The TSA Has a Problem, You Do Too

I don’t usually talk politics (or whatever this nonsense is) here, but the last few days of listening to everyone complain about and ridicule the TSA got to me.

First make no mistake, the TSA has a huge PR problem on their hands, clearly there is a great deal of confusion and misunderstanding about the new scanning technology currently being deployed to airports nationwide. There are two different types of machines, which produce slightly different types of images.

“TSA uses two types of imaging technology, millimeter wave and backscatter.”

Tell me honestly if you saw an image like this of your spouse or children would you recognize them? Add to that the fact that the TSA officer who works with you at the machine never sees the image, and the TSA officer that sees the image never sees you, I think your privacy is safe.

Millimeter Wave Image

Millimeter wave technology

Backscatter Image

Backscatter technology

The second concern is for the safety of the machines, according to the TSA site the exposure from Millimeter Wave is lower then an average cell phone, and the Backscatter exposure is equivalent to 2 minutes of flight on an airplane, so unless you are giving up your cell phone, and flying you should have no issue here.

Angry face

On the other hand, best as I can tell right now people are heading to the airport looking to pick a fight with the TSA (sorry when you just happen to record your encounter with TSA, and use it to get your 15 minutes of fame, you have zero credibility with me).

Remember the TSA officer you deal with at the airport have zero flexibility, they have a job to do, they are the implementors of policy, not the decision makers. If you don’t like the policy that is your right, address it to someone who can change it, not with the TSA officers who could probably lose their jobs for not following it.  Read Kathleen McGivney’s open letter regarding the TSA, addressed to TSA administrators, Airline executives, and members of Congress, I might not agree completely with everything in the letter, but it addressed to people who can make changes, not at people just trying to do their jobs.

Also remember picking a fight with TSA at the airport just distracts them from doing their job which is to protect all of us who take to the skies.

Airport security in this country needs a lot of work, until now it has been completely reactive for example

-Someone tries to use flammable liquid to blow up a plane – ban liquids this adds tons of complexity to the screening process with acceptable quantities, and necessary exceptions, though I am sure this is good for sales of overpriced bottled beverages within the secure area.

-Someone tries to shoe bomb a plane – make everyone take their shoes off

-Toner bombs – ban toner (still scratching my head trying to figure out why someone would need/want to travel with toner.

Etc… Etc… Etc…

Change is needed, and these new scanners are the beginning, you don’t try to run your business on technology from the 60’s and 70’s, why do you expect the TSA to protect you using 30 year old technology?  What if the TSA implemented  a policy of “Scan or no fly”, they could, but that is not how things are done in this country, if you don’t want to be scanned and imaged, fine – but also accept the consequences.  The reality is there are terrorist threats, and I for one prefer better safe then sorry when it comes to security.

Clearly the TSA needs to do a better job educating the public about both the technology, and what will happen if you opt out, so the general public can make an informed decision, but picking a fight with the TSA at the airport is going to solve nothing.

TSA Advanced Imaging Technology: How it Works

TSA Advanced Imaging Technology: Your Privacy

TSA Advanced Imaging Technology: Your Safety

7 Responses to The TSA Has a Problem, You Do Too
  1. Joe Litton
    November 17, 2010 | 11:29 am

    Our gov’t is not always forthcoming with information – sometimes rightly so, but not always. So I absolutely value the recordings that are sometimes made of various encounters. But yes, it does certainly seem that this latest gent – while serving a good purpose IMO – is also perhaps a bit of an ASW 🙂

    I’ve had the full body scan and don’t mind too much because I don’t care if someone off in another room is looking at the scan, and I don’t fly very often.

    [1] TSA staff do not make the policies but seem to have widely differing understandings / interpretations of the rules. TSA needs to do a dramatically better job of ensuring that their staff is adequately trained and that rules are consistently applied.
    [2] It is my understanding that to date the ONLY data available re the level of radiation from these machines come from the manufacturer. Until there is a 3rd party analysis of the radiation, I would absolutely not want to go through this screening on a routine basis. Manufacturers lie – sometimes intentionally, and sometimes it might be a case of using the best results from rather poorly organized testing.

  2. Jerry Carter
    November 17, 2010 | 12:13 pm

    Good post.

    “What if the TSA implemented a policy of “Scan or no fly”, they could, but that is not how things are done in this country”

    Actually, they have. Your options as of a day or so ago are scan, pat-down or no fly. Not picking fault with you or your piece, just offering the update.

    I think one of the problematic policy decisions is that if you find yourself to be uncomfortable with either option after buying a ticket, as one agent put it, “you gave up a lot of rights when you bought that ticket”. It would certainly help the TSA with it’s image if it would just let obvious non-threat people (which would require a degree of profiling) to just walk away if they find the process to be too much for them. Unfortunately, for the moment, it sounds like they will try to fine you 10 large for “poking the system to find a hole”. This policy in itself is no biggie except that it came up abruptly with no real clear communication to the public (unless they have been posting it in clear view at Airports for a while – I wouldn’t know, I don’t fly anyway).

    I think the core issue is just that, and it’s the same with much of our government these days. Rules and policies are crafted without oversight, announced with little fan fare, and then the unsuspecting public is put to the wall when they run afoul of the new “law”. Consider the ATF. There are some pretty obscure rules they come up with with very little notice or justification that have been used to railroad people into jail and/or expensive legal defenses.

    This sort of law enforcement by ambush is a long running theme that I think many people openly revolting against the TSA are probably getting a vibe on.

    I couldn’t agree more with your analysis though – take it to the people who matter. The poor ground troops have no say in the matter except to do their best to do their duty.

  3. Karl-Henry Martinsson
    November 17, 2010 | 12:23 pm

    I think airport security could be substantially increased, to a much lower cost than with all those expensive techical gadgets/scanners.
    Look at Israel:
    { Link }
    I have actually been through Israeli airport security, back in 1994/95 when I went to the Red Sea to SCUBA dive. We flew to Eilat and then continued by taxi down to Sharm-El-Sheikh in Egypt.
    The security was very pleasant, they used the technique describe in the link above. I think that is a much better approach.
    Of course, you need to train the security screeners in how to read people. I personally know some people who worked at TSA, and (without being to mean), if you hire people for minimum wage, with no or little education and training, you will not get the good result the Israelis have. But is you put the money you would put into scanners ($130,000 times 2000 scanners is 260 million dollar according to my calculator, and this is the lowest cost and I am sure there will be more scanners needed) into increased salaries for the screeners, you make the jobs more desireable for well deducated people.
    The 9/11 hijackers would most probably have been stopped if this kind of interviews would have been used.

  4. John Head
    November 17, 2010 | 12:41 pm

    I agree with you in not understanding the issue here. I do travel a lot, and have no issue with the scanners. I do think the article that Karl-Henry linked to works for Israel, just not sure how it would work with 10 times the traffic at a place like O’hare. Everyone has the right to speak out against something they disagree with, but I won’t be joining them. And don’t expect me to be happy with you if you cause me to be late thru a security check. They need to have scanner lines and hand-check lines. Let those of use who are willing to be scanned to bypass the protesters.

  5. Steve Michaels
    November 17, 2010 | 12:57 pm

    The TSA process is best described as “security theater”, meant to be yet another government effort to appear to be doing something, versus actually doing something (perception management). In fact if they are hoping reactive end point screening by poorly trained minimum wage workers with power complexes is going to stop a terrorist attack, the battle has already been won by the other side. The topper is that Grandma, or the hot blond in front of you, gets a full feelup by the minimum wage dudette, simply so you feel more secure. Offensive, twisted BS.

    The scanner technology itself has a huge logic flaw called the “tampon paradox”; google that and understand this is about governmental leaders trying to appear to be doing something. Thousands of peoples lives are placed in undue peril because little actual, real security screening is going on by the TSA. Heck of a job Brownie.

    The Israeli govt actually does something meaningful, vs making you feel like they are doing something meaningful(aka the US way).

  6. Ben Langhinrichs
    November 17, 2010 | 1:28 pm

    Others have said it better, but the problem I have is not the loss of privacy per se, but the loss of privacy with no appreciable gain in security. If I believed this was making me safer, I might be OK with it, but it isn’t. Government attempts to get past this sort of scanning have succeeded easily, partly because if you make any system too arduous, you sew the seeds of its avoidance.

    It is time to stop simply layering ineffective, invasive procedures on top of each other, and time to look at truly effective procedures.

  7. Karl-Henry Martinsson
    November 17, 2010 | 3:35 pm

    @John Head: The Israeli method is supposedly actually faster per passenger than the current US/western system. I can’t tell for sure, but that would be easy to test. I remember it took me about a minute to get through the conversation and get cleared. One guy in the group had more problems, but mainly becuase he was pretty bad at English. I stepped in and helped translate, and then he was cleared in 30 seconds and 3-4 questions.

    Israel seems to be on the frontline when it comes to effective security, for obvious reasons, just as their military equipment and tactics is excellent. When I lived in Sweden, my army unit trained using an Israeli method of clearing rooms during urban warfar. I don’t think that was a coincidence that method was choosen, and from Israel…