Security Spectacle


Fliers Complain About X-Rated Security Screenings

If God wanted us to fly, He would have given us tickets.

- Mel Brooks

TSA Agents Force Woman To Remove Nipple Rings, Pull Pants Off Disabled Man

by Pam Zekman

When travellers go to the airport, they know what kind of security to expect: luggage searches, metal detectors and shoe inspections.  It's all part of our post 9-11 reality enforced by the Transportation Security Adminstration (TSA).  But thousands of travellers have complained that some of these screenings can become abusive and even x-rated.  For arguing with a TSA agent, Robin Kassner wound up being slammed to the floor.  She's filed a lawsuit. "I kept begging them over and over again get off of me ... and they wouldn't stop," Kassner said.

And it wasn't enough for another woman to show TSA agents nipple rings that set off a metal detector.  The agents forced her to take them out.  Mandi Hamlin said, "I had to get pliers and pull it apart."  In Chicago, Robert Perry was subjected to exhaustive security checks.  He was patted down, his wheel chair was examined and his hands were swabbed, all in public view in a see-through room at the security checkpoint.  Perry, 71, is not alone.  "It's humiliation," he said.  Perry was also taken to a see-through room by a TSA agent when his artificial knee set off the metal detector.  "He yelled at me to get the belt off.  'I told you to get the belt off.'  So I took the belt off.  He ran his hands down over and pulled the pants down, they went down around my ankle," Perry said.  At that point, Perry was standing in his underwear in public view.  He asked to see a supervisor.  That made things worse.  "She was yelling 'I have power, I have power, I have power," Perry said - the power to stop him from flying to Florida with his wife that day to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary.  "It makes you feel like you have no rights," he stated.  Perry said he always alerts TSA agents about his metal knee and wonders why they can't just check his leg.  "If somebody told me that I would save the people on the airplane by taking my pants off out in public out there, I wouldn't mind doing it, but this was not necessary," he said.

TSA officials said that when the metal detectors go off, their agents must resolve what caused the alarm.  But experts have said it's important to use common sense when balancing security and customer service.  Carlos Villarreal, former director of security for the Sears Tower, said proper training is crucial.  "When you're wanding somebody and you can identify which part of the body set off the alarm, that should be sufficient to clear a person," Villarreal said.

But all too often, it's not enough for 16-year old Michael Angone.  She frequently flies as a member of the Chicago Children's Choir.  "I've had to completely take my pants off and show them my entire leg," Angone said.  As a baby, Angone was diagnosed with cancer.  Her parents, both Chicago police officers, had to have her leg amputated.  She said she always warns TSA security agents that her prosthetic leg will set off the metal detector but many insist on doing an embarrassing full body pat-down.  "I feel like I'm being felt up in public," Angone said.  Her father Bob Angone wants to know, "What's the reason for all the feeling up, the groping at the back of the neck, the chest, underneath the bra, all the groping on her body, her buttocks?"

CBS 2 News asked the TSA those questions, but got no answers.  "The key word here is reasonable, and they have gone off the track. They are not reasonable," Bob Angone said.

The TSA declined to comment on the Angone and Perry cases, but the agency has announced that soon, passengers who set off an alarm that cannot be resolved will have a choice: Agree to a physical pat-down or what some believe is an even worse invasion of privacy.  This fall, O'Hare International Airport will get its first advanced digital x-ray machine.  It allows TSA agents to see through clothes and discover any hidden weapons.  Critics have likened it to a virtual strip search.  A spokesman said that out of 2 billion passengers screened nationwide since 9-11, there have been only 110,000 abuse complaints.  As for the nipple ring case, TSA did change its procedures regarding body piercings.

Source: 22 July 2008

Airport Threat to Your Laptop

US Also Gets Power to Seize iPods and Mobiles in New Anti-Terror Measure

Travellers to the US could have their laptops and other electronic devices seized at the airport under new anti-terror measures.  Federal agents have been granted powers to take such devices and hold them as long as they like.  They do not even need grounds to suspect wrongdoing.  The Department of Homeland Security said the policies applied to anyone entering the country by land, sea or air, including US citizens.  The extent of the new powers, which have been secretly in place for some time, was revealed yesterday in the Washington Post.  They cover hard drives, flash drives, mobile phones, iPods, pagers, beepers, and video and audio tapes, as well as books, pamphlets and other written materials, the report said.

Federal agents must take measures to protect business information and lawyer-client privileged material.  Copies of data must be destroyed when a review is completed and no probable cause exists to keep the information.  But agents are allowed to share the contents of seized computers with other agencies and private entities for data decryption and "other reasons."  Copies sent to non-federal entities must be returned to the DHS, but there is no limitation on authorities keeping written notes or reports about the materials.

The new powers came to light under pressure from civil liberties and business travel groups after increasing numbers of travellers reported that they had laptops, phones and other digital devices removed and examined.  The development was described as "truly alarming" by Wisconsin Democratic Senator Russell Feingold, who is investigating US border search practices.  He said he intends to introduce legislation that would require reasonable suspicion for border searches, as well as prohibit profiling on race, religion or national origin.

DHS officials insisted the policies were reasonable and necessary to prevent terrorism.  They said they had been disclosed only because of public interest.  But Greg Nojeim, senior counsel at the Center for Democracy and Technology, said it was alarming that the policies "don't establish any criteria for whose computer can be searched."  He added: "They are saying that they can rifle through all the information contained in a traveller's laptop without having even a smidgeon of evidence that the traveller is breaking the law."

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said last month that "the most dangerous contraband is often contained in laptop computers or other electronic devices."  Searches had uncovered "violent jihadist materials" as well as images of child pornography.  In an article for *USA Today*, Chertoff wrote that "as a practical matter, travellers only go to secondary [a more thorough examination] when there is some level of suspicion."  He said legislation setting a particular standard for searches would have a "dangerous, chilling effect" because it could contradict assessments by officers, often made in a split second.

In April, the US Court of Appeals in San Francisco upheld the government's power to conduct searches of an international traveller's laptop without suspicion of wrongdoing.

Source: 2 August 2008

Clarity Sought on Electronics Searches

US Agents Seize Travelers' Devices

by Ellen Nakashima

Nabila Mango, a therapist and a US citizen who has lived in the country since 1965, had just flown in from Jordan last December when, she said, she was detained at customs and her cellphone was taken from her purse.  Her daughter, waiting outside San Francisco International Airport, tried repeatedly to call her during the hour and a half she was questioned.  But after her phone was returned, Mango saw that records of her daughter's calls had been erased.

A few months earlier in the same airport, a tech engineer returning from a business trip to London objected when a federal agent asked him to type his password into his laptop computer.  "This laptop doesn't belong to me," he remembers protesting.  "It belongs to my company."  Eventually, he agreed to log on and stood by as the officer copied the websites he had visited, said the engineer, a US citizen who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of calling attention to himself.

Maria Udy, a marketing executive with a global travel management firm in Bethesda, said her company laptop was seized by a federal agent as she was flying from Dulles International Airport to London in December 2006.  Udy, a British citizen, said the agent told her he had "a security concern" with her.  "I was basically given the option of handing over my laptop or not getting on that flight," she said.

The seizure of electronics at US borders has prompted protests from travellers who say they now weigh the risk of travelling with sensitive or personal information on their laptops, cameras or cellphones.  In some cases, companies have altered their policies to require employees to safeguard corporate secrets by clearing laptop hard drives before international travel.  Today, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Asian Law Caucus, two civil liberties groups in San Francisco, plan to file a lawsuit to force the government to disclose its policies on border searches, including which rules govern the seizing and copying of the contents of electronic devices.  They also want to know the boundaries for asking travellers about their political views, religious practices and other activities potentially protected by the First Amendment.  The question of whether border agents have a right to search electronic devices at all without suspicion of a crime is already under review in the federal courts.

The lawsuit was inspired by two dozen cases, 15 of which involved searches of cellphones, laptops, MP3 players and other electronics.  Almost all involved travellers of Muslim, Middle Eastern or South Asian background, many of whom, including Mango and the tech engineer, said they are concerned they were singled out because of racial or religious profiling.  A US Customs and Border Protection spokeswoman, Lynn Hollinger, said officers do not engage in racial profiling "in any way, shape or form."  She said that "it is not CBP's intent to subject travellers to unwarranted scrutiny" and that a laptop may be seized if it contains information possibly tied to terrorism, narcotics smuggling, child pornography or other criminal activity.

The reason for a search is not always made clear.  The Association of Corporate Travel Executives, which represents 2,500 business executives in the United States and abroad, said it has tracked complaints from several members, including Udy, whose laptops have been seized and their contents copied before usually being returned days later, said Susan Gurley, executive director of ACTE.  Gurley said none of the travellers who have complained to the ACTE raised concerns about racial or ethnic profiling.  Gurley said none of the travellers were charged with a crime.  "I was assured that my laptop would be given back to me in 10 or 15 days," said Udy, who continues to fly into and out of the United States.  She said the federal agent copied her log-on and password, and asked her to show him a recent document and how she gains access to Microsoft Word.  She was asked to pull up her email but could not because of lack of Internet access.  With ACTE's help, she pressed for relief.  More than a year later, Udy has received neither her laptop nor an explanation.

ACTE last year filed a Freedom of Information Act request to press the government for information on what happens to data seized from laptops and other electronic devices.  "Is it destroyed right then and there if the person is in fact just a regular business traveller?" Gurley asked.  "People are quite concerned.  They don't want proprietary business information floating, not knowing where it has landed or where it is going.  It increases the anxiety level."  Udy has changed all her work passwords and no longer banks online.  Her company, Radius, has tightened its data policies so that travelling employees must access company information remotely via an encrypted channel, and their laptops must contain no company information.

At least two major global corporations, one American and one Dutch, have told their executives not to carry confidential business material on laptops on overseas trips, Gurley said.  In Canada, one law firm has instructed its lawyers to travel to the United States with "blank laptops" whose hard drives contain no data.  "We just access our information through the Internet," said Lou Brzezinski, a partner at Blaney McMurtry, a major Toronto law firm.  That approach also holds risks, but "those are hacking risks as opposed to search risks," he said.

The US government has argued in a pending court case that its authority to protect the country's border extends to looking at information stored in electronic devices such as laptops without any suspicion of a crime.  In border searches, it regards a laptop the same as a suitcase.  "It should not matter ... whether documents and pictures are kept in 'hard copy' form in an executive's briefcase or stored digitally in a computer.  The authority of customs officials to search the former should extend equally to searches of the latter," the government argued in the child pornography case being heard by a 3-judge panel of the Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in San Francisco.  As more and more people travel with laptops, BlackBerrys and cellphones, the government's laptop-equals-suitcase position is raising red flags.

"It's one thing to say it's reasonable for government agents to open your luggage," said David D Cole, a law professor at Georgetown University.  "It's another thing to say it's reasonable for them to read your mind and everything you have thought over the last year.  What a laptop records is as personal as a diary but much more extensive.  It records every website you have searched.  Every email you have sent.  It's as if you're crossing the border with your home in your suitcase."

If the government's position on searches of electronic files is upheld, new risks will confront anyone who crosses the border with a laptop or other device, said Mark Rasch, a technology security expert with FTI Consulting and a former federal prosecutor.  "Your kid can be arrested because they can't prove the songs they downloaded to their iPod were legally downloaded," he said.  "Lawyers run the risk of exposing sensitive information about their client.  Trade secrets can be exposed to customs agents with no limit on what they can do with it.  Journalists can expose sources, all because they have the audacity to cross an invisible line."

Hollinger said customs officers "are trained to protect confidential information."

Shirin Sinnar, a staff attorney with the Asian Law Caucus, said that by scrutinizing the websites people search and the phone numbers they've stored on their cellphones, "the government is going well beyond its traditional role of looking for contraband and really is looking into the content of people's thoughts and ideas and their lawful political activities."  If conducted inside the country, such searches would require a warrant and probable cause, legal experts said.  Customs sometimes singles out passengers for extensive questioning and searches based on "information from various systems and specific techniques for selecting passengers," including the Interagency Border Inspection System, according to a statement on the CBP website.  "CBP officers may, unfortunately, inconvenience law-abiding citizens in order to detect those involved in illicit activities," the statement said.  But the factors agents use to single out passengers are not transparent, and travellers generally have little access to the data to see whether there are errors.  Although Customs said it does not profile by race or ethnicity, an officers' training guide states that "it is permissible and indeed advisable to consider an individual's connections to countries that are associated with significant terrorist activity."

"What's the difference between that and targeting people because they are Arab or Muslim?" Cole said, noting that the countries the government focuses on are generally predominantly Arab or Muslim.  It is the lack of clarity about the rules that has confounded travellers and raised concerns from groups such as the Asian Law Caucus, which said that as a result, their lawyers cannot fully advise people how they may exercise their rights during a border search.  The lawsuit says a Freedom of Information Act request was filed with Customs last fall but that no information has been received.

Kamran Habib, a software engineer with Cisco Systems, has had his laptop and cellphone searched three times in the past year.  Once, in San Francisco, an officer "went through every number and text message on my cellphone and took out my SIM card in the back," said Habib, a permanent US resident.  "So now, every time I travel, I basically clean out my phone.  It's better for me to keep my colleagues and friends safe than to get them on the list as well."

Udy's company, Radius, organises business trips for 100,000 travellers a day, from companies around the world.  She says her firm supports strong security measures.  "Where we get angry is when we don't know what they're for."

Staff researcher Richard Drezen contributed to this report.

Source: 7 February 2008 A01

The Airport Security Follies

I think arriving at or departing from any airport in America is just horrendous these days.

- Roger Moore

by Patrick Smith

Six years after the terrorist attacks of 2001, airport security remains a theatre of the absurd.  The changes put in place following the September 11 catastrophe have been drastic, and largely of two kinds: those practical and effective, and those irrational, wasteful and pointless.  The first variety have taken place almost entirely behind the scenes.  Explosives scanning for checked luggage, for instance, was long overdue and is perhaps the most welcome addition.  Unfortunately, at concourse checkpoints all across America, the madness of passenger screening continues in plain view.  It began with pat-downs and the senseless confiscation of pointy objects.  Then came the mandatory shoe removal, followed in the summer of 2006 by the prohibition of liquids and gels.  We can only imagine what is next.

To understand what makes these measures so absurd, we first need to revisit the morning of September 11, and grasp exactly what it was the 19 hijackers so easily took advantage of.  Conventional wisdom says the terrorists exploited a weakness in airport security by smuggling aboard box-cutters.  What they actually exploited was a weakness in our mindset - a set of presumptions based on the decades-long track record of hijackings.  In years past, a takeover meant hostage negotiations and standoffs; crews were trained in the concept of "passive resistance."  All of that changed forever the instant American Airlines Flight 11 collided with the north tower.  What weapons the 19 men possessed mattered little; the success of their plan relied fundamentally on the element of surprise.  And in this respect, their scheme was all but guaranteed not to fail.

For several reasons - particularly the awareness of passengers and crew - just the opposite is true today.  Any hijacker would face a planeload of angry and frightened people ready to fight back.  Say what you want of terrorists, they cannot afford to waste time and resources on schemes with a high probability of failure.  And thus the September 11th template is all but useless to potential hijackers.  No matter that a deadly sharp can be fashioned from virtually anything found on a plane, be it a broken wine bottle or a snapped-off length of plastic, we are content wasting billions of taxpayer dollars and untold hours of labour in a delusional attempt to thwart an attack that has already happened, asked to queue for absurd lengths of time, subject to embarrassing pat-downs and loss of our belongings.

The folly is much the same with respect to the liquids and gels restrictions, introduced two summers ago following the breakup of a London-based cabal that was planning to blow up jetliners using liquid explosives.  Allegations surrounding the conspiracy were revealed to substantially embellished.  In an August, 2006 article in the New York Times, British officials admitted that public statements made following the arrests were overcooked, inaccurate and "unfortunate."  The plot’s leaders were still in the process of recruiting and radicalizing would-be bombers.  They lacked passports, airline tickets and, most critical of all, they had been unsuccessful in actually producing liquid explosives.  Investigators later described the widely parroted report that up to 10 US airliners had been targeted as "speculative" and "exaggerated."  Among first to express serious scepticism about the bombers’ readiness was Thomas C Greene, whose essay in The Register explored the extreme difficulty of mixing and deploying the types of binary explosives purportedly to be used.  Green conferred with Professor Jimmie C Oxley, an explosives specialist who has closely studied the type of deadly cocktail coveted by the London plotters.  "The notion that deadly explosives can be cooked up in an airplane lavatory is pure fiction," Greene told me during an interview.  "A handy gimmick for action movies and shows like 24.  The reality proves disappointing: it’s rather awkward to do chemistry in an airplane toilet.  Nevertheless, our official protectors and deciders respond to such notions instinctively, because they’re familiar to us: we’ve all seen scenarios on television and in the cinema.  This, incredibly, is why you can no longer carry a bottle of water onto a plane."

The threat of liquid explosives does exist, but it cannot be readily brewed from the kinds of liquids we have devoted most of our resources to keeping away from planes.  Certain benign liquids, when combined under highly specific conditions, are indeed dangerous.  However, creating those conditions poses enormous challenges for a saboteur.  "I would not hesitate to allow that liquid explosives can pose a danger," Greene added, recalling Ramzi Yousef’s 1994 detonation of a small nitroglycerine bomb aboard Philippine Airlines Flight 434.  The explosion was a test run for the so-called "Project Bojinka," an Al Qaeda scheme to simultaneously destroy a dozen widebody airliners over the Pacific Ocean.  "But the idea that confiscating someone’s toothpaste is going to keep us safe is too ridiculous to entertain."

Yet that’s exactly what we’ve been doing.  The 3-ounce container rule is silly enough - after all, what’s to stop somebody from carrying several small bottles each full of the same substance - but consider for a moment the hypocrisy of TSA’s confiscation policy.  At every concourse checkpoint you’ll see a bin or barrel brimming with contraband containers taken from passengers for having exceeded the volume limit.  Now, the assumption has to be that the materials in those containers are potentially hazardous.  If not, why were they seized in the first place?  But if so, why are they dumped unceremoniously into the trash?  They are not quarantined or handed over to the bomb squad; they are simply thrown away.  The agency seems to be saying that it knows these things are harmless.  But it’s going to steal them anyway, and either you accept it or you don’t fly.

But of all the contradictions and self-defeating measures TSA has come up with, possibly none is more blatantly ludicrous than the policy decreeing that pilots and flight attendants undergo the same x-ray and metal detector screening as passengers.  What makes it ludicrous is that tens of thousands of other airport workers, from baggage loaders and fuelers to cabin cleaners and maintenance personnel, are subject only to occasional random screenings when they come to work.

These are individuals with full access to aircraft, inside and out.  Some are airline employees, though a high percentage are contract staff belonging to outside companies.  The fact that crew members, many of whom are former military fliers, and all of whom endured rigorous background checks prior to being hired, are required to take out their laptops and surrender their hobby knives, while a caterer or cabin cleaner sidesteps the entire process and walks onto a plane unimpeded, nullifies almost everything our TSA minders have said and done since 11 September 2001.  If there is a more ringing let-me-get-this-straight scenario anywhere in the realm of airport security, I’d like to hear it.

I’m not suggesting that the rules be tightened for non-crew members so much as relaxed for all accredited workers.  Which perhaps urges us to reconsider the entire purpose of airport security: The truth is, regardless of how many pointy tools and shampoo bottles we confiscate, there shall remain an unlimited number of ways to smuggle dangerous items onto a plane.  The precise shape, form and substance of those items is irrelevant.  We are not fighting materials, we are fighting the imagination and cleverness of the would-be saboteur.  Thus, what most people fail to grasp is that the nuts and bolts of keeping terrorists away from planes is not really the job of airport security at all.  Rather, it’s the job of government agencies and law enforcement.  It’s not very glamorous, but the grunt work of hunting down terrorists takes place far off stage, relying on the diligent work of cops, spies and intelligence officers.  Air crimes need to be stopped at the planning stages.  By the time a terrorist gets to the airport, chances are it’s too late.

In the end, I’m not sure which is more troubling, the inanity of the existing regulations, or the average American’s acceptance of them and willingness to be humiliated.  These wasteful and tedious protocols have solidified into what appears to be indefinite policy, with little or no opposition.  There ought to be a tide of protest rising up against this mania.  Where is it?  At its loudest, the voice of the travelling public is one of grumbled resignation.  The op-ed pages are silent, the pundits have nothing meaningful to say.

The airlines, for their part, are in something of a bind.  The willingness of our carriers to allow flying to become an increasingly unpleasant experience suggests a business sense of masochistic capitulation.  On the other hand, imagine the outrage among security zealots should airlines be caught lobbying for what is perceived to be a dangerous abrogation of security and responsibility - even if it’s not.  Carriers caught plenty of flack, almost all of it unfair, in the aftermath of September 11th.  Understandably, they no longer want that liability.

As for Americans themselves, I suppose that it’s less than realistic to expect street protests or airport sit-ins from citizen fliers, and maybe we shouldn’t expect too much from a press and media that have had no trouble letting countless other injustices slip to the wayside.  And rather than rethink our policies, the best we’ve come up with is a way to skirt them - for a fee, naturally - via schemes like Registered Traveller.  Americans can now pay to have their personal information put on file just to avoid the hassle of airport security.  As cynical as George Orwell ever was, I doubt he imagined the idea of citizens offering up money for their own subjugation.

How we got to this point is an interesting study in reactionary politics, fear-mongering and a disconcerting willingness of the American public to accept almost anything in the name of "security."  Conned and frightened, our nation demands not actual security, but security spectacle.  And although a reasonable percentage of passengers, along with most security experts, would concur such theatre serves no useful purpose, there has been surprisingly little outrage.  In that regard, maybe we’ve gotten exactly the system we deserve.

Source: 28 December 2007

Weak Link in Newark Airport Security Is Uncovered

by Ron Marsico

Hundreds of workers at Newark Liberty International Airport are waved into the airport's most vulnerable areas each day with only a cursory check for bombs or weapons in their bags or other belongings, a Star-Ledger examination has found.  Repeated checks of an employee access point in Terminal C on any given day show security guards allowing luggage handlers, plane mechanics, cargo loaders and other workers into cargo holds and other security-restricted areas with little more than a glance into their bags.  Unlike airline passengers, the employees do not pass through metal detectors and their bags are not X-rayed.

The routine was captured on cellphone videos provided to the newspaper by an airport worker.  The security guarding what goes in and what gets taken out of the cargo holds of commercial airliners is a major concern for lawmakers and security experts.  They worry that any of the country's 1 million airport workers - who undergo far less scrutiny than passengers - might try to slip a bomb onto a plane if security checks of employees' bags are no better than those visible at Newark Liberty.

Concerns about cargo security rose anew last week when federal agents revealed they had busted a counterfeiting ring accused of recruiting Newark Liberty baggage handlers to steal nearly $2 million worth of government cheques from airplane cargo holds.  Officials with the US Transportation Security Administration and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates Newark Liberty, say adequate safeguards are in place to keep employees from sabotaging planes.

Source: 23 March 2008

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