Yes, I do have other relevant things to blog about than more TSA antics. This isn’t supposed to be a TSA-only blog. But (a) some recent news is too outrageous/tempting to skip, and (b) there are relevant lessons to be extrapolated.
First, the news. Remember the cupcake the TSA seized because its frosting was too “gel-like”? Well, the TSA claims it has been unfairly criticized. It was not that the cupcake had “gel-like” frosting; it was that the cupcake was in a jar. As it happens, the woman whose cupcake this was denies the TSA’s description of the cupcake seizure. But, really, does it matter? Because even if the cupcake was in a jar, it was still deemed a threat and seized. The TSA is very, very good at deeming things threats and seizing them. But actually assessing whether something is truly a threat is another story.
Which brings us to the applicable lessons relevant to this blog:
People in authority are very good at deeming things threats. They are very good at using their police power to exert control over what they deem as threats. They are less good at actually meting out their authority commensurate to the actual problem, and as a consequence it’s very easy for innocent people to have their rights unduly affected.
These observations hold for many contexts, and technology regulation is no exception. Exercises of governmental power can easily be heavy-handed, imprecise, and ill-suited for the problems they pretend to solve. The identification and definition of the underlying problems can also be equally ham-fisted and oftentimes ignorant of actual risk. Which is not to say that all government regulation is illegitimate. On the contrary, these examples illustrate why it’s important to question and discuss exactly when and how governments should be involved in technology use and development. They may well have important roles to play. But only if they are played with care.
Edit 1/11/2012: Updated to provide a direct link to Bruce Schneier’s commentary about the TSA’s admission of its own irrelevance.