Writing on the Double Yellow Line

Militant moderate, unwilling to concede any longer the terms of debate to the strident ideologues on the fringe. If you are a Democrat or a Republican, you're an ideologue. If you're a "moderate" who votes a nearly straight party-ticket, you're still an ideologue, but you at least have the decency to be ashamed of your ideology. ...and you're lying in the meantime.

Location: Illinois, United States

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Stunning Revelations

Stunning Revelations
© 2011 Ross Williams

Alright, so there was this guy in New York City who wanted to get to Los Angeles a few weeks back, so he stole several boarding passes over the course of a few days, and used one of them – in conjunction with a college ID – to get through TSA security at Kennedy Airport in New York. The guy is Nigerian, living in the US, vaguely affiliated with a software slash IT outfit in Chicago, and routinely travels for them all over the country.

He boarded a Virgin Airlines plane and flew to LAX. Virgin gate agents, following the TSA lead, let the guy through with an expired and invalid boarding pass but the stewardesses, while counting passengers during the flight, noticed that there was one too many passengers on the plane. He was turned over to LA police and TSA in Los Angeles when the flight landed, but neither TSA nor LAPD chose to do anything with him so they let him go.

The Nigerian, a 24 year-old named [something] Noibi, then attempted the same game a few days later on a Delta flight from LA to Atlanta. TSA once again allowed him through security, but Delta’s gate agents in LA are a bit more on the ball than Virgin’s are in NY, and they stopped him from boarding the plane. This time TSA had LA police arrest him. He is now charged with various crimes from attempting to stow away, to improper documentation, to theft of boarding passes – he was found in possession of nearly a dozen more boarding passes in his carry-on bag.

And of course TSA is once again caught in the embarrassing position of having to publically explain to the general public [and, no doubt, privately explain to their DHS superiors and critical members of Congress] how they could allow a non-ticketed person with stolen, expired and invalid boarding passes in other people’s names, and using a non-approved form of ID through security. Passenger verification is supposed to be their first step.

And of course TSA is once again giving the subject the ol’ soft shoe. Attempting to distract the public with irrelevancies and shiny objects works with some people, naturally, but the general consensus on the TSA’s own website(1) is that they’re dissembling.

TSA’s first rationalization is that they have 21 Layers of Security® and they don’t rely on any of them. The next is that even though he got past the ID check, he was still given the same physical screening that everyone else gets – including having gotten the new advanced imaging technology [which is known as jocularly as possible as the PornoScan], and so therefore there was no danger to the passengers or the plane.

The third rationalization is that they are “considering” taking “disciplinary actions” against those trained apes who allowed Noibi to pass through security ... in New York.

The last rationalization is that we shouldn’t worry because they are now testing another neat, new one-dimensional gizmo that the taxpayers will gladly purchase for them which will do the cumbersome task of matching the boarding pass to the ID.

And naturally, these rationalizations don’t even begin to pass the sniff-test.

Of TSA’s 21 Layers, one is confined to the hiring criteria for TSA employees, and two are the way TSA employees do their jobs:
1] match ID photo to face, match ID name to boarding pass name, and match boarding pass date to today’s date; and
2] operate the various nazi-stand apparatus: the x-ray conveyor, the PornoScan, the magnetometer and the hand wands.

Not mentioned are those whose job it is to hector and nag people at the top of their lungs to take off their shoes and put all liquids and gels into plastic bags, or run the plastic conveyor bins back and forth, and to stand around in clusters debating how to best check a newborn for more than 3 ounces of urine in its diaper. Of the 21 Layers, TSA is responsible for 3.

Local police are responsible for several, airlines themselves for several, the military and CIA for several, the US Marshall service for several, airplane manufacturers for at least one, and even passengers for a few. TSA is 14.3% of the solution, and they can’t – with 67,000 employees – manage to do their portion satisfactorily. No wonder they’ve expanded the responsibility for air flight security by 600% and to everyone else under the sun, including passengers themselves; TSA’s portion of it is guaranteed to not work. There’s eighteen built in back-up plans.

The physical screening with all its various moving parts and removable items is notoriously inept. TSA routinely allows between 60 and 70% of the test bombs and guns through the x-ray conveyor. These are the ones that other federal agents posing as airline passengers attempt to sneak through to determine how good TSA is at their job. Conclusion: they aren’t. They’d have a better record by flipping coins.

Saying that Noibi got the same physical screening as everyone else “including the PornoScan” so therefore the plane was safe is less than comforting, frankly. And how can TSA say that he got the PornoScan when TSA has sworn up and down that they keep no record of who does and who does not get subjected to it? They were either lying then about the records they keep, or they’re lying now about him having gone through it. In either case, it makes no difference, because the physical screening is only good at determining when a 95 year-old and feeble terminal cancer patient who cannot stand up is in need of an adult diaper change, but it cannot find stun guns.

A stun gun was discovered a few days ago in the seat back pocket of a JetBlue airliner. My guess is that it was put there by a passenger wishing to do nothing more than embarrass TSA even further. It seems to be a game with some people today: folks stripping to their skivvies to undergo the patdowns ... people staging hissy fits afterwards for traveling companions to capture for YouTube fame...

Government excess can withstand everything but mocking, which is why most excessive governments outlaw impoliteness. I’d further describe this impoliteness in accurate terms, but certain aspects of Political Correctness stand in the way.

TSA agents have repeatedly been caught stealing property from passengers [apart from toothpaste and shampoo, that is], repeatedly been caught damaging property, repeatedly been caught not catching bombs and guns and knives on the x-ray conveyor, repeatedly been caught being inept, incompetent, misfeasant and malfeasant, and the only TSA agent known to be fired “for cause” is one who slugged a coworker during a PornoScan demonstration for making fun of his teeny weeny tiny weenie visible on the screen.

Now, there have been other trained apes fired, certainly, but mainly for failing to conform to agency rules [i.e., tattling on the agency] rather than for not following society’s rules or the function of the job. The main “disciplinary action” TSA imposes, though, is “retraining”. That’ll learn ‘em.

There was recently a huge sting operation at the Honolulu airport undertaken by local and [non-TSA] federal investigators to look into deliberate non-screening of luggage that had been reported by a TSA agent who was fired for reporting it. Something like 34 TSA agents and supervisors were implicated; TSA has taken “disciplinary action”: they have “delivered over thirty proposed letters of removal”(2).

They didn’t fire anyone for deliberately not doing their jobs. The TSA agent who originally tattled on them, however, was fired. Firing the “over thirty” has not been done; it has merely been “proposed”. This is described on the TSA website – and bragged about with no discernible irony – in an entry called “Accountability”. Apparently, besides not knowing what security is, and being clueless on Constitutional rights, TSA has a bit of confusion over what it means to be accountable.

I’m positive that the agents responsible for allowing Noibi past the ID check station of the security checkpoint will not have to worry about a “proposed” firing; they’ll be retrained on how to look at the ID and tell the difference between a passport or driver’s license [which are valid forms of photo ID] and a college badge [which is not], how to look at the picture and match it to the face of the one holding it, how to match the name on the ID to the name on the boarding pass, and how to read a calendar well enough to tell if the boarding pass is for today.

That’s some pretty complex stuff there. We’d all need refreshers from time to time, I think. The TSA agents in LA who also let him through their security aren’t being “disciplined”, though; Delta Airlines – another of the 21 Layers, did TSA’s job for them so they’re off the hook.

But rather than training and retraining and possibly re-retraining apes how to do what a reasonably bright 3rd grader can do, TSA is trying to get a machine to do it for them. It’s too difficult to match face to face, name to name and date to calendar consistently well, so technology to the rescue. Instead of a grunting ape taking 30 seconds to do 5 seconds of comparison [or send the passenger away to find a real ID, get a real boarding pass, or stand to the side and wait for the real cops to come get him and ask why he has fraudulent documents], he’s going to be replaced by a machine which will, in a minute and a half, need to scan a face, then scan the photo on the ID, then digitally compare the two, then scan the name on the ID and the name on the boarding pass for an exact match. Taking three times as long will be seen as an improvement.

And to a government computer, Robert is not the same as Rob, Bob, Bobby or Robbie. And Robert A is not the same as Robert.

Of course this would all be far easier with standardized inputs. Driver’s licenses all having digitally readable magnetic strips or bar codes that would link to a database holding a digitized photo and name; newer US passports already have a bar code on them. Better yet, why not just implement the national id that the RealID Act of 2005 allows TSA’s parent department – DHS – to implement at their whim. A magnetic strip on the back with your vitals: photo, address, phone number [cell and home], social security number, employer, credit rating, travel history, security clearance, known affiliations ... whatever is seen as useful to the feds.

TSA can mandate standardized boarding pass formats from all the airlines, even if they have to pull Transportation Department strings in order to accomplish it.

There are those who point at Noibi and declare that his little scheme was a dry-run for another round of pan-islamist hooligans up to no good. Others are saying that it’s a common way to save money flying around the country in Nigeria, where he comes from. In either event, it points to TSA not doing the job they volunteered to do, that they claimed to be able to do, and that they were given to do ... and which many of us looked at and said, “Uh, dudes ... no you can’t.” We were right all along it turns out, and what a surprise that is.

Once again, TSA is attempting to replace themselves with technological apparatus to do for them the job they cannot do because TSA reduces security to “things” and not the people holding those things. By doing this, TSA will reduce their job to mere “monitoring”.

They currently “monitor” the x-ray machine, the PornoScan, and the magnetometer. Those parts of the job they do by hand – the patdowns and the ID checks – they either hate doing [they continually claim they hate abusing our Constitutional rights as much as we hate having them abused], or they are – as the Noibi episodes suggest – farcically incompetent at doing them.

Of course, they are also incompetent at monitoring their technology, as the JetBlue stun gun, not to mention countless security audits, shows. But monitoring technology reduces their already reduced job of “things” by adding a layer of deflection; it creates a ready excuse. It isn’t the fault of the agent, the agency, or the US when things go wrong in screening for “things”; it’s the fault of the technology and they need to buy more technology to fix it. Lucky us, we get to buy it for them.

Doing it the right way in a free nation is too awkward when that nation embraces political correctness, especially when the government workforce is tripping on their own power and impunity, and the loudest group of citizens, even if a dwindling minority at this point, equates annoyance and harassment with effective government policy.

1 http://blog.tsa.gov/2011/07/jfk-lax-stowaway-was-screened-by-tsa.html#links
2 http://blog.tsa.gov/2011/06/accountability.html#links


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