Evan Roth’s T.S.A. Communication project is described as art, and is funny at times. It may also be a problem.

A new “art” project called T.S.A. Communication has sprung from the mind of Graffiti Research Lab co-founder Evan Roth. In short, TSA Communication is something like what happens when a fourth-grader shoots a spitwad at the teacher every time her back is turned. As a friend of mine working on an education degree explained, teachers should never turn their backs on their classes.

Roth’s concept is simple and elegant; he takes a metal plate and cuts sections out of it to produce a message. In some cases, the message is a picture, like a US flag. In others, it may be words, such as “NOTHING TO SEE HERE”. Then, he slips his plate into the bottom of a carry-on bag, packs the rest of the stuff he wants to take with him on top of it, and goes to the airport.

The bag passes through the X-ray machine and, in theory, hilarity ensues. My favorite TSA Communication plate is the one that says “T.S.A. RICK ROLL!!!” and sports an image of Rick Astley.

The description of the project provided by Roth says:

T.S.A. Communication is a project that alters the airport security experience and allows the government to learn more about you then just what’s in your backpack. Thin 8.5 x 11 inch laser-cut sheets of stainless steel comfortably fit in your carry on bag, simultaneously obscuring the contents you don’t want the TSA to see while highlighting ideas you do want them to see. Change your role as air traveler from passive to active.

He has tested his TSA Communication plates several times, not only dealing with the TSA but also with customs officials in a number of other countries. He even provides a gallery of images, including both photographs from a number of airports and template images you can use to reproduce his TSA Communication plates.

Paul McNamara of NetworkWorld.com’s Buzzblog traded emails with Roth about this project, and in one of them, Roth explained some of his motivation:

I fly all the time, and a big part of doing this project is simply so I have something to look forward to when I go to the airport. I hate flying, I hate airports, I hate security, I hate wasting time, and most of all I hate being forced to play a role in the theater of security.

McNamara’s reaction, both in his Buzzblog post and an almost identical New York Times article titled Airport ‘X-ray art’ courts TSA trouble, is predictable:

Roth says he doesn’t like flying now? I’m thinking he’s going to be liking it a lot less before long.

In comments on a Bruce Schneier mention of the project, others express similar ideas. One of them compares the TSA to a tiger:

Not perhaps a smart thing to do. The best attitude to the TSA is to say nothing and do nothing unless specifically told to.


This form of communication is not for the faint of heart, it seems. A TSA blogger, in no uncertain terms, explains how and why TSA Communication plates will delay you:

Based on the preliminary examples shown on Mr. Roth’s web page, the metal plate will get the passenger’s bag searched every time. And no, it’s not because of what the plate says, it’s because the metal plate acts as a shield and conceals items below it. If an officer can’t get a good look at what’s in the bag, it’s “bag check” time. Fair warning: there are detailed procedures on how to search this type of bag and it’s not one of our quicker searches.

It gets worse:

1) You could be cited for interfering with the screening process by deliberately causing a distraction.

2) If there is a prohibited item concealed underneath the plate, you will be cited for artful concealment of a prohibited item.

3) If the message on the plate could be interpreted as a threat, you could be responsible for the closing of a checkpoint, not to mention the inconvenience you’ve just caused your fellow travelers.

Bruce Schneier and countless others have pointed out some of the stupidities in TSA procedures and policies in the past. All together, it adds up to what many call “security theater”. Most of the security measures enacted by the TSA are for show, meant to convince the public, the politicians, and even perhaps themselves, that “something is being done” about airport security. Most of it is largely ineffective. It appears to be this sort of pointless shenanigans that motivates Evan Roth.

I don’t blame him for reacting this way. It’s certainly tempting, at times, for most of us to do something equally smart-alecky. As “Bob” the TSA blogger points out, though, you should be aware of the possible consequences of your actions and willing to deal with them if you succumb to that temptation. I personally just avoid airlines as much as reasonably possible, to the extent that on a trip almost halfway across the US earlier this year I drove — and in another planned for the near future, I’ll be driving again.

I guess Evan Roth has his way to avoid being a “passive participant”, and I have mine. I guess the TSA blogger evidently agrees with me about the Rick Roll plate, though:

By the way, I thought this one was pretty funny.