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Complain about the TSA and your First Amendment right might get you flagged

Apr 18, 20115 mins
Data and Information SecurityMicrosoftSecurity

While the TSA SPOT program believes that complaints about the TSA is a potentially risky behavior, deserving further scruntiny, a TSA Officer unleashed a sexually explicit rant "because he can."

Well, we’re all in trouble if the TSA is looking at complainers but the recent news was about TSA Behavior Detection Officers (BDO) pulling people out of line at airport security for daring to exercise their First Amendment right to complain about the TSA. A secret list of 70 or so behaviors that might signal a potential terrorist or other “high risk” passenger is part of TSA’s Screening Passengers by Observation Techniques (SPOT) program. A program that has not been proven effective yet will get millions more in taxpayer dollars.

CNN saw the list and claimed that none of the behavioral indicators suggested race, religion, or ethnicity, but if you complain about the TSA then you will receive more scrutiny by the TSA as part of its SPOT behavioral program. Former FBI agent and now ACLU attorney Michael German said in the video, “If you complain about the government, then that’s justification for the government doing more intensive scrutiny of your behavior. It seems just so anti-American.”

In the CNN article, German stated, “Expressing your contempt about airport procedures — that’s a First Amendment-protected right. We all have the right to express our views, and particularly in a situation where the government is demanding the ability to search you.” German added, “It’s circular reasoning where, you know, I’m going to ask someone to surrender their rights; if they refuse, that’s evidence that I need to take their rights away from them. And it’s simply inappropriate.”

Last year the TSA Blog defended SPOT, “If you’re one of those travelers that gets frazzled easily (not hard to do at airports), you have no reason to worry. BDOs set a baseline based on the normal airport behavior and look for behaviors that go above that baseline. So if you’re stressing about missing a flight, that’s not a guaranteed visit from the BDOs.” If you buy that 100%, then I’m pretty sure I can find someone with desert swampland for sale – and I’m not the only cynical one.

Some members of Congress are concerned about “false positives,” like the fact that “for every person correctly identified as a ‘high risk’ traveler by (the behavior detection officers), 86 were misidentified.” While it seems highly unlikely that terrorists would want the added attention by complaining about TSA in a security line, supposedly one terrorist was described as “arrogant” – yet another of the red flag behavioral traits. According to the Government Accountability Office, the TSA didn’t bother to confirm the science behind the SPOT Program before deploying it. And if you do end up on TSA’s radar, your name might go into a database which is shared by other DHS agencies. Also CNN reported that BDOs are “50 times more likely to refer people they checked to local law enforcement.”

This next tidbit may be comparing apples with oranges, real life with online life, but it irked me when I read about it. So while we better not twitch wrong, complain, or any of the other behavioral red alert signals that could easily be within our First Amendment rights, a TSA Officer can exercise his First Amendment rights to act like a total jerk “because he can.”

According to Patriot Update, Bob Seashols, a TSA Coordination Center Officer at the Richmond International Airport admitted to a “plot” to flood “pornographic images, extreme profanity, and sexually explicit anti-Christian hate-speech on the Facebook page of Ken Ham, an internationally known Christian ministry leader.” When interviewed about his role in the “blitz” against Ken Ham, a campaign of “pornographic and sadomasochistic imagery” and sexually explicit comments, Seashols stated, “Because I can. . . . I can say whatever the h- I want to say about anyone I want to. . . . I’m not breaking any law.”

Oh? And people who happen to be traveling by flying are not allowed to even complain without added scrutiny? Seashols has been working for the TSA since 2006 and, as pointed out by Patriot Update, is expected to follow what is listed on TSAGov’s site as core competency conduct. “…creates a culture that fosters high standards of ethics; behaves in a fair and ethical manner toward others and demonstrates a sense of corporate responsibility and commitment to public service.”

I may not like Seashols apparent lack of integrity or what he did, but I’m not saying he doesn’t have a right to do so. Just as we should be allowed to grumble about TSA security without worrying about ending up on a watchlist.

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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.