There is something spookily appropriate about having an airport security officer lie to you in order to try to violate your civil rights, even in a relatively small way, when you are en route to a convention about technology and freedom.
This morning, as I was going through a deserted security screening post at MIA, in terminal C, just as I was about to put my luggage through the X-ray, the TSA guy working the outside of security, who had already passed me through, decided to invite back in order that I could step through the “puffer machine,” more formally known as an EDT (explosive detection portal) or ETP (Explosives Trace Portal). I wasn’t marked for a security screening, and I suspect nothing more was going on than the guy was bored and wanted something to do. Knowing that I have the right to refuse (at the cost of being searched by hand), and having plenty of time until my flight, I told him that I didn’t like the look of the machine, and I would rather not. This is where the trouble started.
Rather than warn me that the consequence of failing to consent would be a search, which would have been a legally correct reply, or even decide that I would have to be searched whether I wanted to be or not, which might have been legal too, the guy told me that I had no choice, that I had to go through the machine. I told him that I knew for a fact that this was not true, that I had a choice. He insisted. I asked him to get his supervisor over. He did. I explained the problem.
This supervisor’s reaction was not ideal. His first reaction was to push me on why I didn’t want to go in there. But when it became clear that I knew my rights, he backed down pretty fast and mumbled something about a “training failure” then instructed the line folks to give me the full wanding instead, something to which I said I had no objection. I asked the supervisor to tell the line officer in my presence what the correct rule was, but this he refused to do.
I went through the metal detector, had the full-body wanding experience from a different, and perfectly amiable and correct TSA agent. The second guy, however, refused to answer my question as to who the highest ranking TSA guy in the area was. That problem resolved itself when the local honcho turned up and asked what the problem was.
I explained. He very politely refused to admit that the mid-level supervisor had done anything wrong (“we don’t correct our people in front of the public”), but ultimately agreed that the claim that passengers are required to go through the EFT was not in fact correct. In due course he produced a complaint form, which I filled out, checking the box marked “civil rights” for the nature of my complaint. Oddly, the form did not ask for any personal information about me, so I guess that no one will be calling me to get any further details, much less telling what followup actions result from my complaint.
I travel a fair amount, and until this incident I have always found the TSA people to be polite — even in Miami where that’s far from a given — and to be following the actual regulations rather than making them up; I have some disagreement with the fundamental legality of some of those rules — I think searching everyone is the sort of general search that the Fourth Amendment prohibits — but that of course is not the fault of the line screeners. And in some sense, the system here worked after the initial hiccup: because I was very forceful I was not forced to go through the puffer; I wasn’t wrestled to the ground or handcuffed; I wasn’t even taken to the little room for the full-body search. And the most senior guy seemed pretty sincere when he said hed make sure his guy got told what to say in the future. But how many people would happen to be as well informed as to the rules and be willing to stand their ground with a flight looming? Very few: and it’s clear these guys are not used to being challenged.
Compared to other devices the TSA would like to unleash on us, the puffer arguably comes off as benign, although prone to false positives (see the comments here). Unlike some other scanners, it doesn’t shoot beams through you or irradiate you. Instead it shoots air at you — a lot of air — and then analyzes the particles that it manages to dislodge from your clothes and body in order to see if there are residues of Bad Things like explosives (or in time if not already, drugs, I would wager) the theory being that if you have been near a Bad Thing in the past, maybe you are up to no good now. I have never been through it, but the experience has been described as unpleasant., and I had no desire to try it. And whether or not I want to try it, I don’t think government agents should be telling us that being puffed is a condition precedent to being allowed to travel when it is not.
In the age of Guantanamo and Abu Grahib this all may seem like very small beer. Nevertheless, I believe in exercising my freedoms while they still exist. I’m all in favor of sensible security measures (e.g. reinforced cockpit doors on aircraft, random security checks that you can’t foresee by the row of sssss’s on your ticket), I am against what Bruce Schneier so rightly calls security theater — basically useless measures implemented in order to fool the public into thinking that the government is Doing Something about terrorism. There are many things we could do to enhance our actual security — checking more containers at our ports, hardening chemical plants against terrorism, beefing up dams and levies — but I object to much of the airport ‘security’ regime which I think is just a waste of money and time. If you add up the cost of the physical infrastructure (reconfiguring airports, buying all the gear), the salaries, and the lost productivity due to extra travel time added by the fear of a long slow line at security, I suspect the US costs itself more on an annual basis than the dollar cost of rebuilding the twin towers. I cannot understand why it is considered anything other than deeply unpatriotic to shoot yourself in the foot on an annual basis.