Homeland Security, TSA, and the Police State

It's Official: "TSA" = "Totally Stupid Assholes"

Kathy Parker, 43

The Department of Homeland Security's Transportation Safety Administration (a/k/a "TSA") has reached a new low.  Kathy Parker, 43, alleges that TSA personnel illegally invaded her privacy during a preflight security screening at Philadelphia International (PHI) on August 8.

Parker says the TSA screener/s removed retail receipts and other papers from her wallet and read them (while telling her they were looking for razor blades), needlessly embarrassed her by removing and openly displaying prescription medications from her handbag, and then, after "inspecting" negotiable instruments (i.e. checks) that were also in her wallet, conferred with on-hand Philadelphia police. One of the officers then attempted to confiscate said checks without process or paperwork, telling her that he suspected her of embezzlement.  When she protested, she says he told her "It's not your money." *

According to Parker, she was only allowed to collect her belongings and board the plane after half an hour of humiliation and interrogation because she eventually handed over her husband of 20 years' cell number and authorities called him regarding the possibility of Parker attempting to "empty their bank account" due to "a divorce situation."  *

Even though Parker's husband missed the call, the police eventually allowed her to board the plane.  *

According to a Philadelphia police spokesman, the officer was suspicious because the checks Parker carried were "almost sequential" and he was simply trying "to make sure there was nothing fraudulent."  The spokesman added, "They were wondering what the story was. The officer got it cleared up." *

This statement downplays the control issues evident in Parker's version, in which the Philadelphia police officer admonished her that, when she questioned him about whether or not she actually had to explain herself or her checks, his response was, "If you don't tell me, you can tell the D.A."

So a call to her husband sufficed?  A call that Parker's husband didn't even answer?

To be fair, if one can call it that, a TSA spokeswoman said that the explanation for Parker's experience is that, with specifics undefined, a behavioral detection officer noticed her, and she acted "as if she feared discovery." *

Behavioral profiling is a tricky area, one which is too large to fully address here.  Suffice it to say that Nature all but tells us that science's perspective is that behavioral screening's effectiveness is no better than chance:
[A] growing number of researchers are dubious ­ not just about the projects themselves, but about the science on which they are based. "Simply put, people (including professional lie-catchers with extensive experience of assessing veracity) would achieve similar hit rates if they flipped a coin," noted a 2007 report from a committee of credibility-assessment experts who reviewed research on portal screening. *
Add that security expert/technologist/author (and previous TSA advisor) Bruce Schneier's opinion that "It seems pretty clear that the program only catches criminals, and no terrorists," and the Parker fiasco doesn't seem so far-fetched.  *

Compare Nature and Schneier's academic takes with the contents of thus 60 Minutes interview (at the end of this post) with Kip Hawley (TSA head from July 2005 to January 2009) in which he says that these behavior officers can tell the difference between "normal" people who are tense and anxious because they're late for their flight and someone carrying a bomb.  Schneier responds, "There's not a lot of truth in that, but they'd love it if you reported it because, in all seriousness, we are safer if the bad guys believe we've got this piece of magic."  Magic is a great word for something that gives no better hit rate than chance.  Security Theater is another. 

(Note: The video itself, while interesting, is not particularly germane to the discussion at hand -- The important points are covered in this post.)

According to the 60 Minutes video, the TSA spends $160,000,000 of our tax money on more than 2000  behavior detection officers who anonymously roam security checkpoints analyzing micro-facial expressions looking for nervousness and anxiety that are indicative of terrorist intentions versus simple travel woe.  The TSA wouldn't tell 60 Minutes if any of the 180,000 passengers stopped for an interview have turned out to be a terrorist, but Congressional sources told CBS that none had. (Worse than coin-flipping?  Way to go, TSA!  Only you could screw up such a sure thing.)

Also according to the 60 Minutes video, the TSA is spending another $35,000,000 of our tax money to send every one of its 50,000 screeners back to "screener school" for retraining in how to treat the flying public who is consistently enraged, flustered, anxious, and resentful of what  it interprets to be an inane and insane travel mess.  I'm not sure who thought that re-training was a better idea than, maybe, going back to the drawing board and designing procedures that respect the human dignity of the flying public, but I'd sure like to give him/her a piece of my mind.

Another sore spot with the flying public are the full-body image scanners.  When the 60 Minutes correspondent, looking at the airport scanning images, asks "What happens to this image now? Is that stored anywhere?" Hawley replies "No, it's destroyed as soon as the next one comes.  The machines are not capable of storing images."

Per a letter written by TSA Acting Administer Gale D. Rossides to the Chairman of the US House of Representatives Committee on Homeland Security, Hawley's statement on storing images is not true.

Rossides' letter advises that the machines the TSAscreeners "operating in the airport environment have neither the technical capability nor the authority to change the AIT [scanner] into test mode."  Additionally, "Any changes to privacy settings on individual machines can only be made by the 'Z' [level] users."  As of February, 2010, there are 45 Z-level users, including both Federal employees and government contractors. 

So, the TSA purchases the machines with the ability to save and transmit pictures, but they only use said functionality in testing and have said functionality disabled prior to airport delivery, banking on operator ignorance to keep that functionality disabled.  If the Diebold voting machine hacking fiasco has taught us anything, it's that any functionality present but blocked can, and will, eventually be enabled. 

Factor in the TSA's introduction of new police-style uniforms to give the screeners a more authoritative look (even though Washington D.C.-area screener Ladonta Edwards claims, "We're not out there to be fake security guards") -- also from the 60 Minutes video, and a creepy police state vibe develops.  

Back to Kathy Parker.  First it was razor blades that would've been seen on x-ray.  Then embezzlement.  Then theft from her husband.  An admission from the TSA that one of the anonymous behavior detectors was involved.  This sounds to me a whole lot like that behavioral detector detector locked onto Parker for reasons never to be known to her or the public, and that regardless of what was (or, in this case, wasn't) discovered bore no consequence.  I think what freaks me out the most about this was that, if I had been Parker, I surely would have lost my temper.  I would then probably have been arrested, booked, and detained while my husband, in another state, attempted to obtain my release. 

That kind of power, in the hands of one person, without clear guidelines and due process, keeps me awake at night.  I simply cannot reconcile this with the liberty and security in our persons and papers and that we've been led to believe are Constitutional guarantees.  This is not the first time the TSA has trampled on personal liberty and human dignity, but working through the fear caused by the ever-increasing loss of liberty is all the more difficult when trying to quell my outrage at the sexism in the Parker case.  

The law applies to all citizens equally, and someone needs to find the screeners and Philadelphia police officer involved in the Parker case and remind them all that women, even married women God forbid, are allowed to own and possess items of value separate from the influence or presence of a spouse.  They need to be reminded that women, married or not, accompanied by said spouse or not, are as equally guaranteed security in their persons and papers as any man.  My unmitigated rage at the indignity thrust upon Parker, of knowing this last would not have occurred to her had she been in the company of her husband, is awe-inspiring.
Jack-Boot Recipe
Start with one part hokum behavioral screening
Add one abused security screener
Mix well
Add a generous lie about storing intimate pictures
Fold in mission creep
Add a dash of sexism/racism/classism, per abused screener preference
Toss with a generous helping of interrogation and humiliation
Stew until bitter, approximately one hour in a screening line
Serve on a plate paid for by your tax money

Caution: This recipe has not been tested in those with sensitive stomachs, rage disorders, or the intellectually libertarian due to the possibly volcanic reactions that could ensue.


60 Minutes Report on the TSA:


  1. Perhaps Cathy Parker should be interviewed by 60 Minutes. We really need a national debate regarding the effectiveness of this screening, the false positives, intrusive questions, the erosion of Constitutional rights, and the extreme rarity (1 in 17,000,000) that anyone will be involved in an aviation based terrorist incident.

  2. Razors, sure. Emptying husband bank account because you're getting a divorce... really, got that from body language did you??

  3. @Anon 1: Thanks for that! Sounds like you have your own opinions and have done a bit of research on the topic, and since it's a topic dear to my heart, I am interested. Care to share any of your research or opinions? If so, pls consider posting a long comment or submitting a piece to TJP.

    @Anon 2: Thanks for that! Somehow, I missed that obvious piece of contrariness when I was writing. LOL