get frustrated and kick a wall, throw a suitcase or make a pithy comment to a screener could find themselves in a little-known Homeland Security database.”

Of course, we can take comfort from the words of a TSA screener to security expert Bruce Schneier. “This isn’t the sort of job that rewards competence, you know.”

Good Thing There Are So Few Bad Guys

Returning from Chicago this past weekend, I noticed that they were using strip-search machines in several security lanes at the TSA checkpoint (ORD Terminal 1). Naturally, after the ID check—yes, I did show ID this time—I chose a lane that lead to a magnetometer rather than a strip-search machine.

Annnnnd, anyone wanting to smuggle a plastic weapon could do the same.

For all the money spent on strip-search machines at ORD, and for all the exposure law-abiding travelers are getting, the incremental security benefit has been just about exactly zero. Security theater. TSA has to direct people to lanes mandatorily or install strip-search machines at all lanes to get whatever small security benefit they provide.

Going through the strip-search machine is optional—you can get a pat-down instead. Signage to that effect was poorly placed for informing the public, at the entrance to the strip-search machine. Travelers might read it as they stepped into the machine, realizing from that standing spread-eagle position that they didn’t have to be there.