The TSA, market choices and the erosion of rights.

Posted a link earlier to a very interesting article in the Atlantic that mentioned the Department of Homeland Security, via the TSA, ‘is using algorithms to “prescreen” travelers before they board domestic flights, reviewing government and private databases that include Americans’ tax identification numbers, car registrations and property records.’

It is not necessarily a surprising development for an organisation that invested roughly $45m in full body scanners that experts (such as the excellent Bruce Schneier) said did not work. (The backscatter tech based full body scanners have now been removed from service.)

The Atlantic article linked to this NYT article:

The effort comes as the agency is trying to increase participation in its trusted traveler program, called PreCheck, that allows frequent fliers to pass through security more quickly after submitting their fingerprints and undergoing a criminal-background check.


The T.S.A. also maintains a PreCheck disqualification list, tracking people accused of violating security regulations, including disputes with checkpoint or airline staff members.

In addition, the information stored on Americans is shared within the Department of Homeland Security, with other Government departments and with…. private companies?

For instance, an update about the T.S.A.’s Transportation Security Enforcement Record System, which contains information about travelers accused of “violations or potential violations” of security regulations, warns that the records may be shared with “a debt collection agency for the purpose of debt collection.”

A recent privacy notice about PreCheck notes that fingerprints submitted by people who apply for the program will be used by the F.B.I. to check its unsolved crimes database.

(Just going to casually leave this link to the Wiki page on the Fourth Amendment here. )

Technically, we do not have to get on planes. Humans existed fine before air travel started to become more common in the mid twentieth century. Continents were populated and conquered, empires and civilisations built, great feats of technical and intellectual prowess were achieved, and none of it dependent on planes. This would indicate that, technically, we do not have to fly to live.

But when you have family and friends that live thousands of miles away, flying makes a big difference. There is a nice romance to the idea of getting a boat across the Atlantic or catching a train or coach to do the journey, but in a busy life the extra time needed each way is not particularly realistic.

So yes, technically, flying is a choice, in much the same way that dentistry, exercise and a decent diet are a choice. There is a transactional nature to the choice – I want X so I must pay Y. I want teeth when I am old, so I floss. I want to get old, so I try to get some exercise. I want to see friends and family in the US, so I let the TSA scan me and my belongings.

However, when a dentist causes me pain and/or is mean, I can go find a new dentist. Similarly, while I am unable (ok, maybe unwilling) to take part in cross country running and anything that involves group exercise (aka, ritual humiliation), I am thankful that there are other ways to exercise. When there are options available, finding the optimal transaction to reach your goal is easier. It also makes avoiding negative and damaging behaviour a lot easier. If, for any bizarre reason, my dentist had asked me to hand over all my financial details, tax records and a naked photo of myself, I would definitely have run for the hills and then found a way to report them for inappropriate behaviour.

With the TSA, the choice is simple – suck it up and obey the TSA or do not fly. There are no alternatives on the market.

The lack of alternatives to ‘suck it up and obey’ makes it easier for the TSA to make demands that would not be acceptable in a different context.

Just by dint of the context in which we interact with the TSA, they present a coercive environment. This was proven during the days of the nudey scanners. Having an agent behind a screen look at you naked is a weird and creepy thought. Yet so many of us swept this aside as a momentary inconvenience in pursuit of our goal. ‘I want to get on that plane, the agent will never see my face… we’re all just human underneath, blah blah blah.’

If you had to actually walk naked past a stranger or two in order to clear security, would you do that? And if you were in an airport and there was a line of people, waiting to walk naked past that stranger… Wouldn’t that seem really weird? This is in effect what was happening, and most of us did not have the time or the courage to ask for an alternative. We felt the pressure to conform, to keep things moving for the sake of the group. Besides, it is for our own safety, right?

The way in which these hoops and hurdles are presented to us shapes how we think about them.

We are busy people, bombarded with information from the moment we open our eyes in the morning to shutting our eyes at night. We have to make compromises all the time. We want to travel, we accept that there are some who think planes make for a good terrorist target, so we accept that there is screening involved in getting on a plane.

By presenting this new development in screening and security as just another part of the travel process, it is easy to gloss over what is involved and what it means.

You want to get on a plane? Then you have to let this branch of the Government rifle through the information lots of Government departments have on you, that they may then share with other agencies and some private companies. If you had to hand over that data by filling out paperwork, the amount of data involved would be come more apparent and more sinister. Much like letting a stranger see you naked.

As citizens of democracies, we have a duty to question the laws that are handed down to us. I do not mean picking a fight with a TSA agent – there’s a decent chance that that will get you blacklisted – but rather to work out what we will and will not accept, and why.

There has to be a line that cannot be crossed. We need to work out where that line is for each of us. What rights would you give up for what greater good? What evidence of a greater good do you need? At what point does the cost of what the TSA and US Government is asking for outweigh the benefit of getting on a plane?

This topic keeps reminding me of a quote attributed to Benjamin Franklin –

They that can give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.

Mr Franklin was writing in a more absolute time, before big data existed and the entire facts of someone’s life could be transferred in milliseconds. But his words form an eerie spectre as we try to reconcile our own limits and principles with the rise of technology.