Tag: TSA

Tightening the Noose Around the Right to Travel

Ask anyone who has experienced life in a country where freedom of movement is not recognized, and you’ll come away impressed with the importance of having the right to travel. That right takes another step back in the United States today.

Today the federal government takes over from airlines the process of running passengers against its terrorist watch lists. This means that when you fly, the Transportation Security Administration now requires airlines to give the government your full name, your itinerary, your date of birth, your gender, and an optional “redress number.”

Running names against watch lists does not secure against even modestly sophisticated attackers — 17 of 19 9/11 hijackers were “clean skin” terrorists, without histories of activity that would get them on watch lists. And in 2002, an MIT study (the “Carnival Booth”) showed how passenger profiling failed as a security measure. Attackers could “step right up” and test the system on dry runs to see if it singles them out. The same applies to watch listing.

Transferring responsibility for checking watch lists is a small step, but it brings into sharp focus that the government is now pre-screening Americans’ travel and travel plans.

There is no telling which direction this mission will creep over time. In the event of an attack on some other mode of travel — even a small or failed attack — expect the government to extend pre-approval for travel in that direction. The government will soon discover that it can run names of travelers past other lists — first dangerous wanted criminals, then wanted criminals, then “deadbeat dads,” and on down the line to people with unpaid parking tickets.

With government officials pushing fear of disease to the level of mania, watch for medical records to be used in government pre-screening of travelers.

The current policy is to retain information about travelers for no more than seven days after each leg of a trip has been completed. If a person is a suspected match, TSA will retain the information concerning that potential match for seven years. If the potential match is confirmed, TSA will retain the confirmed match for 99 years.

Seven years is already a lot for people who just happen to have a name similar to a name on the burgeoning terror watch list. But the policy is likely to change too, and deep dossiers of Americans’ travel will grow.

Remember, again, that watch listing is security theater. It looks like it protects air travel, but it doesn’t. When you are prescreened for travel by the government — as this program saps your freedom to travel — you are giving up something for nothing.

Limiting the TSA’s Use of “Strip Search Machines”

I wrote here in February about the push and pull over “strip search machines,” also known as “whole-body imaging” and “millimeter wave scanning.”

The question is joined: How do you maintain privacy with a technology that’s fundamentally intrusive? Maybe by using it less. This week, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) introduced a bill to limit the use of whole-body imaging.

H.R. 2027, the Aircraft Passenger Whole-Body Imaging Limitations Act of 2009, would place several limits:

  • Whole-body imaging could not be the sole or primary method of screening a passenger, and it could only be used as a follow-up to other methods like metal detection.
  • Passengers would have the right to opt for a pat-down search instead of whole-body imaging.
  • Passengers subject to whole-body imaging would have to be provided information about the technology and the images it generates, on privacy policies, and the right to have the pat-down search instead.
  • Images of passengers generated by whole-body imaging technology could not be stored, transferred, shared, or copied in any form after the passenger has passed through the security system.

Most of these protections are already TSA policy, but agency policies are relatively easy to change compared to federal law. Without limitations like this, these machines are on the natural, mission-creepy path to becoming mandatory.

Rules, of course, were made to be broken, and it’s only a matter of time — federal law or not — before TSA agents without proper supervision find a way to capture images contrary to policy. (Agent in secure area guides Hollywood starlet to strip search machine, sends SMS message to image reviewer, who takes camera-phone snap. TMZ devotes a week to the story, and the ensuing investigation reveals that this has been happening at airports throughout the country to hundreds of women travelers.)

So this bill is a step forward, but from a very backwards position. Ultimately, as I wrote before, the solution is to return responsibility for security to the airlines and airports, who are most interested in and capable of balancing all the factors that go into safe travel, including passengers’ privacy, comfort, and peace of mind.

TSA Intimidates Political Activist Traveler

Thanks to ever-improving technology, we have a record of what can happen when Americans try to assert their rights against government officials.

The video is a bit ponderous, but when they play the tape of TSA agents interrogating a young political activist who wishes to exercise his right to remain silent, it’s riveting and offensive.

(HT RedState and @JonHenke)

The TSA Strip-Search Machines

USA Today reports that the Transportation Security Agency is replacing metal detectors in some airports with body scanners (sometimes known as “strip-search machines”).

This doesn’t sit right with many people.

The TSA has done a questionable job so far of informing the public about what the machines do and - most importantly - of the fact that they’re optional.

Back in October, St. Petersburg Times columnist Robyn Blumner wrote about her experience.

As I stepped out of the virtual strip-search machine I immediately felt a shock wave of humiliation and intrusion, particularly as I looked around the security area and realized I was the only female traveler around and the only person “randomly” selected. The TSA agent hadn’t bothered to explain that I had the right to decline and submit to a pat-down by a female agent instead — a choice I would have taken.

A friend wrote me the other day to tell of her recent experience:

For the past year I’ve been reading stories about new machines being tested by TSA at airports which x-ray or wave scan passengers in order to detect explosives or other items hidden under one’s clothing. I’ve been horrified by these stories and the accompanying sample pictures which show a pretty detailed picture of the person’s body parts. I think the use of this technology is a gross violation of the right to privacy, particularly when used randomly on passengers for no probable cause or even reasonable suspicion of any wrong doing.
… .

This past Sunday in Miami, … after going through the normal metal detector, a TSA agent had me enter a machine which looked similar to the puffer machines (explosive trace portals) from the outside. He told me to put my feet on two premarked spots. The door closed, and an internal panel of the machine rotated part of the way around my body. Then the machine opened, and he had me turn, put my feet on different preprinted places, the door then shut, and the panel rotated around my body again. All the while I had to keep my arms raised.

My hunch and a subsequent internet search confirmed that TSA is using millimeter wave body-imaging technology at the Miami International Airport. I saw a picture of the machine I was lead through. However I also read on the TSA website that use of this technology is supposed to be VOLUNTARY. Several places on the TSA website describe it as an alternative OPTION available for passengers.

… .

At no point did the TSA agent tell me what the machine was doing. I was not told of any other options available to me such as a pat down or wand. There were no signs informing passengers that they were being x-rayed/wave scanned for viewing of them naked at a remote location.

I never would have willingly entered that machine had I known in advance what it was. In my opinion, this technology should not be used at all, but if it is, TSA needs to do a better job on site of disclosing its actions and the capabilities of its equipment. TSA also should make advising passengers of their rights a high priority.

I’ve corresponded with Peter Pietra, the TSA’s Privacy Officer, and he disputes the absence of signs at the Miami airport. I think he’s done a creditable job of trying to build privacy protections into this system. You can find information on the millimeter wave strip-search technology here and here.

But maybe it’s not enough. We’re talking about trying to maintain privacy with a technology that’s fundamentally intrusive.

Back to Robyn Blumner:

Here is the inevitable: You give people with routine jobs the ability to rummage around in other people’s intimate lives — innocent people who are not suspected of anything — and bad stuff happens. Privacy goes out the window, boys will be boys, the rules, law and even the Constitution don’t stand a chance. Titillation trumps training, at least for some.

Why must we fight about this? Because we transferred so much more responsibility for airline security to the government in a knee-jerk reaction to the 9/11 attacks. This was a bad idea, for reasons I discussed at length in a March 2005 debate about airline security with Reason’s Bob Poole.

Instead of this lumpy, government-provided airline security, I said, “Airlines should be given clear responsibility for their own security and clear liability should they fail. Under these conditions, airlines would provide security, along with the best mix of privacy, savings, and convenience, in the best possible way.”

TSA is not balancing all these interests well. Government agencies are terrible at responding to consumers compared to businesses, whose bottom lines rely on it. As I said in the Reason piece, the fix to this problem is to rethink aviation security from the ground up. The TSA should be eliminated.

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