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Get ready for more TSA pat-downs

Jun 05, 20125 mins
Data and Information SecurityMicrosoftSecurity

43 TSA employees, from supervisors to front-line screeners, were either fired or suspended for not executing random pat-downs checks. A TSA spokesman said, "At no time was a traveler's safety at risk and there was no impact on flight operations." But which is it? This is where it seems a bit murky since the random pat-downs are either "essential," or they are simply more security theater that pose no additional safety risks when skipped.

Most everyone hates pat-downs, even TSA employees are sick of them which resulted in firing or suspending 43 TSA supervisors and front-line screeners, 15% of the 280 TSA workers at Southwest Florida International Airport. Five TSA employees were fired and 38 others were suspended for willfully “violating security procedures” by not performing random pat-down checks, MSNBC reported. CBS News said, “To put the incident in perspective, while 400 passengers were not screened properly during the two month period, another 3.8 million were put through the proper procedures.”

TSA said it has high standards and “has a zero tolerance for misconduct in the workplace.” Billie Vincent, a former security director for the Federal Aviation Administration, told News-press, “The random (check) then adds an element of unknown to the process, which makes it more difficult to defeat … It’s an essential part of the process.” According to TSA spokesman David Castelveter, “It’s the random secondary that did not happen. At no time was a traveler’s safety at risk and there was no impact on flight operations.” But which is it? This is where it seems a bit murky since the random pat-downs are either “essential,” or they are simply more security theater that pose no additional safety risks when skipped.

Gizmodo believes this is bad news for anyone with plans to fly this summer. “Such a disciplinary action right at the beginning of the summer vacation season means that things are going to get hard for everyone. The reason? The workers were terminated and suspended because a secret, internal investigation showed that they ‘failed to perform random screenings last year’.”

When the former head of TSA Kip Hawley said the TSA has made air travel within the USA an “unending nightmare”, and suggested it would be better to stop banning items, he also critiqued the pat-downs. Hawley talked about the previously classified “intelligence backdrop” of TSA security measures and told IEEE Spectrum, “TSA is one of the top users of operationalizing intelligence, and they can do it on a virtually real-time basis.” He criticized the TSA for not doing a good job of “unplugging the older methods that are still hanging around.” He added that if TSA officers would stop being told to do pat-downs and “fish around for Swiss Army knives,” then “they would be better able to use their training and intelligence and therefore be more effective security officers.”

Such TSA intelligence to spot terrorists has included training Behavior Detection Officers and discussions of behavior vs. ethnic profiling. While debating whether to profile or not to profile, Bruce Schneier said, “Security is all about cost-benefit analyses: how can we get the most security for our money, convenience, freedoms, liberties, and so on.  A lot of what we’ve implemented in our efforts to combat terrorism fail that analysis.”

Florida Rep. John Mica “supports returning many of the government’s airport screening duties to the private sector, which handled security checkpoints before the 2001 terrorist attacks.” Yet this is not new, as in 2003 Mica said of TSA airport screening, “We’ve created a multi-billion-dollar mirage.” Indeed. EPIC (Electronic Privacy Information Center) told us that a classified report based on a DHS Office of Inspector General investigation found vulnerabilities in the body scanner program. “The unclassified summary [PDF] of the report notes that several vulnerabilities were found in the program, which has already cost more than $87 million.” Still, even with vulnerabilities found by pen testing both the millimeter wave and backscatter body scanners, the “TSA will continue to take the necessary steps to increase the effectiveness of AIT” (advanced imaging technology.)

In a federal lawsuit, EPIC challenged the body scanner program, calling it “invasive, unlawful, and ineffective.” You can see one quote after another of travelers who underwent harassment either via the body scanners or pat-downs.

Is there hope that pat-downs will go away? Maybe if we throw even more money at it. Homeland Security is looking into “advanced technology options” to “dramatically reduce” the hated pat-downs. The Houston Chronicle reported, “In a government document, the Department of Homeland Security said it seeks a hand-held device weighing less than 5 pounds that can determine whether a hidden object on a passenger is a weapon or explosive. The device should produce a result in less than 15 seconds.”

At least until the mind reading terrorist pre-crime detectors become all the rage, the “most important” tip on how to avoid additional pat-down screenings, according to the TSA blog, is to “take everything out of your pockets before screening and put items in your carry-on bag.” Other tips included, “Don’t wear clothes with a high metal content, and put heavy jewelry on after you go through security.  If you have a hidden medical device (insulin pump, ostomy bag, brace, etc.), please let the officer know. “

It’s very doubtful other TSA screeners will want to be added to the fired or suspended list, so pat-downs will likely increase. Oh joy. I can hardly wait to see what happens when the TSA’s future plans kick in and the agency starts “to track all daily travels, to work, anywhere you go, from work, to stores or even when you go out to play.”

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ms smith

Ms. Smith (not her real name) is a freelance writer and programmer with a special and somewhat personal interest in IT privacy and security issues. She focuses on the unique challenges of maintaining privacy and security, both for individuals and enterprises. She has worked as a journalist and has also penned many technical papers and guides covering various technologies. Smith is herself a self-described privacy and security freak.