TSA Pat-Down Changes Don’t Bring Huge Complaint Increase

Wall Street Journal

Complaints about Transportation Security Administration screening shot higher in November, the first month airport security screeners started doing “enhanced pat-downs’’ on passengers, but the increase might not have been as big as you might have expected. [ed – if you believe the data that the TSA themselves is supplying.  They have yet to be truthful about ANYTHING]

November was the month when Transportation Security Administration pat-downs got a lot more personal, and when lots of other media outlets started reporting on full-body scanners. (We wrote about it here months earlier). Backlash built up, but TSA stuck to its guns. And after Thanksgiving, the furor subsided.

And so you might expect the number of complaints that travelers filed with TSA to shoot higher, reflecting that November frenzy. But total complaints filed increased 14% over November 2009 to 1,941 from 1,708, according to data reported by the Department of Transportation.

Complaints about how TSA handles people, rather than their property, were a lot higher as a whole. Complaints about screener courtesy, for example, increased 58% to 384 in November from 243. Complaints about “processing time’’ nearly doubled. Still, the numbers are very small compared to the total number of passengers screened and the attention focused on TSA.

And while November was higher than the same month a year earlier, it was very much in line with previous months. November’s complaint total was actually smaller than six of the previous eight months.

Complaints filed with the agency (here’s a link to the TSA complaint form) may not be an accurate reflection of traveler unhappiness and frustration with TSA. Travelers may be more inclined to file complaints against airlines with the DOT because they want compensation from their carrier. Except for lost or stolen baggage items, there’s no compensation to seek from TSA. Remember, too, that the enhanced pat-down procedures only affect travelers who set off alarms in the full-body scanners or refuse the full-body scan. And public opinion polls show that there is support out there for enhanced screening procedures at airports.

With airline complaints, there is often a lag between complaint totals and changes in operations that affect customers. It will be interesting in the months ahead to see if TSA complaints catch up to the screening changes, or continue to largely reflect traveler acceptance of the enhanced screening procedures.

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TSA Now Forcing Opt-Outs To Walk Through Body Scanners

Prison Planet

If the experience of a man traveling through Baltimore Washington International Airport last night is anything to go by, the TSA is now forcing people who opt out of the naked body scanner to walk through the machine as part of a psychological ploy to coerce subservience out of other travelers.

Alexander Petersen was passing through security to board a domestic flight to Florida with his wife and three children. After the backscatter x-ray machines were turned on, TSA staff started corralling passengers to go through the naked body scanners. Petersen’s family escaped selection but when he was told to submit to a scan, Peterson declined and opted for the invasive pat down instead.

“They then called for an “opt-out” pat down and still told me I had to go through the machine,” writes Petersen. “I said no, and reiterated that I opt for the pat-down. They said that I just have to walk through the machine and that they won’t turn it on. I said “how do I know it’s not on, just because you say so?” Then, one of the other workers stood inside of the machine where the footprints were and waived for me to go through. With that, I assumed that it was indeed off, and proceeded through the machine for my enhanced pat-down molestation.”

After receiving his advanced grope down, during which a TSA worker felt his crotch and backside, much to the confusion of Peterson’s young son who asked, “what is that man doing to you?,” Petersen reflected on being forced to walk through the machine with assurances that it was “switched off,” even though he had declined to be body scanned.

Upon further reflection, I do not believe this procedure to be arbitrary or isolated. It makes perfect sense in a game of psychological warfare by the government to suppress the will of people to opt out of the intrusive searches being done. What better way than to make that naughty guy that opts out walk through and thereby, in a way, submit to the machine. Otherwise, by walking around the machine, there is a sense of victory. In such a case, one thinks, “I did not submit to that machine and the unwanted xrays and pictures. I did not go through it.” By going through it, there is a sense of defeat. “I had submitted,” one thinks.

What’s more important is how that simple action of walking through the machine, whether as part of the xray search or not, is viewed by the rest of the travelers in line (the flying public). The ones nearby might have heard that I opted out. They then see that even the naughty disobedient traveler is still corralled through the machine and then molested. They will likely be less inclined to opt out since they have to walk through the machine anyway. “Just flip the switch and they’ll avoid the additional molestation,” they likely think. As for the more distant travelers in line, who can’t hear what’s going on and don’t know that a passenger has asked to opt out, they see the same pattern of passengers who opt out and who submit to the x-ray, still walking through the machine. They pay less attention to those who opt-out.

There is no moral victory to be had. Everyone is going through the machine. This should certainly decrease the level of those who opt-out because they feel like they may be the only one to opt-out. Less people want to be the only one that opts out. They think everyone else is submitting. For the acute observers that notice that some people are opting out and walking through the machines, they are still less likely to opt out since they know they still have to walk through the machine and there is less of a victory by totally avoiding it and walking around it, which would provide a moral victory and truly ensure that no x-rays are emitted on them nor pictures taken.

Indeed, if this is part of a new psychological ploy on behalf of the TSA it would not be the first time that they have employed such tactics.

At the height of the revolt against the TSA a couple of months ago, it was admitted that the goal of making the pat down procedure tantamount to sexual molestation was to psychologically coerce people into using dangerous radiative body scanners, devices colloquially known as “Dick Measurers” amongst TSA agents.

The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg was told by a TSA agent directly that pat downs were made increasingly invasive not for any genuine security reason, but to make the experience so uncomfortable for the traveler that they would prefer to use the body scanner, despite the fact that scientists at Columbia University and the Inter-Agency Committee on Radiation Safety, along with other scientific bodies, have all warned that the devices increase the risk of developing cancer.

I asked him if he was looking forward to conducting the full-on pat-downs. “Nobody’s going to do it,” he said, “once they find out that we’re going to do.”

In other words, people, when faced with a choice, will inevitably choose the Dick-Measuring Device over molestation? “That’s what we’re hoping for. We’re trying to get everyone into the machine.” He called over a colleague. “Tell him what you call the back-scatter,” he said. “The Dick-Measuring Device,” I said. “That’s the truth,” the other officer responded.

The TSA was also caught arbitrarily amending its own policies during the national opt-out day protest back in November when the agency temporarily curtailed the use of the body scanners as part of a political ploy to defuse the impact of the opt-out demonstration. The agency has still failed to release any information about the stand-down despite former Congressman Bob Barr filing a Freedom of Information Act request demanding to know why the TSA pulled such a stunt on one of the busiest traveling days of the year.

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Controversial Body Scanner to be Used Shortly at Ezeiza and Santiago Airports

Merco Press

Airport Security Police is equipped with seven units which they will begin using at Ezeiza Airport and later on at Aeroparque, Mendoza, Salta, and Bariloche. Procedures published in the Official Bulletin indicated that this new technology will be used following specific guidelines.

These include having officers of the same sex as the passengers in question performing the scans as well as analyzing the images, and also that the scanners will only be used if there is sufficient reason to suspect that a passenger is carrying illegal drugs, explosives, or other prohibited substances or elements.

In approximately a month the body scanning system will start being used at the Arturo Merino Benitez terminal in Santiago de Chile. The machine will be used mainly in the fight against drug trafficking, and the scans will be carried out by the Investigations Police (PDI).

The PDI has already been using one of these scanners at the border station in Chacalluta, Arica since April of last year. Thanks to the use of this technology, 90 kilos of cocaine have been found in the stomachs of 65 traffickers, most of which were of Peruvian descent. Around 20 people are scanned each day at the border office in the northern zone.

Supporters claim that there are advantages to using the full body scanner as opposed to the traditional strip search as you can look for hidden objects without physically touching a person or removing clothes. However, the scanner has caused controversy world-wide due to the violation of people’s privacy as the body appears almost nude in the images it provides. Opponents also object to the fact that this technology uses radio waves, the long-term effects of which are not yet known.

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82-yr-old cancer survivor forced to reveal prosthesis at airport

Digital Journal

An 82-year-old lady was returning home to British Columbia after a visit with her family. At Calgary International Airport she said she was humiliated and embarrassed by airport security.

Elizabeth Strecker, 82, was asked at the Calgary airport if she was carrying any liquids or gels to which she replied, “No.” She never even thought of the gel prosthesis that she wears since losing a breast to cancer.

When a pin in her leg was picked up by a metal detector she was told to go through a body scanner and was ordered to stand with her legs in a wide stance, with her arms up.

She informed the screeners she couldn’t raise her one arm to which they insisted that she do so. When she pulled her left arm up with her right arm she was told that wasn’t allowed. The Vancouver Sun reports Strecker said, “I definitely didn’t want the world to know I had cancer and a mastectomy. It’s embarrassing, no matter what age you are. She added, “There were two involved, a male that asked me questions and a female that actually chuckled when I said I can’t lift my arm. And I really can’t because of the mastectomy.”

Since she was standing in an awkward position she lost her balance and stumbled.

Abbynews.com reports Strecker said, “I am 82. My balance is maybe not like it used to be. And then they look at you like you’re drunk.”

After the body scanner revealed the prosthesis CTV Calgary reports Strecker said, “I heard someone say ‘whatever she said isn’t true.'”

She then had a thorough pat-down. She said, “Then she started to touch me everywhere.”

The Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA) has called Strecker’s house twice when she wasn’t home and left a message. In the message they apologized and said they will investigate the incident.

The Vancouver Sun reports Strecker said, “I think (the agent) did mean it. I certainly did not look for publicity like that, definitely not, but now that it is across the country, I hope something is going to be done about airport security and screeners.”

Mathieu Larocque, a spokesman for CATSA said it should take less than a month to complete the investigation. If the results are made public will be up to Strecker as reports are kept private.

The spokeswoman for the Calgary airport, Jodey Moseley, wants to be informed about the results of the investigation. If there needs to be any changes it would have to be up to CATSA as they oversee airport security screening.

Larocque said “For our part, we’re very concerned about (Strecker’s) experience.We’ve spoken to CATSA and want them to let us know how their investigation is going.”

The Toronto Sun reports Strecker said, “They really can make an old person feel crummy.”

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Homeland Security’s laptop seizures: Interview with Rep. Sanchez


For those who regularly write and read about civil liberties abuses, it’s sometimes easy to lose perspective of just how extreme and outrageous certain erosions are.  One becomes inured to them, and even severe incursions start to seem ordinary.  Such was the case, at least for me, with Homeland Security’s practice of detaining American citizens upon their re-entry into the country, and as part of that detention, literally seizing their electronic products — laptops, cellphones, Blackberries and the like — copying and storing the data, and keeping that property for months on end, sometimes never returning it.  Worse, all of this is done not only without a warrant, probable cause or any oversight, but even without reasonable suspicion that the person is involved in any crime.  It’s completely standard-less, arbitrary, and unconstrained.  There’s no law authorizing this power nor any judicial or Congressional body overseeing or regulating what DHS is doing.  And the citizens to whom this is done have no recourse — not even to have their property returned to them.

When you really think about it, it’s simply inconceivable that the U.S. Government gets away with doing this.  Seizing someone’s laptop, digging through it, recording it all, storing the data somewhere, and then distributing it to various agencies is about the most invasive, privacy-destroying measure imaginable.  A laptop and its equivalents reveal whom you talk to, what you say, what you read, what you write, what you view, what you think, and virtually everything else about your life.  It can — and often does — contain not only the most private and intimate information about you, but also information which the government is legally barred from accessing (attorney/client or clergy/penitent communications, private medical and psychiatric information and the like).  But these border seizures result in all of that being limitlessly invaded.  This is infinitely more invasive than the TSA patdowns that caused so much controversy just two months ago.  What kind of society allows government agents — without any cause — to seize all of that whenever they want, without limits on whom they can do this to, what they access, how they can use it:  even without anyone knowing what they’re doing?

This Homeland Security conduct has finally received some long-overdue attention over the past several months as a result of people associated with WikiLeaks or Bradley Manning being subjected to it.  In July, Jacob Appelbaum, a WikiLeaks volunteer, was detained for hours at Newark Airport, had his laptop and cellphones seized (the cellphones still have not been returned), and was told that the same thing would happen to him every time he tried to re-enter the country; last week, it indeed occurred again when he arrived in Seattle after a trip to Iceland, only this time he was afraid to travel with a laptop or cellphone and they were thus unable to seize them (they did seize his memory sticks, onto which he had saved a copy of the Bill of Rights).  The same thing happened to 23-year-old American David House after he visited Bradley Manning in the Quantico brig and worked for Manning’s legal defense fund:  in November, House returned to the U.S. from a vacation in Mexico with his girlfriend and her family, was detained, and had his laptop and memory sticks seized (they were returned only after he retained the ACLU of Massachusetts to demand their return).

But this is happening to far more than people associated with WikiLeaks.  As a result of writing about this, I’ve spoken with several writers, filmmakers, and activists who are critics of the government and who have been subjected to similar seizures — some every time they re-enter the country.  In September, the ACLU filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of these suspicionless searches; one of the plaintiffs on whose behalf they sued is Pascal Abidor, a 26-year-old dual French-American citizen who had his laptop seized at the border when returning to the U.S. last year:

Abidor was traveling from Montreal to New York on an Amtrak train in May when he had his laptop searched and confiscated by Custom and Border Patrol officers. Abidor, an Islamic Studies Ph.D. student, was questioned, handcuffed, taken off the train and kept in a holding cell for several hours before being released without charge. When his laptop was returned 11 days later, there was evidence that many of his personal files, including research, photos and chats with his girlfriend, had been searched.

A FOIA request from the ACLU revealed that in the 18-month period beginning October 1, 2008, more than 6,600 people — roughly half of whom are American citizens — were subjected to electronic device searches at the border by DHS, all without a search warrant.  But the willingness of courts to act is unclear at best.  The judiciary, with a few exceptions, has been shamelessly deferential in the post-9/11 era to even the most egregious assertions of Executive Branch power in the name of security.  Combine that with the stunning ignorance of technology on the part of many judges — many of whom have been on the bench a long time and are insulated by their office from everyday life — and it’s not hard to envision these practices being endorsed.  Indeed, two appellate courts have thus far held — reversing the rulings of lower courts — that Homeland Security agents do not even need to show “reasonable suspicion” to search and seize a citizens’ electronic products when re-entering their country.  Some lower court judges, however, continue to rule the practice unconstitutional:  see here for one federal judge’s emphatic rejection of the Obama DOJ’s arguments as to why such searches fall outside of the Bill of Rights.

In a July, 2008 Senate hearing, then-Sen. Russ Feingold hosted the Association of Corporate Travel Executives, which vehemently opposes this practice, and Feingold said this:

Over the last two years, reports have surfaced that customs agents have been asking U.S. citizens to turn over their cell phones or give them the passwords to their laptops. The travelers have been given a choice between complying with the request or being kept out of their own country. They have been forced to wait for hours while customs agents reviewed and sometimes copied the contents of the electronic devices. In some cases, the laptops or cell phones were confiscated and returned weeks or even months later, with no explanation.

Back then, this was painted as yet another Bush/Cheney assault on civil liberties, so one frequently heard denunciations like this from leading Democrats such as Sen. Pat Leahy:  “It may surprise many Americans that their basic constitutional rights do not exist at our ports of entry even to protect private information contained on a computer. It concerns me, and I believe that actions taken under the cover of these decisions have the potential to turn the Constitution on its head.”  But now that this practice has continued — and seemingly expanded — under the Obama presidency, few in Congress seem to care.

Indeed, even in the wake of increasing complaints, Congress has done nothing to curb these abuses or even regulate them.  But at least one member of the House, Rep. Loretta Sanchez, a California Democrat, is attempting to do something.  Rep. Sanchez has introduced a very modest bill — H.R. 216 — requiring Homeland Security to issue rules governing these searches and seizures so that they are no longer able to operate completely in the dark and without standards.  The bill would also impose some reporting requirements on DHS (Section 4); provide some very modest rights to those subjected to these seizures as well as some minor procedural limits on DHS agents (Sec. 2); and would compel “a civil liberties impact assessment of the rule, as prepared by the Officer for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties of the Department of Homeland Security” (Sec. 2(b)(9)).

Yesterday, I spoke with Rep. Sanchez about her bill, and the 8-minute interview can be heard on the player below.  I actually anticipated this interview would be somewhat confrontational because I think this bill — though well-intentioned — is woefully inadequate and potentially even counter-productive.  The bill does not in any way curb the central abuse:  Homeland Security’s seizure of people’s property without any probable cause or even reasonable suspicion (a bill introduced by then-Sen. Feingold would have barred all such searches in the absence of reasonable suspicion).  Rep. Sanchez’s bill also leaves it up to DHS to promulgate its own rules rather than having Congress fulfill its oversight duties by imposing rules on the agency.  And worst of all, the bill could be seen as codifying — granting the Congressional stamp of approval and thus strengthening — Homeland Security’s power to conduct these suspicionless seizures.

But the more I listened to her, the more I thought that perhaps this is a good first step — at least arguably better than nothing (I’m still ambivalent on that question).  At the very least, this bill would force into the sunlight information about what DHS is actually doing, perhaps generating some controversy and enabling more stringent restrictions.  It would provide some formal mechanism for citizens to complain about abuse and try to have their laptops returned (though, as computer expert Jacob Appelbaum told me, he would never trust a laptop hard drive that had been in the custody of government agents, as it could easily be fixed, without detection, to surveil all future use).  And it would impose at least some guidelines against invading attorney/client communications, medical information, and other sensitive data (though without any enforcement mechanism, it’d be less like a requirement and more like a suggestion that would likely be ignored).

One point Rep. Sanchez emphasized is that even if she wanted a stronger bill (and it seems clear she does), the chance of enacting it in the GOP House is very small.  After all, the Democratic Congress did nothing about this problem.  But that underscores one amazing point:  the right-wing of the Republican Party and its “Tea Party” faction endlessly tout their devotion to limited federal government powers, individual rights, property rights, and the Constitution.  If they were even minimally genuine in those claims, few things would offend and anger them more than federal agents singling out and detaining whichever citizens they want, and then taking their property, digging through and recording their most personal and private data — all without any oversight or probable cause.  Yet with very few exceptions (a few groups on the Right, including religious conservatives, opposed some excesses of the Patriot Act, while the small libertarian faction of the GOP oppose many of these abuses), they seem indifferent to, even supportive of, the very policies that most violently injure their ostensible principles.

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TSA makes ‘nominal’ payment to settle suit over exposing 24-year-old’s breasts

Raw Story

A woman who had her breasts exposed during an airport search by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) was to receive a “nominal” payment as a part of the settlement.

The 24-year-old woman was selected for “extended search procedures” prior to boarding a plane to Amarillo, Texas in 2008.

A lawsuit claimed that the TSA agent pulled her blouse completely down while frisking her.

Raw Story decided against republishing the woman’s name and photograph due to the nature of her ordeal.

“As would be expected, plaintiff was extremely embarrassed and humiliated,” the lawsuit alleged.

“For an extended period of time” other agents made jokes about the incident. “One male TSA employee expressed to the plaintiff that he wished he would have been there when she came through the first time and that ‘he would just have to watch the video.'”

Documents filed in US District Court last week revealed that the case had been settled.

Jerry McLaughlin, the victim’s lawyer, described the payout as “nominal.”

When asked if she received more than $100,000, McLaughlin laughed and said it “way less than that. It wasn’t a whole lot of money.”

He added that his client would never have sued if the TSA had simply sent a letter apologizing.

She “was never interested in the money,” McLaughlin said.

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TSA chief seeks less ‘invasive’ methods

Washington Times

TSA chief John Pistole said Thursday the agency is looking at new technology such as scanner images that show passengers as “stick figures” and security methods used in Israeli airports as part of his pledge to make air travel “as minimally invasive as possible.”

In a speech before the American Bar Association in Washington, Mr. Pistole said the federal government would make a decision “some time this year” on whether to adopt the scanner technology, now used in Amsterdam.

The concern of whether the TSA’s enhanced security measures have gone too far and invaded passengers’ privacy reached a flash point during the Thanksgiving travel season, with news reports of people complaining about TSA scanners seeing images of their naked bodies, intimate “pat-downs” and having to reveal embarrassing medical conditions.

We’re trying to protect people “while at the same time preserving their privacy,” Mr. Pistole said.

He said the Israeli method is based more on intelligence than physical searches and begins “curbside” when passengers arrive at the airport.

However, adopting such methods will be complicated, considering the U.S. has about 628 million air passengers a year, compared to about 11 million in Israel, Mr. Pistole said.

He also said the agency is considering a fee-based security system for travelers.

The agency started the much of its advance screening after Christmas Day 2009, when a Nigerian man attempted to blow up a Detroit-bound plane with explosives in his underpants.

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