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21 November 2010

What has the TSA done for you lately?

The past few weeks has seen the TSA come under tremendous amounts of well deserved public criticism for using an enhanced pat-down procedure along with new full body scanners to help keep explosives and other weapons off of airplanes.

The TSA's misguided efforts with respect to this passenger screening policy, as well as apparent serious shortcomings in TSA hiring procedures have been discussed at length in earlier articles, and in unprecedented ways by the general public online and offline.

It would be easy and even entertaining to highlight multiple aspects of the latest TSA policy disaster, including:
  • Reviewing some of the more interesting of the tens of thousands of TSA-related tweets from the past week (my favorite: "I wonder if TSA scanners can see through 6 feet of dirt to detect Founding Fathers turning in their graves"),

  • Embed one or more hilarious video created in response to the TSA's policy, such as one from Saturday Night Live, and another from NMA TV (the folks who bring you computer simulations of unfaithful celebrities),

  • Discuss the TSA's role in making the phrase "gate rape" an word of the day, or

  • Chronicle desperate scramble by the TSA in the last 72 hours to change their policies in the face of massive pushback (eliminating enhanced pat-downs of children 12 and under, followed by no pat-downs or screenings of airline pilots, and most recently a promise to make the pat-down procedure less invasive)

Instead of kicking TSA when it's down and making it even more likely that current employees will erase their experience from their resumes, the rest of this article will focus on some of the positive things that TSA has done that have actually enhanced security.

Every week, TSA publishes the Transportation Suspicious Incident Report (TSIR), which provides a comprehensive review of suspicious incident reporting related to transportation. The TSIR includes incident reporting, analyses, images, and graphics on specific security related incidents. In addition, selected articles focus on security technologies, terrorism, and the persistent challenges of securing various transportation modes in the US. You can download three of the reports below:

- TSIR for 20 July 2007
- TSIR for 5 August 2010
- TSIR for 15 October 2010

All three of these reports were downloaded from, a site that provides access to corporate and government documents that are usually unavailable to the public. This site also provides a number of documents from the Department of Homeland Security, including an evaluation of the recent cargo bombing attempt from Yemen.

If you have any questions and comments may about the TSIR, you can contact the Transportation Security Administration, Office of Intelligence, Field Production Team at (703) 601-3142.

A note on classification
The document that were retrieved from contains information that the Department of Homeland Security, which includes TSA, typically does not released released to the public or personnel who do not have a valid "need to know." Because these reports were obtained legally from a publicly available web site, unless you are bound by the appropriate regulations of a US government agency, you are free to download them and even distribute them. This is similar to the situation last December when TSA accidentally released a report containing sensitive security information. That report, “Screening Procedures: Standard Operating Procedures,” has been downloaded from nearly 25,000 times in the last 12 months.

Related Resources
WTOP interview on November 16, 2010 with Dr. Todd Curtis about new TSA procedures (5:12)
Dr. Curtis discusses TSA hiring practices on Rudy Maxa's World (10:40)

18 November 2010

What you can do to change the TSA's full body screening and enhanced pat-down policies

In recent days, the TSA's policy of using advanced screening device along with enhanced pat-downs of passengers to help deter bomb attacks has come under increasing opposition by the flying public, with several organizations and individuals taking actions to force the TSA to alter or eliminate some of these new procedures. There are several ways that an individual can take action, and those are described later in this article.

Public opposed for several reasons
There are several reasons why the traveling public and key parts of the airline industry are opposed to the advanced screening technology and security procedures, including the radiation risks from some of the scanners, potential losses of personal privacy, the techniques used in the pat-down procedures, how people are chosen for the new screening, and because TSA personnel may have backgrounds that make them totally unsuitable for these tasks.

Risks from new screening technologies
The new full-body scanners, currently in use in more than 60 US airports, use either x-rays or millimeter-wavelength radio waves to see if a passenger is concealing explosives, weapons, or other dangerous items. While TSA relies on FDA claims that the amount of radiation exposure is low, and that the machines are safe. However, two major airline pilot organizations have come out against it because of potential health effects from multiple exposures.

Advanced imaging systems are an invasion of privacy
Both the millimeter wave and x-ray advanced imagining systems produce images that can reveal weapons and other other contraband, but it also has the potential to reveal medical conditions and other information that the TSA has no need to know and that most passengers would prefer to keep private for personal, professional, or religious reasons.

Pat-down procedures are intrusive and inappropriate
If someone does not want to use the full body scanner, the TSA has mandated that their security officers use an aggressive pat-down procedure that includes extensive touching of the breast, buttocks, and genital areas of passengers. These new procedures were launched without any opportunity for the public to make comments or suggestions about the procedures. The initial public reaction was so negative that TSA quickly changed their policy in one area--children under the age of 13 will still be subject to a full pat-down search, but one that is modified in ways that the TSA has not yet specified.

While extensive pat-down searches, or even body cavity searches, have been used on passengers for decades, it has usually been under two conditions, that there is evidence that a passenger is suspected of hiding prohibited or dangerous items on their person, and that an appropriate and highly trained law enforcement or customs official was conducting the search. TSA transportation security officers may dress like law enforcement officers, but they lack the training, experience, and authority of police officers. In fact, the Department of Homeland Security recently released report that pointed out serious deficiencies in the training given to TSA security officers.

Use of the screening and pat-downs is excessive
The advanced imaging technology and enhanced pat-downs are designed to find articles hidden under a person's clothes. Rather than being used on persons who have been identified as being high risk based on their behavior or on specific information provided by security or or law enforcement agencies, passengers and airline crew members are being randomly chosen for advanced screening. While the TSA believes that this process is effective at deterring acts of sabotage or terror, for many the intrusive nature of the scanners and pat-downs is not justified for use on someone has has done nothing to arouse suspicion.

TSA screeners may have inadequate background checks
The process by which TSA personnel were screened is another reason that these procedures may be highly inappropriate. As was described in an earlier article, it is possible that the ranks of TSA's screeners may include people convicted of rape and other serious sexually oriented crimes. It is highly unlikely that the average passenger would consent to a very intimate physical search conducted by a convicted sex offender, and at the very least would want the TSA to state for the record whether such people are currently employed in any capacity at TSA.

Actions you can take to change these policies
If you object to the TSA's advanced screening or enhanced pat-down policies or procedures, or feel that you have been victimized in some way because you have been subjected to these techniques and technologies, there are several things that you can do to help change what the TSA is doing:

Related Resources
WTOP interview on November 16, 2010 with Dr. Todd Curtis about these new TSA procedures (5:12)
Teri Schultz article on European approaches to security

05 November 2010

Plane crash in Cuba kills all 68 on board

4 November 2010; AeroCaribbean; ATR 72-212; CU-T1549; Fllight 883, near Guasimal, Sancti Spiritus Province, Cuba: The aircraft was on a domestic flight from Santiago to Havana, Cuba. The crew reported an emergency situation shortly before the aircraft crashed in mountainous terrain. All seven crew members and 61 passengers were killed.

ATR 42 and ATR 72 Crash HistoryThe ATR 72 and ATR 42 are very similar, with the ATR 72 having more rows of seats. This was the seventh crash of a ATR series aircraft that resulted in the death of at least one airline passenger. The most recent fatal crash was in September of this year when a Conviasa ATR 42 crashed in Venezuela, killed 17 of the 34 on board.

About AeroCaribbean
AeroCaribbean, which is owned by the Cuban governemtn, began flight operations in December 1982, and currently serves several domestic locations as well as regional international destinations. The airline has about 10 active aircraft, including about seven ATR 42 and ATR 72 aircraft. This is the second fatal crash for this airline. In November 1992, an AeroCaribbean Ilyushin 18D flew into high ground near Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic, killing all six crew members and 24 passengers.

Related articles
Plane crash rates by model
Airliners with lowest crash rates

Photos: Wikipedia, Escambray Newspaper

03 November 2010

Is the TSA allowing convicted rapists to perform pat-down searches?

Last Thursday, without much fanfare, TSA announced that it would start a new screening procedure that would include more pat-down searches nationwide. USA Today reports that in the new procedures, screeners' hands would slide over a passenger's body, requiring screeners to touch passengers' breasts and genitals. In addition to questions over whether this change is necessary or effective, another question that many passengers may have in the backs of their minds is whether the TSA screeners have a criminal background that should preclude them from such sensitive duties.

Possible reasons for the new procedures
There is some debate over whether these procedures are either useful or necessary. There are certainly threats to airliners from bombs that could be carried on a person's body, such as the bomb used in the unsuccessful bombing attempt on a Delta airliner last December. However, it is not at all clear that this new pat-down procedure would have found that explosive device.

The more recent incident involving two bombs sent as cargo from Yemen to the US could indicate renewed efforts to target US airliners. However, there has been no public acknowledgement by the TSA, the US government, or any other government that there is any increased threat to air travel from bombs hidden beneath clothing. Certainly the new pat-down procedure is a very public and very noticeable increase in security, but not one that is directly linked to any immediate threat.

TSA employees with faulty criminal background checks
The TSA serves a very important and vital role in airline security, and all of their employees are required to pass security and background checks. However, those checks in the past have been less than thorough. For example, in 2004, the Department of Homeland Security (which includes TSA) released a report that stated that TSA had allowed some screeners to perform their duties before their criminal background checks were complete, and allowed others to continue working while problems with their background checks were resolved. Even if this problem no longer exists for current applicants and employees, a more serious problem may be that the current system of background checks may have allowed those convicted of rape and other sexually based offenses to join TSA.

Are current TSA background checks too limited?
The 2004 DHS report stated that federal regulations (49 CFR. § 1542.209) specified were 28 kinds of felony convictions that would have disqualified an applicant for a TSA screener position, including rapes or crimes involving aggravated sexual abuse, but only if those convictions had occurred in the previous 10 years. It implies that a person convicted of rape, attempted rape, child molestation, or similar crimes may not be required to report such convictions during their background check and may be allowed to perform pat-down searches on passengers.

It is unclear if TSA has changed its background check requirements since 2004 to exclude any convicted sex offenders from working directly with passengers. However, the fact that in the past it may have been possible that someone with that kind of criminal past may be a TSA screener may concern most passengers.

Are convicted rapists performing pat-down searches?
The full details of the the TSA's process for reviewing current and potential employees is not available to the public. Whatever those procedures are, a reasonable passenger would agree that anyone who has been found guilty of any crime that involves rape or some similar criminal act should not be allowed to search passengers. If the TSA could publicly address the following questions, it may go a long way toward reducing the public's concern over the new pat-down procedures:
  • Are there any current TSA employees who are convicted sex offenders (either for a felony or lesser crime, either as an adult or juvenile), even if the conviction occurred more than 10 years before joining TSA?

  • If the answer to the first question is yes, are any of these employees acting as security screeners who must have direct physical contact with the flying public?

  • If the answer to the first question is no, have all TSA employees, as part of their background check, been asked if they have been convicted of rape or some other sexually based crime, whether it were a felony or lesser crime, either as an adult or as a juvenile, even if the conviction occurred more than 10 years before joining TSA?

  • If the first question can't be answered for a TSA employee because of inadequate information, would this employee be restricted from working in a position that involves direct physical contact with the flying public?

  • Are TSA security screeners who are convicted of rape or another sexually based crime, no matter how minor, immediately removed from any position where they may have physical contact with the traveling public?

Unless the TSA is both willing and able to answer these and similar questions, the average traveler may be very reluctant to submit to invasive searches where TSA security officers have to physically touch them in sensitive areas, making it more difficult for the TSA to accomplish its security mission.

What to do if searched
While searching passengers, including pat down searches of breasts and genital areas, may be necessary for security purposes, it would be considered very intrusive by most passengers. If you are selected for this kind of search, you should insist that it be done in a dignified manner. It should be done in a screened off area so that you can't be viewed by others in the vicinity, and the TSA representative should act in a professional manner.

Dealing with abuses
If you feel that you were not treated with dignity or respect during a pat down search, you should take appropriate actions such as calling attention to anything that you think is unnecessary or having a TSA supervisor or law enforcement official present. You can also file a complaint with the TSA, with the complaint process, or with an organization like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The ACLU has noted several types of common abuses:
  • Unnecessary groping of passengers’ breast or genital areas

  • Humiliating experiences including for disabled or transgendered passengers

  • Lack of privacy during pat-downs

  • Lack of respect for religious requirements.

If you feel that you have not been treated in a fair and professional matter, you can contact the ACLU and provide them with details about your experience.

Interviews on Rudy Maxa's World featuring Dr. Todd Curtis (10:40)
DHS report on TSA screener background checks
WTOP interview on November 16, 2010 with Dr. Todd Curtis about new pat-down TSA procedures (5:12)

Photo: Joe Philipson