TSA: A legacy in ashes

I planned to stop writing about the TSA for awhile because, frankly, bashing the agency is too easy. Applause and page views are assured every time. There's no challenge left in the exercise. Most importantly, I can't tell you anything more about the TSA that you don't already know. Then they go and commit another outrage.

This time, a TSA worker opened up a jar of ashes, spilling some of it. Ashes of somebody's grandfather. This, despite TSA rules -- outlined on the agency's own website -- saying human remains are to be opened under “no circumstances.”

Here's what ABC Indianapolis news affiliate RTV6 is reporting:

A man's attempt to bring the ashes of his grandfather home to Indianapolis ended with an angry scene in a Florida airport, with the ashes spilled on the terminal floor. John Gross, a resident of Indianapolis' south side, was leaving Florida with the remains of his grandfather -- Mario Mark Marcaletti, a Sicilian immigrant who worked for the Penn Central Railroad in central Indiana -- in a tightly sealed jar marked "Human Remains."

Gross said he didn't think he'd have a problem, until he ran into a TSA agent at the Orlando airport. "They opened up my bag, and I told them, 'Please, be careful. These are my grandpa's ashes,'" Gross told RTV6's Norman Cox. "She picked up the jar. She opened it up."I was told later on that she had no right to even open it, that they could have used other devices, like an X-ray machine. So she opened it up. She used her finger and was sifting through it. And then she accidentally spilled it."Gross says about a quarter to a third of the contents spilled on the floor, leaving him frantically trying to gather up as much as he could while anxious passengers waited behind him.

This stuff makes me all the more ashamed for once defending the TSA.

A couple friends in the infosec community made some spot-on comments about this latest bit of abuse.

Lori MacVittie, senior technical marketing manager for F5 Networks, said this on her Facebook page:

"All so we can pretend to feel more secure, without actually *being* more secure. I would seriously vote for a Democrat if they swore on their mother's grave to get rid of the TSA."

Alan Shimel of The CISO Group said, "The TSA may have been the terrorists' greatest victory."

That last line cuts to the heart of it.

During a recent trip to New York, a colleague was telling me how he disagreed with my increasingly anti-TSA position. The TSA has to be out there and be tough, he said. They have no choice. They can't afford even a single slip-up that leads to a terrorist attack. The public would want heads on stakes for that.

He's right about the latter part. If another airline-based attack happened, the public would be outraged. Here's where my friend and colleague missed the point:

Committing one set of outrages to prevent another set of outrages makes no sense. We require that our government take reasonable steps to ensure security and order. That should never be taken as a license to violate the average citizen's rights, over and over again. That is exactly what has happened in airports across America.

It seems to me that the part about the TSA having no choice has more to do with political concerns than public safety.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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