Tag: TSA

The Appeal of Trusted Traveler

There is a natural appeal to “trusted traveler” programs. We all see ourselves as trustworthy, and getting into such a program might improve our experience at the airport. This video captures the notion—and some of the difficulties—entertainingly.

I would fly on a plane even knowing that Jimmy Johnson had brought a machete on board. But what level of trust should attach to a Super Bowl ring?

Dave Meggett helped the New York Giants win Super Bowl XXV. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison last month after being convicted of criminal sexual misconduct and burglary. Super Bowl MVP Ray Lewis was charged with murder in 2000, avoiding trial by agreeing to testify against others. The point is not to beat up on the NFL, but to beat up on the idea that you can trust a large-scale “trusted traveler” program.

Having some weakness is not fatal to the trusted traveler idea. A trusted traveler program might reduce costs and inconveniences without reducing risks by a greater amount. Indeed, it might make sense to trust all travelers more than the TSA does under its strip/grope policy.

In a recent, less entertaining post, I argued that the TSA shouldn’t do “trusted traveler.” Airlines should be free to implement trusted traveler systems, winning the rewards for getting it right and paying the costs for getting it wrong.

TSA’s Strip/Grope: Unconstitutional?

Writing in the Washington Post, George Washington University law professor Jeffrey Rosen carefully concludes, “there’s a strong argument that the TSA’s measures violate the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures.” The strip/grope policy doesn’t carefully escalate through levels of intrusion the way a better designed program using more privacy protective technology could.

It’s a good constutional technician’s analysis. But Professor Rosen doesn’t broach one of the most important likely determinants of Fourth Amendment reasonableness: the risk to air travel these searches are meant to reduce.

Writing in Politico last week, I pointed out that there have been 99 million domestic flights in the last decade, transporting seven billion passengers. Not one of these passengers snuck a bomb onto a plane and detonated it. Given that this period coincides with the zenith of Al Qaeda terrorism, this suggests a very low risk.

Proponents of the TSA’s regime point out that threats are very high, according to information they have. But that trump card—secret threat information—is beginning to fail with the public. It would take longer, but would eventually fail with courts, too.

But rather than relying on courts to untie these knots, Congress should subject TSA and the Department of Homeland Security to measures that will ultimately answer the open risk questions: Require any lasting security measures to be justified on the public record with documented risk management and cost-benefit analysis. Subject such analyses to a standard of review such as the Adminstrative Procedure Act’s “arbitrary and capricious” standard. Indeed, Congress might make TSA security measures APA notice-and-comment rules, with appropriate accomodation for (truly) temporary measures required by security exigency.

Claims to secrecy are claims to power. Congress should withdraw the power of secrecy from the TSA and DHS, subjecting these agencies to the rule of law.

Where to Report and Discuss TSA Abuses

With the TSA sticking by its policy of requiring select air travelers to submit to visual observation or physical touching of their private areas before they can fly, a number of groups are collecting reports and facilitating public discussion.

The American Civil Liberties Union has put up a page on which to report TSA screening abuses.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center has a “Body Scanner Incident Report” page.

And the U.S. Travel Association has a site called “Your Travel Voice,” and a related Facebook page where people can share their stories and air their views.

The activism site StopDigitalStripSearches.org also has a Facebook page.

The TSA has a complaint form you can fill out, of course.

When you post to a Facebook page, obviously you’ll be sharing your story publicly. If you communicate with any of the organizations, you might specify whether you consent to sharing your name and your story with the media. Doing so can facilitate getting more stories and more public discussion of the government’s policies.

A “National Opt-Out Day” has been called for November 24th.

I’ve written about the strip/grope policy in terms of risk management, and suggested that acceptance of some small risk is probably superior to strip/grope or a budding national ID system. In his post ”Body Scanner Blues,” David Rittgers recaps and expands on his New York Post editorial.

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The Security Logic Clarifies the Question

A new post on the TSA blog gets the logic behind the strip/grope combination correct.

[I]f you’re selected for AIT and choose to opt-out, we still need to check you for non-metallic threats. That’s why a pat-down is required. If you refuse both, you can’t fly.

Any alternative allows someone concealing something to decline the strip-search machine, decline the intimate pat-down, and leave the airport, returning another day in hopes of not being selected for the strip-search machine. The TSA reserves the right to fine you $11,000 for declining these searches.

So the question is joined: Should the TSA be able to condition air travel on you permitting someone to look at or touch your genitals?

I’ve argued that the strip/grope is security excess not validated by risk management. It’s akin to a regulation that fails the “arbitrary and capricious” standard in adminstrative law. But the TSA is not so constrained.

Body Scanner Blues

I’ve got a piece in today’s New York Post that points out some inconvenient truths about the body scanners now installed at airports across the country. Building on Jim Harper’s excellent post, body scanners are not being installed because of a well-reasoned risk analysis.

As Timothy Carney pointed out in the Washington Examiner, this is a sop to the companies that make the body scanners. The machines don’t work as well as advertised – a March GAO Report determined that it is not certain the technology would have found Farouk Abdulmutallab’s suspicious package, and that a cost-benefit analysis needed to be conducted before spending $340 million each year to run the labor-intensive equipment.

The same report found that cargo screening was a weak spot that ought to be addressed, but it took terrorist cargo bomb plots to get the TSA to momentarily escape the clutches of regulatory capture and tend to this threat. The British have been much more candid about the limitations of this technology as applied to low-density explosives, noting that the scanners probably wouldn’t have stopped the 2006 liquid bomb plot at Heathrow.

Of course, you can always opt out of the body scanners in favor of a groping on par with the one that motivated my colleague Penn Jillette to report his sexual assault to the police.

You could opt out entirely. TSA Director John Pistole says you won’t fly, but if you publicize your objections, the TSA may try to fine you $11,000.

Keep a stiff upper lip. I’m sure that this will all be much smoother and less invasive when TSA screeners unionize.

Getting TSA to Look in the Mirror

If you travel by plane, you either hate the Transportation Security Administration, or will soon do so.  The TSA has unveiled a new security pat down which is about as close to a strip-search as you can get while still wearing clothes.

With a metal knee replacement I invariably set off the TSA metal detectors.  I can avoid a pat down by using the fancy new imaging machine where it is available.  But this machine images everything on the body, and that means everything.  The explicit nature of the pictures is reflected in the nick-name which I’m told TSA employees have applied to the machine.  Let your mind wander, but imagine a crude term about measuring the male genitalia.

The other alternative is to accept the pat down.  Until recently TSA employees used a hand-held wand to check for metal and did a limited hand check.  The new system eschews the wand and replaces it with searching hands climbing up the inside of the thighs – all the way up.

The only saving grace for me is when veterans do the check.  When they realize that I have an implant and go through the check weekly and sometimes daily, most of them take a more relaxed approach.  But the newer, and often more determined to do everything by the book, employees really mean it when they announce that they are about to check my thigh.

Like never before, the new procedure has set off public protests.  And anger could increase at Thanksgiving, when so many more people will be flying.  No one wants airplanes to be hijacked, but few people believe that the current system does much to safeguard us.  At least, much of what is done today looks to be “Security Theater,” meant to reassure rather than actually do improve security.

One possible alternative would be for airports to take back control of the process.  Reports the Washington Examiner:

[Rep. John] Mica, one of the authors of the original TSA bill, has recently written to the heads of more than 150 airports nationwide suggesting they opt out of TSA screening. “When the TSA was established, it was never envisioned that it would become a huge, unwieldy bureaucracy which was soon to grow to 67,000 employees,” Mica writes. “As TSA has grown larger, more impersonal, and administratively top-heavy, I believe it is important that airports across the country consider utilizing the opt-out provision provided by law.”

Private security personnel obviously could mimic the TSA’s worst practices.  But if there were multiple actors providing security services competition would encourage airports to look for improved techniques which would cost less, waste less time, and create less embarrassment.

The vast majority of the TSA personnel with whom I deal are polite and friendly.  Most actually are working, though it’s not clear their activities always benefit the public.  But they all seem to lack a sense of irony.

I enjoy wearing my Cato t-shirt with the P.J. O’Rourke quote about giving to power to government being like giving car keys and whiskey to a teenage boy.  I receive a lot of admiring comments on it–including from TSA employees.  Today it happened again, at Washington Dulles.  As I was waiting for my regular TSA-provided fondling experience down below.

It’s no knock on the individual employees to point out that the TSA as an agency is a perfect example of what P.J. was warning against.  Give Barack Obama & Co. this power and we are likely to lose our money, freedom, and dignity.

I’d like to believe we’ve entered a new political era in Washington, but I’ve worked through too many “new eras” to believe that this one is really new.  But a popular uprising about TSA de facto strip searches would be a good start.