After Hours

Are TSA policies a bad joke?

As the idea that TSA policies are a joke becomes ever more popular with the American people, one TSA screener decides to prove them right - literally.

As the idea that TSA policies are a joke becomes ever more popular with the American people, one TSA screener decides to prove them right — literally.

Probably the most famous modern IT security and cryptography expert in the world, Bruce Schneier, coined the term "security theater" in his book Beyond Fear. The book refers to security procedures designed to give the impression that something is being done to enhance security without actually providing any real security benefit at all. Since then, the term has increasingly been applied to airport security measures, particularly those enacted by the United States' Transportation Security Administration.

There is some good reason for the harsh scrutiny applied to TSA policies. Completely aside from the complaints about invasions of privacy and annoying complexity added to the process of flying, some very dramatic failures have affected the image of the TSA very negatively. The implementation and use of a "Terror Watch List" has produced many false positives, including both an eight year old boy and U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy. Recently on people's minds is the case of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab who attempted to blow up an airliner on Christmas day 2009 — who escaped detection by airport security, but was stopped by a civilian passenger. This case might be quite as strong an indictment of airport security procedures if not for the fact that it was not the first time it happened. In 2001, Richard Reid became famous for trying to blow up an airplane with a bomb concealed in his shoe. He too escaped detection by airport security and was subdued by passengers as well.

The simplistic procedures employed to check incoming passengers' shoes as a result of the Richard Reid incident were widely criticized as being in the spirit of security theater. It does, however, at least appear to address the problem directly in some way at first glance. The first piece of news many of us heard about new policies for trying to prevent future threats to airline security after the Christmas day bomber was caught sounded like the punchline to a joke, on the other hand. Proposals were made to prevent passengers from leaving their seats, because Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab apparently spent twenty minutes in the airplane's restroom as it approached its destination in Detroit just before he was tackled by another passenger — a passenger who, of course, left his seat to stop the would-be bomber.

The most recent case of airport security falling flat on its face, however, actually is a punchline. It just happens to be a particularly bad punchline that rolls many of the best known mistakes of the last few years into a single, terrible, awful joke that should never have been made. Passengers have made a point of introducing something like humor into the increasingly frustrating process of trying to get through airport security, as in the case of TSA Communication, but this time around the culprit is a TSA screener.

As reported in It was no joke at security gate, passenger Rebecca Solomon had a terrifying 20 seconds while passing through airport security:

After pulling her laptop out of her carry-on bag, sliding the items through the scanning machines, and walking through a detector, she went to collect her things.

A TSA worker was staring at her. He motioned her toward him.

Then he pulled a small, clear plastic bag from her carry-on - the sort of baggie that a pair of earrings might come in. Inside the bag was fine, white powder.

Of course, the bag was not hers, and neither was the white powder. She had never seen it before, and the TSA screener knew it:

Put yourself in her place and count out 20 seconds. Her heart pounded. She started to sweat. She panicked at having to explain something she couldn't.

Now picture her expression as the TSA employee started to smile.

Just kidding, he said. He waved the baggie. It was his.

It really does not get much worse than this for the image of a government agency whose image was already among the worst in the country. The article summed up the event succinctly and accurately:

The last thing we expect is a joke from a Transportation Security Administration screener - particularly one this stupid.

Can it get any worse?


Chad Perrin is an IT consultant, developer, and freelance professional writer. He holds both Microsoft and CompTIA certifications and is a graduate of two IT industry trade schools.

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