Tag Archives: air travel - Page 2

Airport Police Prefer Their Nudists To Be Of The Female Persuasion

Last week, a woman stripped naked at an airport gate (not a security checkpoint) after gate agents saw her smoking and told her to “put out her butt”. Denver police said they wouldn’t be arresting her.

 

Last night, a man stripped naked at an airport security checkpoint in protest, because he felt harassed by the TSA. Portland police did arrest him.

There are no details on why the woman was taken to a hospital instead of being arrested, but presumably she was some degree of crazy. Presumably, the man wasn’t. They were both protesting, the woman against smoking bans and the man against TSA harassment. Maybe they’re soul mates.

What’s interesting is that the guy got naked in Oregon, one of the few places where non-sexual public nudity is legal. Portland and a few other cities have introduced nudity bans, but nudity as a protest has been upheld to be legal even in those cities.

What’s also interesting is that these seem to be the first nude protests in airports, both within a week of each other. (Hopefully this becomes a very entertaining and frequent happenstance.) People have protested the TSA before with lack of clothing, but normally they’ve just stripped down to their underwear — probably to avoid getting arrested.

From Fox 31 Denver, TMZ and Komo News, via Slashdot and Forbes

Former TSA Agent Admits Airport Security Is A Joke

About a month ago, the TSA Out Of Our Pants guy, came to us with his crazy hair and microphone and said the agency’s naked body scanners can’t see anything at your sides, so you can easily take explosives and guns on board. Now he’s back, looking a lot like the Joker, and armed with an anonymous, disgruntled former TSA agent.

 

She goes by the pseudonym of “Jennifer” and her face is blurred out, though for some reason, her voice doesn’t seem to be altered at all. Blurred out TSA credentials are also shown, so presumably she’s legit. The highlights of the interview indicate that the entire operation is indeed just security theater:

  • The naked body scanners failed to detect things all the time, during testing and live use: guns, knives, bags of powder that were supposed to resemble explosive material, and of course, 12″ razor blades and stun guns. (This fact has also been discovered by the Germans before.)
  • Due to personnel shortages arising from huge turnover, the TSA uses agents that are untrained on the machines they operate
  • There’s a manual of Standard Operation Procedures that’s supposed to be present at every checkpoint, but “Jennifer” has never even seen it, much less read it

The former agent said she was appalled at this farce, so she exhausted her chain of command, then wrote her Congressmen in good whistle-blower fashion, after which she got fired. She implies the firing was related, but it sounds suspiciously like a post-hoc fallacy: would a Congressman really bother to get a TSA agent fired?

The full video:

See also:

From TSA Out Of Our Pants, via Slashdot

 

FAA Is Reconsidering Rules On Electronic Devices

As pretty much everyone knows, the FAA has an archaic rule that anytime the plane is moving and is under 10,000′, anything with an on-off switch must be turned off. Oh, except for voice recorders and electric shavers… and pilots’ iPads. The truth is that the rule makes no sense, but no one knows why it’s in place to begin with and they’re afraid of what will happen if they change it and then a plane crashes; so the FAA employees figure annoying millions of passengers daily is preferable to them losing their jobs. In late 2011, both The New York Times and The Atlantic took up the noble cause of freeing us from the shackles of air travel Ludditism, but neither of them caused as big of a stir as Alec Baldwin’s not-so-silent protest on the matter. Regardless of which of them was the catalyst, something got the FAA’s attention, because it is now working on making some tablet devices kosher for all phases of flight.

The facts are these: in order for a device to be approved under 10,000′, the airline has to test it and submit the results to the FAA. This is a pretty expensive process, so the all-but-bankrupt airlines don’t do it (except for the pilots’ iPads, since having access to flight manuals electronically is a clear benefit). The FAA, probably realizing that in the age of Kindles and iPads, they’re about to become the TSA’s slightly-less-ugly cousin — or maybe out of fear of drawing Alec Baldwin’s anger — decided to take matters into their own hands and test the devices themselves.

After the monetary cost, the next problem to tackle is the FAA’s own ridiculous rules: classes of devices cannot be approved, but rather only specific models. So the iPad has to be approved, then the iPad2, the new iPad, the Kindle 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5, the Nook 1 and 2, and any other devices which might be popular. They have to test each of these models of tablet on each of the models of plane on each of the airlines. Given 10 kinds of tablets, 10 kinds of planes and 10 airlines — numbers lower than reality — that means 1,000 separate approvals. Because of this, they’re not even going to try to approve smartphones, of which Samsung alone makes 53 different types of Android phones. Thank your lucky stars the Android tablets never took off, because then even iPads wouldn’t make the cut. But if all goes well, in the next year or two, we could be listening to Brahms while reading the digital version of The New Yorker as the plane takes off.

See also:

From The New York Times, via Slashdot

The TSA’s Naked Body Scanners Are Even More Useless

We’ve seen before that the naked body scanners which the TSA uses to prevent underwear explosives from getting on planes are just an awful piece of technology. Besides blatant privacy and decency issues, they had three technical strikes against them:

  1. Tests show that they’re horribly unreliable: false alarms all over the place and they get confused easily
  2. They miss bomb-making components
  3. They can’t see inside body cavities

Naked body scanner

 

Now, a fourth problem was made public in a video of an odd guy with a microphone, headphones, and crazy hair reading cue cards which claim you can get anything through the scanners, as long as it’s at your side. The poorly-delivered commentary, peppered with “jokes”, says this is due to a design decision that in hindsight is pretty stupid: both the objects detected and the background are black, while the person is white. Which works well if the object is in front or behind the person, because it’s a black object on a white figure. But if the object is to the person’s side, it’s a black object on a black background.

Scan from a millimeter wave machine

 

To test this theory, the guy sewed a pocket on the side of his shirt, put a metallic box in it and tried it at two different airports: he made it through the scanner both times. The box was empty, but it could’ve been filled with all kinds of things banned from airplanes: razors, a lighter, explosives. In the video below, you can kinda see him going through: he left a camera on the entire time, but the camera went through the x-ray machine, so he’s out of sight for some time, then re-emerges with the box still in his pocket. There’s obvious potential for sleight of hand to fool the viewer into thinking the box went with him when it actually didn’t, but he’s strange to the point where he seems earnest. And if he did succeed, then the implications are staggering mediocre at best.

Firstly, this is the kind of thing that can be fixed with a simple software update of the machines: change the background color to pink — problem solved. In fact, due to complaints about the whole naked-picture aspect of the machine, their software is in the process of being upgraded so that it only shows cartoon figures instead of actual people; objects are then shown in yellow. That alone should fix the issue, but even if it doesn’t, the TSA agent would just have to take side shots in addition to the front and back ones.

 

The newer scans from the millimeter wave machine

 

Still, the machines have been used for a couple of years now, and the TSA didn’t detect this major flaw in its procedures. Technology can always be improved, and in time the naked body scanners will work perfectly; but a poorly managed agency that draws the ire of tens of millions of people will not be fixed by better toys. This isn’t the first time the TSA wasted billions of dollars on technology that does little more than put on a front designed to lull the public into a false sense of security. In fact, the agency is such a momentous failure and gigantic source of frustration that Congress wants it overhauled, the Representative responsible for its creation wants it gone, so does presidential candidate Ron Paul, and on the White House website’s petition system, the petition to abolish the TSA was the third most popular one — legalizing marijuana was first, of course. The TSA responded to the petition saying the gate rape is for our own good and if we want it to stop, all we have to do is stop hijacking planes.

 

See also:

 

From TSA Out Of Our Pants, via Slashdot

The TSA Finally Detected Explosives

On the last day of 2011, after never stopping a single terrorist in its decade-long existence, after waving through security the shoe bomber, the underwear bomber, the Mythbusters guy carrying footlong razor blades, someone with a stun gun, and a whopping 60% of explosives during a security test, the TSA finally got a win: it stopped a guy with explosives.

What the TSA sees in an X-ray machine

 

And how did they catch him? Not with naked body scanners or pat downs, but with the regular X-ray machine: something in his baggage looked suspicious and it turned out to be military-grade explosives. Now, there may be a wrinkle in the fact that the guy is a member of the military, and he was returning from Christmas vacation with his family in west Texas to his military base in North Carolina. So the whole thing could be nothing. But in any case, the fact that they even found the explosives is a huge milestone for the TSA. Like a really old person figuring out how to work a webcam. Good on you, TSA!

From AP

The Theatrics Of Airport Security

The term ‘security theater’ gets thrown around a lot with respect to the TSA’s policies, but few people know the specifics of why those policies are flawed. One of the few is Bruce Schneier, one of the most well-known security specialists. He was interviewed by Vanity Fair this week, and said that there have only been three useful air security measures taken since 9/11, and they’re probably not what you think:

  • Reinforcing the cockpit doors to prevent hijacking
  • Making sure that every piece of luggage on a plane belongs to someone on the plane
  • Passengers now know to fight back with terrorists

The last one is visibly the most important, since it has already stopped two terrorist attacks: the underwear bomber and the shoe bomber. Prior to 9/11, passengers didn’t fight back because it wasn’t worth it: the worst case scenario was “a week in Havana.” But all the other security measures, which have cost over a trillion dollars in the past decade, are meaningless. For the interview, the author proved how easy it was to get past security with a fake boarding pass he made with Photoshop and a laser printer. As for the other theatrics:

  • Taking shoes off: terrorists will just hide explosives elsewhere, like their underwear, or in their bodies. Focusing on one specific threat makes the terrorists come up with a new kind of attack.
  • Checking hands for explosives: TSA agents will randomly wipe passengers’ hands, hoping would-be terrorists were dumb enough to not wear latex gloves while making a bomb, and also didn’t wash their hands with alcohol after.
  • Full-body scanners: these were a typical TSA reaction to the underwear bomber, who hid plastic explosives in his undies. But all the scanners can see (and not well) is suspicious bulges; if you mold the plastic explosives into a thin sheet and put it over your stomach, its invisible. Or if you hide small amounts of it in a body cavity, like your mouth or nose, and go through security a few times to accumulate enough.
  • No liquids over 3.5oz: the TSA makes an exception for medical liquids, like saline. You can easily fill a saline bottle with liquid explosives and shrink wrap it — the TSA doesn’t open shrink-wrapped packages.

 

  • Behavioral specialists: agents trained to pick out terrorists from a crowd. The problem is that only 20 out of the 700 million flyers in the last decade were terrorists: picking out the right 0.0000000285% out of the population just by looking at them is impossible.
  • Security checkpoints: besides the specific “measures”, the whole concept of the checkpoint is flawed, since you can easily get around the checkpoint by working at the airport. The pay is low and the turnover is high, so it’s pretty easy to get an airport job.
  • Air marshals: the idea is sound but the execution is terrible. The job consists solely of sitting on an airplane and remaining vigilant in the face of astounding boredom. Turnover is high and training is expensive.
  • Air travel security: even if everything worked ideally and airports and airplanes became positively invincible, that would still accomplish nothing. Terrorists would just move on to less-secure targets, like shopping malls, casinos, mega-churches. This is why the best way to stop terrorists is not through airport screeners that catch them at the last minute, but through old-fashioned police work that catch them well before they even get to the airport; the liquid explosive terrorists were caught this way, as were the Times Square bomber (sorta) and the Manhattan terrorists.

The reason we have security theater to begin with is that while we can never be truly secure, the government has to make us feel like we are, to keep the paralyzing fear of terrorism from grinding our economy to a halt. (Although, if the Israeli economy can deal with that much insecurity, we should be more than ok.) And so they feed opium to the people via visible, inconvenient “security measures” that are merely the police equivalent of placebos. But eventually, the theatrics get old and instead of instilling a sense of safety via smoke, mirrors and willful suspension of disbelief, we increasingly notice how fake the special effects are. And we notice this because the theatrics get more elaborate, more inconvenient and therefore more costly to us — both in terms of time and frustration — while at the same time there’s no rise in benefit to go along with the rise in cost.

Ok, the mistletoe is going too far

 

After a while, it becomes painfully obvious that the TSA cannot catch terrorists and people start seeing the smoke and mirrors; the underlying message of the show changes from “we’re keeping you safe” to “we’re really just wasting your time to make you feel better”. Given the amount of backlash the TSA has been getting this year, ranging from reports of abuse, to incompetence, to petitions to abolish it, to Congressional calls to overhaul it, it looks like that message has changed and the TSA has officially jumped the shark. In tough economic times, it’s harder to keep shows like that on the air:

We’re spending billions upon billions of dollars doing this—and it is almost entirely pointless. Not only is it not done right, but even if it was done right it would be the wrong thing to do. (Bruce Schneier)

Today, 23% percent of people are refusing to go through body scanners (over 30% for younger people) because they’re more concerned about radiation exposure, invasion of privacy and unreasonable search more than they are about terrorism — and logically so: in the past 40 years, lightning has killed more Americans than terrorists.  So if people are more concerned about their health and civil liberties than they are about getting hit by lightning, then the same should hold true about terrorism.

In the meantime, the TSA continues treading water by insisting it’s still relevant, and trying to be nicer to cancer patients. Although, they still fear cupcakes may be dangerous.

 

From Variety, NPR and The TSA Blog, via Slashdot and Laughing Squid

The TSA Responds To Petition To Abolish The TSA

The White House implemented a petition system in September, and of course the most popular petition was to legalize marijuana. The administration’s response was written by the Drug Czar, so the jist of it was along the lines of “are you kidding? That’s like a major part of my job, man. I got kids to feed.” So the petition was denied because marijuana has no medicinal value, but no word on what that has to do with the price of tea in China, since alcohol and tobacco also have no medicinal value. Similarly, today, the TSA chief responded to a petition to abolish the TSA, and the jist of it was along of the lines of “are you kidding? That’s like a major part of my job, man. I got kids to feed.” So the petition was denied because the TSA keeps the country safe, but no word on what country he’s talking about, since Congress itself pointed out that the TSA has never prevented a terrorist attack, including none of the four major ones attempted since 9/11.

 

Of course, that the response was a “hell no” is hardly surprising, given that it was written by the TSA. It’s how you would respond if the Internet handed you a petition requesting that your job be eliminated. So the real insight here is that the petition system is just classic misdirection designed to give people a place to vent. If the Obama administration were actually serious about the petitions, it wouldn’t have handed the marijuana one to the Drug Czar and the TSA one to the TSA chief as it did, probably attached to a memo saying “explain why your job matters.” If they were taking the petitions seriously, the response would’ve come from the guy who would actually make those changes: Obama himself, hopefully after actually considering the petition instead of just paying lip service to it.

From The White House

Ironically, FAA Approves iPads For American Airlines Pilots

Two weeks ago, the New York Times and The Atlantic both had columns about the sheer pointlessness of the FAA requiring us to turn off our electronic devices during take-off and landing — as opposed to just putting them in airplane mode. Last week, Alec Baldwin got kicked off of an American Airlines flight because he wouldn’t stop playing Words With Friends on his iPhone while it was idling on the ground, thereby possibly securing his place as the Rosa Parks of upscale jetsetters. And yesterday, the FAA approved American’s request to use iPads instead of paper manuals and charts in all phases of flight, including take-off and landing.

The Mobile TC app on an iPad. (Jim Merithew/Wired.com)

 

The FAA ruling came after 6 months of testing during which, shockingly, the iPads did not crash any planes. Other airlines are in the process of getting the same kind of approval. So if, in the next year or so, the FAA doesn’t change its rules and free the techie population from the Luddite shackles of powerlessness under 10,000 feet, then it will be blatantly obvious that its hypocrisy and anti-elitism knows no bounds.

From ZDNet, via TiPB

House Of Representatives Calls For TSA Overhaul

Republicans in the House have filed a report called “A Decade Later: A Call For TSA Reform” (PDF), which was co-written by the author of the original bill that created the TSA, John Mica, and who has spoken out before against the ineffective bureaucracy that the agency has become. The report has nothing good to say about the TSA and reams it for having become bloated, having no focus, being reactionary instead of proactive, having never once stopped a terrorist attack, deviating from its original mandate, and not implementing measures that Congress has requested.

 

Highlights of the report:

  • The TSA is very top-heavy, with about 10,000 of its 65,000 employees being administrators, and another 4,000 working at headquarters
  • Due to low morale, it has an incredibly high turnover rate of 17%; more employees have left the agency than are currently employed there
  • It keeps focusing on hijacking of airplanes, in spite of changes post-9/11 that have rendered them largely impractical: reinforced cockpit doors, air marshals and vigilant passengers
  • Performance is horrendous: since the agency’s inception 10 years ago, more than 25,000 security breaches have occurred
  • It has invested billions in security programs and technologies that eventually proved to be ineffective and are no longer used
  • Its original purpose was to serve as an intelligence gathering and analyzing agency, not as a security guard corporation

  • Contracting out the actual screening service to private firms has been proven to be cheaper and at least as effective, but the TSA refuses to allow the practice
  • It has major leadership problems: top administrators have changed five times in ten years, with long periods in between where there was no TSA chief
  • It employs security theater instead of actual security measures

“Today, TSA‘s screening policies are based in theatrics. They are typical, bureaucratic responses to failed security policies meant to assuage the concerns of the traveling public.

  • It failed to stop the only four major terrorist attacks since 9/11: the shoe bomber and the underwear bomber, who were stopped by passengers; the Times Square bomber, who the TSA allowed to board a plane despite being placed on the “no fly” list, and was eventually apprehended by the Customs and Border Patrol; and the toner cartridge bomb plot, which was foiled by foreign intelligence agencies.

“Since its inception, TSA has hired over 137,000 employees, grown into a mammoth bureaucracy of 65,000 employees, spent almost $57 billion, yet has failed to detect any major terrorist threat since 9/11, including the Shoe Bomber, the Underwear Bomber, the Times Square Bomber, and the Toner Cartridge Bomb Plot. Congress created TSA to be a lean organization that would analyze intelligence and set risk-based security standards for the U.S. transportation system. Today, TSA suffers from bureaucratic morass and mismanagement.”

The report recommends making the agency more independent from the Department of Homeland Security, elevating the oft-ignored role of TSA administrator, shift its role from security force to that of federal regulator and intelligence agency, using more contractors, using common sense and risk analysis in its policy-making procedure, developing a more international role to deal with international terrorists, making performance results public after two years, and submitting to an outside study and recommendations on how to restructure the agency.

From The House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure (PDF), via Slashdot

Alec Baldwin Also Thinks Flying Sucks

Earlier this week, Alec Baldwin got kicked off an American Airlines flight because he flipped out when a flight attendant told him to stop playing Words With Friends on his phone while they were sitting at the gate. American Airlines blames Baldwin for being a jackass and not listening to the flight crew, while, in a note he wrote in The Huffington Post, Baldwin blames American and the industry in general for turning flying into the travel equivalent of going to the dentist. Both parties fail to realize that the blame should actually go to the FAA: the flight attendant was just doing her job, since she was following the regulation that all electronic devices must be turned off when the plane door is closed and the plane is below 10,000 feet; a rule that makes absolutely no sense in today’s world.

Unfortunately, instead of turning his anger to the FAA, Alec Baldwin complained about being singled out. Even though it actually does sound like he was singled out, the real problem is that he could even be singled out for playing a game while the plane was waiting on the ground. That the crew should not have enforced the FAA’s ridiculous rule is a matter secondary to the fact that the rule exists in the first place. In his note, Alec Baldwin did touch briefly on the government’s role in the matter:

One of the big changes, in my time, is in the increase of the post-9/11, paramilitary bearing of much of the air travel business. September 11th was a horrific day in the airline industry, yet in the wake of that event, I believe carriers and airports have used that as an excuse to make the air travel experience as inelegant as possible.

From The Huffington Post and AP, via TIPB