Feb 182012

Last week’s links:

Jan 102012

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.

Jan 052012

Maybe there’s more TSA news breaking these days. Or maybe it’s just that I’m noticing it more. Whatever the reason, on the heels of the last post I have some new items to add. But maybe it makes sense to begin by explaining what this topic is doing on this technology blog. Continue reading »

Dec 272011

This upcoming week’s Quicklinks was starting to have quite a few examples related to aviation safety, so I thought I’d distill them into one post. There is likely universal agreement: we want to be able to travel through the air safely. There is not, however, agreement on what sort of public policy is necessary to ensure such an outcome.

Even regarding the same safety issues there’s not consensus. For example, passengers are forbidden from using certain portable electronics during takeoffs and landings for fear they’d cause electromagnetic interference that could disable the plane’s instruments. Unfortunately, whether that is a valid concern or a modern old wives’ tale is still subject to debate. This article in the New York Times Bits blog ran some tests on various objects and noted that they did not seem to emit interference that would approach dangerous levels, even in the aggregate. On the other hand, it’s worth reading this recent article from Salon.com’s Ask the Pilot columnist Patrick Smith as a counterpoint. He notes that even a minor blip in airplane instrument functionality could be risky, but moreover, the other reason to ban such devices during these periods is because they can become dangerous projectiles in case of emergency. Sure, he observes, so can books, which aren’t banned, but if one is going to draw a line somewhere this could be a reasonable place.

The other links relate to the security theater surrounding airport operations. I won’t categorize this post as “commentary” despite the preceding pejoratives because I am sure at some point(s) in the future I will use even more excoriating language to indict the shameful state of affairs that is the TSA than this here. Instead I will point to this Vanity Fair interview of security expert Bruce Schneier to describe the problem. And also link to this story about the TSA confiscating a passenger’s cupcake because the frosting was “too gel-like” and let you draw your own conclusions.

Update 12/29/11: I missed an article I’d meant to link when I wrote this. “Aviation security expert: TSA wasted $56B on junk security,” Cory Doctorow, BoingBoing, Dec. 7, 2011.

Dec 242011

This article in the Los Angeles Times describes TSA deployment to other public transport, including train stations, subways, ferry terminals, cruise ships, and highway weigh stations.

“We are not the Airport Security Administration,” said Ray Dineen, the air marshal in charge of the TSA office in Charlotte. “We take that transportation part seriously.”

The TSA’s 25 “viper” teams — for Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response — have run more than 9,300 unannounced checkpoints and other search operations in the last year. Department of Homeland Security officials have asked Congress for funding to add 12 more teams next year.

According to budget documents, the department spent $110 million in fiscal 2011 for “surface transportation security,” including the TSA’s viper program, and is asking for an additional $24 million next year. That compares with more than $5 billion for aviation security.

TSA officials say they have no proof that the roving viper teams have foiled any terrorist plots or thwarted any major threat to public safety. But they argue that the random nature of the searches and the presence of armed officers serve as a deterrent and bolster public confidence.

“We have to keep them [terrorists] on edge,” said Frank Cilluffo, director of the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University in Washington. “We’re not going to have a permanent presence everywhere.”

U.S. officials note that digital files recovered from Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan after he was killed by U.S. Navy SEALs in May included evidence that the Al Qaeda leader had considered an attack on U.S. railways in February 2010. Over the last decade, deadly bombings have hit subways or trains in Moscow; Mumbai, India; Madrid; and London.

But critics say that without a clear threat, the TSA checkpoints are merely political theater. Privacy advocates worry that the agency is stretching legal limits on the government’s right to search U.S. citizens without probable cause — and with no proof that the scattershot checkpoints help prevent attacks.

“It’s a great way to make the public think you are doing something,” said Fred H. Cate, a professor at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law, who writes on privacy and security. “It’s a little like saying, ‘If we start throwing things up in the air, will they hit terrorists?'”