On Travelling, Passports and Social Security Numbers
In this world, shipmates, sin that pays its way can travel freely, and without passport; whereas Virtue, if a pauper, is stopped at all frontiers.
- Herman Melville
Source: Funny Times February 2001
We travelled from Newark, New Jersey to Wellington, New Zealand and back during the month of November. In addition to having to get to the airport three hours before our flight was scheduled to leave, what else was different? For one thing, I was subject to "pat downs" on every leg of the journey both going and coming (except for the New Zealand part) because I was thoughtless enough to wear a dress with metal buttons going out and one with a metal zipper coming back. Going out, I had to take my shoes off and put them through the x-ray (this was before the so-called "shoe bomber") because some part of their construction contained enough metal to set the wand off. (I've heard getting your shoes x-rayed is now a fairly common request.) I'll have to say, it's a bit disconcerting being "patted" in public (as if you're a poodle) by someone wearing rubber gloves (as if you've soiled yourself).
I noticed that butter knives provided with dinner on the flights are now plastic. (We were surprised that the forks were still metal. They looked pretty dangerous to me.)
I rather doubt that detailed body searches and plastic knives are making flying somehow safer or that they would deter a truly determined terrorist. What they do is annoy and humiliate passengers (particularly frequent flyers), waste time, and raise costs significantly. Since the airline's already not-quite-adequate maintenance programs could very well suffer as a result (see the article Aircraft Inspection Problems on the preceding page), I suspect the new rules may ultimately cost more lives than they save.
Our trip home was rather more stressful. First, my older son, who was flying round trip from New Zealand to New Jersey to visit us, waited too late to make reservations to get on the same plane going to the US as we were on (we were flying round trip from the US to NZ and back). The plane we were on was full, so he flew on a different airline - he left Wellington slightly earlier than we did and arrived in Newark slightly later. (This was okay, as his ticket was priced $200 cheaper than ours.)
Cody left on time. So did we - from Wellington. After we got on the plane in Auckland and coasted away from the gate (so we couldn't deplane), however, the captain came on the loudspeaker and announced: "Sorry, folks, there's gonna be a uh, slight delay here because we uh, noticed a slight, uh, hole in the plane, uh, we need to get our sheet metal guy on the line from San Francisco, and he'll be overseeing the, uh, patching, uh, hope this doesn't inconvenience you too much." We then sat there for more than two hours while they fixed it (long enough to watch a movie on the ground). After that, we had a relatively nice 12 hour flight to Los Angeles. When we got to LAX, we had (of course) missed our connecting flight to Newark. They also lost my younger son's suitcase. Since we had to clear customs, they wouldn't let us leave the area until every item had been unloaded and a thorough check made of the plane and the terminal - another hour lost. Then, they refused to fill out a lost luggage report, telling us that we had to fill that out when we arrived in Newark. Only then were we allowed to leave for upstairs to try to change our flight.
Bad news upstairs - there WERE no more flights to Newark by then. They suggested we spend the night in a motel and continue in the morning. We explained that our older son would be waiting for us in Newark and he had no phone, no money, and didn't even know where we lived in New Jersey. We asked if they could get a message to him. They said, "No way."
In the end, we flew into JFK airport in New York. The airline said they would give us a voucher in JFK so that we could ride the shuttle to Newark at their expense since it was their fault that we missed our connections. The shuttle should get us to Newark a couple of hours after my older son's plane landed. We knew he would be worried, but we were grateful that things were working out that well.
When we got to JFK, found the airport was almost completely shut down. There was no one to take a lost luggage report. There was no one to issue a voucher. Indeed, the last shuttle bus had already left, anyway. We had to take a taxi to Newark, which cost us $80.
When we finally met up with Cody at Newark almost three hours after his arrival time, it turned out that we would have missed HIM if we had gotten there on time, because his flight had been cancelled in Dallas. He had only just arrived. My younger son's luggage turned up two days later and was delivered to our house in Morristown.
But our problems with flying paled in comparison with what happened when my older son washed his passport in the pocket of his shorts the next week.
Part 1: First of all, my son's US passport was very little damaged - there was a slight wrinkle on the outside back cover and a blue dye stain on the inside of the back cover. (The US passports are made of impressive materials - his New Zealand passport, washed at the same time, was a total loss.) The rest of the passport looked the same as it had before being washed. I called the Morris County Courthouse, the nearest place where passports are issued, and asked if this meant the passport would need to be replaced. (It had only been issued two months prior and was supposed to last for 10 years.) The lady to whom I spoke said to bring it in and they would "see if it would read."
We went in to the Courthouse the next day. When the clerk saw the passport, she didn't try to read it - she said immediately that it must be replaced because it had "visible damage." (She had been expecting the invisible kind?) We walked a block to a passport photographer where he had photos made, we returned to the Courthouse, filled out a form, waited in line again, and handed the lady the old passport, the new photos, the filled-in form, and $60.
She asked Cody for his social security number. He told her he didn't have one, that he lived in New Zealand. First, she told him that it was impossible to get a passport without a social security number. He showed her his old passport (which had been issued in New Zealand) as proof that it could, indeed, be done. She said his new passport would cost $500 without a social security number.
I argued with her that that was absurd - Cody lives in New Zealand and has an IRD number. What did a social security number have to do with a passport? She jumped to a new topic. She said in any case, he had to have his birth certificate.
"Why?" I asked. His old passport should be sufficient, should it not? There was nothing wrong with the passport except for a small wrinkle and an ink stain on the back cover. She said the damage could actually be a result of tampering and that voided the passport completely. He had to start all over again and that meant a birth certificate.
I said his birth certificate was at home - that meant in New Zealand - and he couldn't go get it ... without a valid passport. She said he would have to call the records department in the town where he was born and have another one sent.
When we got home, I called the appropriate records department in Texas and told them over the phone that I wanted a new birth certificate for my son. They asked a few not-very-difficult questions (name, date of birth, and parents' names, my maiden name), asked me for a credit card number and said I should receive the certificate in the next couple of weeks. This is sufficient to get another passport while his old passport - containing a recent photo - wasn't. Go figure.
Part 2: The birth certificate came and we returned to the passport office. Again, the clerk (a different one this time) told us that you couldn't get a passport without a social security number. We said he had got his LAST passport without one. This clerk said the law had been changed since then. My son asked WHEN the law had been changed - as his damaged passport had been issued only two months earlier. She then conceded it could be done, but ONLY through a consulate. We acknowledged Cody received his passport through a consulate as he lived in New Zealand. We pointed out that he was here for a visit and needed his passport replaced so he could go home - US citizens are not allowed to leave the country on any other passport, so he could not use his New Zealand passport to get home. She told us to go to a social security office and apply for a number and then come back once it was issued. She had no idea how long that might take.
At this point the lady working at the adjoining desk told her Cody could get a passport without a social security number - we just needed to write zeros in the number field. We did this and the clerk now seemed satisfied - after she made Cody write out WHY he didn't have a social security number and sign it. He did this. But it was unacceptable - he had written "NZ" which had to be changed to "New Zealand" and he had signed "Cody Hatch", not his real name of Dakota Hatch. He re-signed. He told her he never signed his name as anything but "Cody Hatch" - even his old US passport was signed that way. But his explanation for why he had no social security number was signed in full.
Oops! She spotted another blank field - work phone. She instructed Cody to fill that in. He told her he didn't HAVE a work phone as he didn't work. She said I could put MY work phone number in the blank. I told her I didn't work. She said, "Well, put ANY work phone number in there!" I told her we had two phone lines in our home. She said line two phone number would do.
Next, she told Cody she needed to see his driver's licence. He told her he didn't have one. For a second or two, it looked like his passport application would be denied again. But at the last minute, she turned to me and said she'd need MY driver's licence instead. I told her I didn't have a driver's licence, either. She said fine, she'd have to see my passport, then. I said I didn't have my passport with me as we were here to get a passport for Cody who was 19 - why was MY passport needed? She said, "For identification." She said Cody needed three forms of identification and he only had two - his old passport and his birth certificate. I could be his third form of ID as his mother but I had to be able to prove who I was. Cody said he had a student ID with his photo on it. She looked at it and looked at him suspiciously. "Where is the University of Canterbury?" she demanded. In New Zealand - where I live," he answered. She finally seemed satisfied and said she'd take that.
She said she'd send Cody's application in but warned us that it was likely to be returned for one or more reasons, not to get our hopes up. We wished each other a happy new year and departed.
Part 3: Cody's passport arrived within a couple of weeks with no trouble. But I had an odd social security number-related experience myself. I received an email soliciting my bank account number so that some money could be deposited into my account ($40 million to be exact). It smelled of scam. I called the local police department (in Morristown) and asked if they would like me to forward the email to them. They said no, they had no facility for that, but they would send an officer by - they insisted. This was after 10pm, so I assumed the officer would come by the next morning - but within half an hour he rang the bell. I had printed out the email which he read and asked if he could take it with him. I said, "Of course." As he was leaving, he whipped out his notebook and pencil and told me he had to have - my social security number - for his files.
Why should Americans mind a national ID card of some sort? As near as I can see, they're way more than halfway there already.
by Cody Hatch
I recently tried to get a social security number.
Most people already have one, but for one reason or another, I never got one. When I was small, my parents didn't get me one because there wasn't any reason why I needed one, I could always get one when I did need one, and it wasn't a reversible decision to get one. Leaping off a cliff, even if you're sure it's safe, isn't something you do without a reason. Social security numbers are a great deal less important, but the principle still holds.
Later, we moved overseas. I really had no need for one then, and so I never gave it a thought. While we were gone, however, it seems things changed a bit in the US. In times past, an SSN was not a general identity number, and could not be used as one. My mother once designed a database for a large bank, and proposed using peoples SSN's to identify them in the system, since unlike most other identifiers there was a 1:1 relationship between SSN's and people, and every adult seemed to have one. (In contrast, several people can have the same name.) She was told they weren't allowed to, because SSN's couldn't be used as ID numbers.
However, for US citizens overseas, nothing changed. My parents continued to claim me as a dependent. I even applied for and received a replacement for an expired US passport (see above). But when I decided to move back to the US, I ran into the changes - "ran into" in the sense of "head-on collision".
I had decided, after visiting my parents in the US during New Zealand's summer vacation, that what I really wanted to do was to finish up my university degree in the US. I first took the SAT and ACT tests. Then, I sent off for copies of my NZ transcripts. I thought I was ready. But when I went to apply to my university of choice, I discovered I couldn't apply without an SSN. No, there could be no exceptions.
Oops. I needed an SSN, and I needed it NOW. The deadline for applications was approaching quickly. My mother discovered that I needed one for her to claim me on her tax return as well. So I obtained a form to request an SSN. I read it, filled it out and sent it in with the identification required: my birth certificate, and a school ID from NZ, which had my full name, birth date, and photo on it.
A week later, I received my application and ID back, with a terse note that this was not sufficient identification. I rechecked the form, which clearly stated that it required a birth certificate and one out of a list of forms of ID, which did indeed include school ID. I was baffled, but undaunted. I resubmitted my birth certificate, and submitted my passport, which had been issued barely a month before - still crisp and shiny. Fool that I was, I thought a passport represented the ultimate in identification. I was therefore quite taken aback to receive, one week later, my application, my birth certificate, and my passport, with a terse note that, as I was over 18, I must apply in person.
Apply in person, huh? Well, I suppose it's for a good cause. Security. Safety. Defense of the Motherland. Pity, of course, that it was a remarkably lengthy hike to the nearest Social Security office for someone not the proud possessor of a car. A lengthy hike... from the nearest bus stop, that is. Down a multilane freeway. Without sidewalks. Or even a shoulder in places. But with little choice, I hiked. Just to be safe, I brought my birth certificate, US passport, New Zealand passport, two forms of school ID, and a small stack of sundry other pieces of identification.
Thus I encountered my local Social Security office. I suppose I should say something nice. It was well lit. Well, it had plenty of lighting, anyhow. Perhaps even too much lighting. In fact, definitely too much lighting. Too much ugly fluorescent lighting. It also had an officious security guard (singular), who came equipped with boring anecdotes about how he was glad his job was exciting (many), belt full of equipment (singular), polyester rent-a-cop uniform (singular), and a brain cell (singular). It also came with a long line of irate people, and a clerk (singular). It did not come with any magazines, posters, brochures, or televisions.
Things didn't look that bad at first glance. The security guard asked me what I was doing (applying for an SSN), asked if I had filled out the form, instructed me to stand in line (perhaps he was afraid I might violate all civilised mores and lie down?), and asked if I had a cell-phone. Huh? He explained that if I did, it needed to be turned off. Seemed odd, but nothing to do with me, since I didn't have one. I began standing in line. The guard then wandered over, asked me what I was doing, if I had filled out a form, and asked if I had a cellphone. I reiterated my earlier answers, and he wandered off again, happy that he was keeping the world (well, the Social Security office) not just safe from the perils of cellphone users, but DOUBLY safe!
It slowly dawned on me that the line was not moving. The clerk was tied up in a lengthy and arcane conversation about some paperwork with an elderly man. From the sound of it, it might have been going on for hours, and showed every sign of continuing for the same length of time. I could see people in the back, behind the counter. They seemed chiefly concerned with walking around slowly with cups of coffee. They did not seem concerned with ensuring that those of us in line talked to someone before terminal boredom and/or old age killed us, thereby solving whatever problem had brought us here.
This observation was apparently obvious to the other people in line as well. This caused the line to inch slightly forward, as people decided to give up before their families sent out searching parties. After more than an hour, I had made it to halfway, or what had been halfway, as the line was growing steadily. Several people had come in and left after only a quarter of an hour or so, but more had stayed. Some of them were simply looking for brochures about Social Security. Novices that they were, they expected them to be displayed where they might access them. The security guard soon set them straight. "You'll have to stand in line. Do you have a cellphone?" Others inquired of the security guard if they might make an appointment to come back and see someone. Why of course they could! By phone through the Chicago office (the security guard was far too busy making everyone who entered turned their cell-phone off to make appointments himself) - and, by the way, the wait time was roughly six weeks.
Eventually, another clerk showed up. The original one was still talking to the same man. The line started moving faster, and I made it to the head of the line! And just as the elderly man bid the original clerk good bye and left(!), I joyfully started towards the window... but, of course, that clerk was now going on break. Sigh. At the sight of this, a few people muttered something about government employees and their work-ethic. The security guard became enraged and launched into a diatribe about how hard the clerks worked. I was impressed. I hadn't realised he could string together such long sentences! And he didn't even mention cellphones!
At this point, another clerk came out and started performing triage (perhaps in hopes of preventing a riot), asking people what their problem was, and directing them to stay in line, or writing their names down and directing them to sit down and wait for the person they needed to see to call them. When she reached me, she seemed taken aback at my situation. Did I have PROOF that I had been in NZ? For the ENTIRE time? I was, once again, baffled. Why would they care? Whether in the US or NZ, I had not applied for a number, and now I needed one. Still, I presented her with my inch high stack of ID cards, and my NZ passport. Was this proof? No, I needed my school records! I stared at her in disbelief, and she relented as far as to allow me to still speak with someone about it, but she, at least, was sure I hadn't a chance. Dejected, I sat down to wait for my name to be called.
At this point, I finally managed to overhear the security guard's explanation for why cell-phones had to be turned off. They might interfere with peoples pacemakers! A tidbit of medical research that I'm sure a lot of of people with pacemakers might be interested to hear... if true. Since people aren't falling over in the street every time an executive talking on a cellphone walks past, I suspected the security guard might be exaggerating the dangers. Maybe making them up.
Eventually, after only a further half-hour's wait, I spoke with a remarkably nice man wearing a remarkably ugly knitted wool tie. He didn't find my stack of ID insufficient (or even insufficient) proof of my stay in NZ. He didn't even seem to think I needed proof. He didn't even look at the stack. He simply asked me if I had ever had a number before. I repeated what it said on the form (no), and stressed the urgency of getting my application processed and the delays I'd already encountered. He wished me luck in school, said he would personally fax it for processing that very day - that they had to verify that my birth certificate was authentic, and that as a consequence, it should only take eight weeks for me to receive a number.
I am now unable to attend summer school as I had hoped. I only hope the number arrives in time for me to attend the fall semester. It occurs to me that it might in some way be possible to get these numbers issued at least slightly more efficiently. (My mother said it took two days when she got hers, but, or course, that was last century...)
Update: More than two months have passed, and I still don't have a social security number. First, they made me send off for a copy of my birth certificate. Now, they say the holdup is caused by the length of time it takes to verify that the copy I gave them was real. Why couldn't they have checked with Vital Statistics themselves in the first place? My brother, who is 14, applied for his social security number after I did and he received his in less than a week. Why does the Social Security Administration make such a distinction between me and him just because I happen to be older? We both have the same parents and the same reason why we didn't have a card. They accepted his birth certificate as real but not mine. Why?
Further Update: Fourteen weeks have now passed and I still don't have a social security number. Why? Because - well, I'm not exactly sure. Apparently it's being held up by the Texas office which checked to see that I was born okay but forgot to check, as they were apparently supposed to, to see whether or not I've died. They don't think I'm dead, they think there's a possibility that Cody Hatch may be dead and I'm just an imposter. I personally wonder why they couldn't check this information online...
Final Update: A visit to my local Congressman and a conversation with the manager of the local Social Security office seemed to have had a positive effect. After more than 16 weeks, I finally received my social security card in the mail. I will judiciously refrain from making nasty comments.
And Neither Is His Mother!
I filed US tax returns from New Zealand for 8 years without having social security numbers for my sons. My returns were accepted with no comment. When we moved to New Jersey, I learned that dependents MUST have social security numbers to be counted. My children applied for numbers, but in the meantime, I had to file our return. I included a letter explaining that we had just moved to the US from New Zealand. I said that while we had applied for numbers, these were taking more time than we had anticipated. I hoped they would allow our return just one more year without social security numbers for our dependents and promised the numbers would be included with our returns the following year.
I didn't really expect this to be accepted, however, and it wasn't - my sons were disallowed as dependents, costing me roughly $1,000 in deductions. What DID surprised me was that I wasn't accepted as a dependent either. My return was reduced by $2,000 altogether. Why? Because the name on my social security card and my return didn't match, they said. I have been filing returns under my current name for 22 years. I called to determine what had changed.
I was told that while we were in New Zealand a law was passed mandating that the name on file at the social security office must match the name of the person using that number. My name didn't match?
I had received my social security number 35 years or so ago. I married shortly after that. A few years later, I divorced, then remarried. Sometime after that, I divorced and, later, remarried again. Did I change the name on my social security card for either marriage? I don't remember. Now, I don't even know which name is on file under my number. I hadn't known it really mattered.
Regardless, the social security office says I must bring proof before they'll update anything - something with my old name on it and something else with my new name. I have (or can obtain) a birth certificate with my name at birth on it. But I have nothing with my name as it was when I was married the first time. Or the second. If I have copies of any divorce degrees, they'd be in storage in Wellington. What do they think I'd save all those years? Traffic tickets? I don't even remember the dates exactly that I was married.
But no problem! I was advised by the IRS to at least find which name my records were under. Then, if I couldn't get the records changed to match my name, I could just change my name back to match the records! THAT'S the name I should file my tax return under next year. No wonder there's a trend for women to retain their maiden names - name changes are trouble.
Update: Texas was able to locate my divorce degree - from 1976 - and sent me a copy. This decree had neither my maiden name, under which my social security number was originally issued, nor my current name, under which I was requesting the card to be reissued, on it. No photo, no means of identification. However, it sufficed. I got my card.
This cartoon appeared in August 2001. Somehow, its humour seems more ominous today...
If he really was an American, don't you think he'd know which baseball player failed the most drug tests?
Source: Funny Times August 2001; find them on the web at funnytimes.com
One in a Billion
Can airports find a better answer?
Let us approximate the probability that a random individual drawn from an airport in the US is a terrorist as one in a billion.
How should we discover this one in a billion event? How should we balance the cost of failure to find the terrorist against the opportunity cost of time and equipment wasted in looking? If we don't look, airborne terror is certain. If we look so hard that we cannot fly, the connections between cities and communities in our society are fractured.
If we delay 2 million passengers a day by one hour, we are wasting 228 person-years per day, 4 lifetimes a day, over a thousand lifetimes per year. Why is it necessary to delay passengers for two hours for a five minute security check? Two justifications occur:
With regard to queuing, making passengers wait does not improve queue throughput. So long as the queue stays full the rate of passenger screening is constant. By adjusting the screening staff to the queue length, airport operations ensures that the airport cost per screen is constant. A queue short enough to eliminate the line raises the possibility that operating cost per screen becomes unacceptable.
Queue level cost control is used most effectively in fast food restaurants. A fast food worker may earn ¼ the median national hourly wage, but if the worker stands idle waiting for customers then the wait time becomes a multiplicative factor in the labour cost. Ironically, for typical fast food customers the wait time may be more expensive than the food itself. This inefficiency is unfortunate for the restaurant, which ideally would capture the full cost to the customer as income.
As a result of recent events, the ticket cost of airtravel is now much less than the opportunity cost to travelers of travelling. In embarking on a trip a traveller calculates the cost of transportation, the opportunity cost of the time in transit and the expected rewards of making the trip. The traveller makes the trip if this calculation is sufficiently positive. An airline increases revenues by raising the ticket cost, but must be careful to keep the trip cost positive.
The overhead cost of preparing for work and getting to the airport and the opportunity cost of part-time work mean that security personnel levels cannot be rapidly adjusted to queue status. Thus the queue tends to grow until passengers decide not to travel. The queue eventually falls as the day ends. Since unused capacity in quiet travel times does not help with the lost revenue from the busy times, capacity is reduced.
The second reason to keep passengers around for a while is to observe them for a longer time. This may not be a bad idea. The basic problem with airport security is the assumption that a firewall is possible. The test at the checkpoint is wildly ineffective in reading the human heart; it is easily subverted under the stress of the queue and creates enormous economic inefficiencies.
A terrorist looks like this:
A nonterrorist looks like this:
Our search for a terrorist is complex. While we know that the probability is low, we do not know that a terrorist is certain. The pool of potential terrorists is a steady ergodic stream. The probability that an individual is trouble is Poisson, although bunching may occur. We measure the rate at which we process samples rather than the time to process a sample set. Both the error rate and the testing rate are linear in the probability of testing negative results. No speedup seems possible.
Quantum processors claim improved search efficiency, but these results are based on simple parallelism. Since all tests are assumed independent, the search process is embarrassingly parallelizable. Ideal parallelization involves distribution of inexpensive resources to reduce the cost of screening.
The ideal system must use the natural resources of the source space to achieve parallelism. One does not seek to find the terrorist as much as one seeks to cause the terrorist to shout "here I am." Can we create an environment in which this occurs?
If we are seeking a one in a billion event it might help to establish a baseline of normality. Then the one in a billion event is the event that breaks this baseline. If we record which doors tend to open when, trajectories that people and groups tend to take through spaces, likelihoods of cars being lost vs being security probes, et cetera, would the unusual event tend to stand out early?
To test this, two things are needed:
We seek to find the measure space in which the unusual activity is obvious.
Does a suicide bomber behave in unusual ways as he moves from checkpoint to target? Is his gait measured? Is he unusually quiet? Does he touch himself more often, patting his tools? Does he talk to fewer people? Does he sweat a lot? These are measureable quantities. They can even be measured in ways that do not involve image analysis and that are not immediately tagged to the individual (the lack of visual specificity may be important for privacy concerns). We could monitor these behavioral issues in airports. If we made airports pleasant work and shopping spaces, we could even monitor these factors while delaying passengers. In this way, the cost to passengers might be reduced by making wait time productive and the value returned to the airlines might be more reflective of the real cost to passengers.
Source: davidbrady.net/Notes/oneInABillion.html Used with permission. David is a professor of electrical and computer engineering (the Brian F Addy endowed director) at the Fitzpatrick Center for Photonics and Communication Systems at Duke University in Durham, NC. His unusual website is worth a visit (particularly if you believe that America is a "great society" - which I don't quite).
The current system discourages screeners from thinking for themselves, says Issac Yeffet, a former security chief of El Al who's now a consultant based in Manhattan. "Let's say I'm a screener, and I open the luggage to do a search and find chocolate or peanut butter - I'm happy because I found what the machine flagged." Although the CTX highlights suspect items, screeners don't run bags back through the machine after the hand search to make sure they've correctly identified what really caused the alarm. No one's taught to think in terms of how a would-be terrorist might try to game the system. "I can assure you, from my experience and knowledge," says Yeffet, "that most of the explosives will be in a false bottom."
Beth Pinsker (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a freelance writer living in New York City
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