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TSA Stuff and Conformity

Hear me grumble about the TSA controversy from a different angle than you'd think...

I am very irritated about the TSA controversy. I am not irritated at the TSA (so much, anyhow), I am rather irritated that suddenly there's this bandwagon of people suddenly deciding to protest things not much different than what they've occasionally had to deal with for years, and so it's trendy for people to "strike at the man" in this way. I hold that this bandwagon is manufactured, unreasonable, and a distraction from much more important things.

We live in a country facing serious budgetary problems in about 40 years that will require substantial tax raises, benefit reduction, or both, and we're not likely to do anything about it. We face large-scale climate change and we're sitting on our hands. Our pre-university education system is in very bad shape, leading to broadscale rot in our civilisation as anti-intellectualism and radical individualism pull the minds of big portions of our population backwards out of the modern era - among developed nations we're roughly on par with Turkey in coming to terms with evolution. Our infrastructure is decaying. Our news media as a whole are losing the standards that have kept them useful, leaving our democracy undernourished for facts-based debate. We're entering a post-hegemonic world with uncomfortable new political and business facts to digest, and we're failing to adapt, sweat, and work our butts off to be competitive and effective because we're too proud. Our political system is one of dependence - financial interests prevent effective taxation or regulation (consider the recent economic mess), create perverse incentives (see corn subsidies, also the recent economic mess), and push libertarian strategies inimical to long-term cultural/national health. It is possible for companies to make large profits while acting against the interests of society (from quant trading to tax evasion firms). The average health care our people have access to is among the worst among the developed nations. We've developed a bizarre xenophobia that's created an urgency to expel large groups of illegal immigrants and divide families without solid reasoning, turning a real and complex problem into a witchunt. We're a nation whose last leader was ok with torture and whose foreign policy has been unprincipled and littered with atrocities in the name of economics for over a century.

And yet the idea of a patdown or passing through some kind of scanner at an airport is suddenly a big deal. No. There are better things that deserve attention - airports have required some discomfort for awhile, this is not some creeping fascism, and it is really not a big deal. The current security regime might not be fun, it might not even be the most effective way to achieve its ends, there are a few people with unusual needs for whom it might work out particularly badly, but there are some sacrifices we make to live in civilisation. Parking tickets, jaywalking citations, taxes, jury duty, etc. If you're frustrated with your life, fix your life. If you're frustrated with the things I enumerated in my first paragraph, great, let's think about what we can do about them. If, however, you're going to make a big deal out of will-intentioned and not-really-all-that-unreasonable parts of living in society, I suspect you're either letting off stress from somewhere else here (so fix that!) or you need to think more about what it means to live in a society. People like this are embarassments, not heroes. Let's focus on what really matters - if you need people, let's look at Wall Street, all the lobbying that happens in DC, FoxNews (and maybe HuffPo). If you need issues, education and environment are great topics. If civil rights are a big deal, immigration and torture/rendition are good topics. Airport security measures are a red herring.

In other news (been meaning to write about this for awhile), about two years ago South Korea elected a President who shifted government policy regarding North Korea towards a more hawkish, confrontational tone. South Korea's military provoked North Korea by holding military exercises (with live ammunition) near the land border (in disputed waters) - North Korea initially responded with some light fire across the land border, but after nine days, today North Korea shelled a nearby island (also in disputed waters), killing two South Korean marines, injuring several people, and destroying some homes. Hopefully this won't escalate further - neither side has clean hands (or is particularly level-headed).

Recently have been experimenting with things much like origami. So far, I have things that look vaguely like flowers or palm trees - I'd like to experiment with moisture and coloured powders or chalk (applied in a series of stages with selective moistening to let me choose what color goes where) to take things further.

Also, at work I'm experimenting with NoCat as an AP management software - previously hacked together something for our Homenet project but I think NoCat will be more robust if I can get it configured to my liking before the project goes live.


On the other hand, in order to fly home to see my parents for Thanksgiving, the day after tomorrow, I have to consent to what would be sexual harassment, molestation, or assault if done by a private citizen; in particular, I am coerced by the price of my airline ticket, which is nonrefundable and was booked before OAK had backscatter machines, to submit to a stranger viewing me naked (harassment) or touching my genitals (assault). My good friend who is pre-op transsexual has good reason to fear for her life under either option, and so is choosing not to see her parents for Thanksgiving.

I understand that there are many more serious issues facing us as a nation, but this one has the advantage on my attention of being immediate. In addition, while I care a lot about, say, public education, I don't know how to fix it; how to fix this gross invasion of my rights is very simple.
Is this about coercion? If so, it's only a very weak form if it's about the cost of an airline ticket. It doesn't amount to those things you mention if you consent at the time, and if you don't, you're down the cost of a ticket. If the policy is not changed, do you intend never to fly again? Meaningful consent-at-the-time is the standard which divides harassment or assault from an uncomfortable-but-accepted security measure. Every sexual act, every visit to a doctor, psych studies, etc, is divided between being a horror and something ok by whether the people involved go for it or not.

I can see reason for a policy shift, considering the case of the person I imagine you're talking about, for standards of medical confidentiality to be upheld. I had not considered that possibility entirely, and her* case is illustrative of the potential sensitivity of things handled here. However, I don't think those sensitivities make the idea of pat-down or scanner technologies invalid as being potentially mandatory. I would rather the standard be "is it effective" than "will it make people uncomfortable" for these things (with the caveat that as per this discussion I'm thinking medical confidentiality is appropriate).

*As mentioned in a post some months ago, I've decided to call people by their preferred pronoun.

Thanks for the response - you pushed me to revise my position a bit.
Is this about coercion? If so, it's only a very weak form if it's about the cost of an airline ticket.

may I point out: at the *very silly* justification of what basically amounts to a scare tactic... while simultaneously (thanks to j4cbo for this observation) there's a rite-aid branch inside the PIT terminal that sells bottles of 95% isopropyl.

Every sexual act, every visit to a doctor, psych studies, etc, is divided between being a horror and something ok by whether the people involved go for it or not.

i don't know the specifics, but i imagine if a patient had some objection to exposing themselves to even a doctor, but still wanted medical treatment, the doctors would find some way
Is this about coercion? If so, it's only a very weak form if it's about the cost of an airline ticket. It doesn't amount to those things you mention if you consent at the time, and if you don't, you're down the cost of a ticket. If the policy is not changed, do you intend never to fly again? Meaningful consent-at-the-time is the standard which divides harassment or assault from an uncomfortable-but-accepted security measure.

I'd say it's less about coercion than about creating a hostile environment. Having spent an hour or two today clicking through various HR orientation materials, including a bunch of training on sexual harassment in the workplace, i can fairly confidently say that at least in an employment situation, consent doesn't make harassment acceptable -- the standard of harassment is whether it would be judged by a reasonable person to create a hostile environment, and the impact that a hostile behavior has trumps any intent.

Granted, the airport is not the workplace for most travelers, but when you're told to do things by government officials, a similar power dynamic comes into play. And i would hope that our government agencies are held to the same standards of decency as private individuals or corporations -- if not, then where do you draw the line? If you're willing to grant special powers to the government in the name of safety or security, you pave the way for situations like the very torture you mention as one of the "real" problems facing our nation.
In whose head is it harassment?

If there is actual ill-will on part of the TSA workers, that's a problem. If the official duties of their job just make people uncomfortable, I don't think it does (although as noted I'd like some form of confidentiality to apply when it's not a security matter).

Torture is entirely different - people can't just walk away from it, hostility is presumed, and there is an intent to harm. That's why it's considered barbaric, effective or not. (IMO it's one of the "red lines" that is unacceptable in a civilised nation under any circumstance)
I disagree. I spend far more time in airports for work than for personal. I think that's true for many folks.
I live in Pennsylvania; my family lives in California, Montana, and England. The price of the ticket isn't the main form of coercion; it's, as Doug says, the fact that I'd never see any of my family again if I didn't fly. I know there's no formal right to fly, but the Supreme Court does acknowledge a Constitutional right to travel between the states, and realistically the only way to do that (particularly if something like Hawaii is involved) is to fly.

The transgender example does make me wonder how much communication happens between the people you see and the people viewing the pornoscanner images. Would it ever come to light that people seeing you in person think you're a woman and people seeing your image think you're a man?

Also, why does it require an explanatory footnote that you call people by the appropriate pronoun? That seems like a weird thing to draw attention to.
On the footnote - previously I had a position on the matter, since abandoned, that was a point of friction with some people I knew. I wanted it clear that that's no longer an issue.

Bundling of costs/opportunities is a big part of life. I don't think the harm of pat-downs or really-good-scanning is profound (provided confidentiality is preserved), I think the purpose is potentially valid, and so I'd rather the TSA judge whether to do it based on whether it's effective rather than this kind of outcry. In our daily life we have all sorts of bundled costs/opportunities - this doesn't strike me as being sufficiently unique on that front to be worth special attention. Calling it assault or anything like that is sloppy.
I agree about calling it assault. I would, however, say that for those of us who have been sexually assaulted in the past it could be pretty traumatic.

However, my issue with it is less sexual and more privacy-related. The point of the fourth amendment is that the government isn't supposed to be able to go around searching people without probable cause. I don't think I should give up my right not to be frisked by my own government simply because I wish to board a plane.

I don't know how to address your costs/opportunities bundling argument except to say that it could justify practically anything, so I don't find it a very useful lens. The Qatari government, for example, bundles access to the internet with censorship of political dissent. I'm not going to respond, "Meh, that averages positive."
Hmm. That's an interesting way to look at it (Fourth Amendment basis). You're right - it is a different principle than the one normally used. It's not actually against the 4th, but it's certainly against the general intent. I think you may have made some ground on that argument here - I'll have to think about this. I don't feel bound by the Constitiution (in that I don't think it "got it right" when it comes to laying out a government), but like any other such document, it sets an interesting yardstick for "how things are done", and there's an interesting disparity in travel. It is a fairly old disparity - predating 9/11, one almost unique to air travel.

I think we need some kind of structured way to handling bundling - I neither want to go with libertarian contract theory (meaning anything's game if you can get someone to agree to it as part of something else) nor have nothing of the sort (as the latter would make too many things impossible and ignore valid concerns). In political philosophy, so far I've been going with free contract (with bundling) as a default, where exceptions (potentially broad ones) are carved out as we discover broad social interests in certain areas (maybe we'd call this the commonlaw approach). I don't know if this is adequate, and maybe the kinds of "discovery of broad interests" include discussions like the one we're having?

In any case, bravo - you've pushed me back to where I need to rethink some of the central ideas of my argument.
while I care a lot about, say, public education, I don't know how to fix it; how to fix this gross invasion of my rights is very simple.

to expand, in a somewhat cynical way: the reason there's so much more uproar about this is that it's basically been one big step across a line that's easy to define, so pointing out specific points where the offenders are in the wrong is a lot easier.

public education (and the other examples given), on the other hand, is a much more nebulous problem - how easy is it for people to point out specific things the government has (or hasn't) done and say "you are objectively wrong about this!"? i'd much rather fix any of the problems you named, but motivating/organizing any effective fight against subjective politics is a lot harder.

i chatted briefly with my mom about this, and pointed out that (provided i get to the airport early enough to not risk losing my flight) going for the pat-down - as a way of spending more of the tsa's resources to make a statement - costs basically nothing. there's no equivalent action for more serious reform.

this brings me to this thought: People like this are embarassments, not heroes.

i'd phrase that instead as they're testaments to how complacent it is easy to be about worse-but-less-objectionable things... and on the more optimistic hand, that role needs to be filled to encourage people to at least take the zero-personal-cost approach i mentioned above.
I don't see the full body scanner as objectionable in the least (provided the images are not misused). It's not complacency, at least on my part.
I am curious as to what constitutes misuse of images. After all, they've already been dumped to the internet and one TSA guy was caught riding his own unicycle on the job.*

* - source is the internet.
* source was a fake news site, but it got picked up as real news by many other websites.

But how much do you want to bet it'll be a reality the next time, say, Jessica Alba flies?


The government that cries terrorism

I suppose it's easy to say that airport security is a small thing, if you can drive or take the train instead. Of course those of us who live abroad (or on the other side of the country, say) realistically have to endure it if we want to see our families. A pretty pathetic excuse of a choice: "see family or get groped or get porno scanned". Anyway, let's suppose you're right and airport security is trivial. It's still worth fighting against, if it can be the rallying point for all matters where the government cries wolf.

Consider how many bad things our country is doing based on the "terrorists are dangerous and we gotta stop em so quit asking questions and let us do whatever we want" premise: Iraq, Afghanistan, CIA torture, Americans enabling Iraqi torture, Obama putting people on kill lists without due process, airport security, a push for a national ID card system, NSA wiretapping, indefinite detainment of American citizens, indefinite detainment of other citizens, farcical military tribunals, unchecked and secret military and security spending and others I can't think of right now. Some of those things are kind of bad, some you might not mind at all, and some are downright frightening because they threaten our country's stability or democracy. These problems have all expanded -- or have been allowed to continue -- largely because post-9/11, people somehow decided that if someone said "terrorism", they would immediately capitulate.

Which brings us back to airport security -- this is an area where TSA and the White House are crying of "terrorism!" and people are seeing right through it. If there is a way people can remember this moment for what it is -- that is, people demanding that claims of terrorist danger be supported by fact-based reasoning -- then perhaps we can begin to address some of the other more serious problems mentioned above.

The other issues you mentioned are no doubt very serious, but I think you're overlooking the potential TSA's actions could have with regards to terrorism and national security. Of course, if the TSA simply cuts back on its screening procedures by introducing profiling, and if that makes everyone quiet down and ignore the greater lesson, then this uproar will have been a big disappointment.



Re: The government that cries terrorism

And by "see family" I mean "don't see family". -douglas

Re: The government that cries terrorism

"See family or get groped"... is that like "Cake or death"? Although, when you phrase it like that, I'm not sure which one is the cake and which is the death.

I assume you mean NOT see family or get groped. ;-)

Re: The government that cries terrorism

I agree with you that some of the other things you mention are problems, and that our (people and legislature's) attitude towards security measures has been too much of a blank check. However, for this particular measure, in the context of an airport, I see little-to-no-harm.

Your calling it "porno" or use of the term grope is a bit over the top - no licentiousness is implied or intended by the actions. If there have been abuses of that sort, they should be dealt with as abuses, not as part of a necessarily broken policy. I'm sure most of the TSA workers see every person as yet another person in a big stream passing through rather than part of a giant pr0n collection.

Are claims of terrorist danger supported by fact-based reasoning? I suspect there's a good reason we have these scanners, effective or not. I'd rather use the facts on how effective they are as a basis for discussion than people deciding to divert their generic anger at the government or anger-from-normal-stress-in-their-lives (same thing that folk like Glenn Beck tap into) onto things like this. What kinds of facts do you think should enter into the discussion?

I will be surprised if this uproar amounts to anything meaningful. I am concerned that the very rapid shift in attention to it will spend some of that anger-energy that we might've more productively spent trying to push on other issues that I think are much more meaningful.

For a long time, whenever I've boarded an airplane (in the US, Europe, wherever) I've had to remove much of my clothing, boot up laptops, empty my pockets, step through scanners, and occasionally be patted down. I never got the impression that either me or the agent were in the least bit aroused, and I have no idea what the scanning machines are capable of. By my book, that's fine - it's a cost in flying that I'm willing to pay.

Re: The government that cries terrorism

"I suspect there's a good reason we have these scanners, effective or not."

I have little to no faith in the TSA's ability to make -- and interest in making -- rational decisions about our safety. They spent a ton of money on those explosive-detecting machines (the puff-of-air) ones and then discovered they don't actually work. They spend millions on air marshals, even though (a) the air marshal program results in 4 arrests per year -- that's for the ENTIRE PROGRAM, not per marshal, which means (b) more air marshals have been arrested than have arrested others. And they've insisted on utterly ridiculous things like shoe removal and a poorly implemented liquids ban that clearly don't actually thwart terrorism. The GAO lambastes them for refusing to do cost/benefit analyses of their programs, and people I trust like Bruce Schneier point out that there's no evidence that ANY of their airport scanning has EVER protected us from a single terrorist attack. The TSA doesn't even claim it's ever done so.

So when they tell me that what they're currently doing isn't invasive enough and now they'd like to squeeze my boobs, I'm inclined to tell them to go fuck themselves.

Re: The government that cries terrorism


My impression is that the TSA is completely disconnected from reality and always has been. This was obvious when they banned nail-clippers. I like the expression "security theater".

See also: Ux8: TSA humiliates breast/bladder cancer victims, terrorizes toddlers, stripsearches 8-year olds.

I didn't know there was a GAO, and I'm happy to know that they exist... (maybe I should be unhappy that the TSA is still nuts despite their existence).

Of course, calling something insane amounts to giving up on understanding it... what we should be asking is: who is making these decisions and what is their agenda?


Re: The government that cries terrorism

"Your calling it "porno" or use of the term grope is a bit over the top - no licentiousness is implied or intended by the actions."

The TSA choose to call the machines "full body scanners" instead of "naked scanners" to avoid the (accurate) perception that you'd be seen effectively naked. "Porno scanner" is less misleading in this regard. It is also standard terminology. Furthermore, how do you know licentiousness is not implied or intended?

"I suspect there's a good reason we have these scanners, effective or not."

The TSA has a history of instituting ineffective policies and no data to support this one. Why blindly assume they're being smarter this time? Looks like wishful thinking.


Re: The government that cries terrorism

Nudity is not pornography.

When I was running people in fMRI experiments, the fact that I could reconstruct masks on the level of skin, muscle, and other things using the right software (and still could, as I retain access to all the data) and that I had to ask some extremely personal questions before they entered the scanner doesn't mean MRI scanners should be named by hostile and inaccurate terms or my experiments by worse terms yet.

These things have purposes. TSA was not put into place to give people easy access to see people naked or to feel them up. It's a security measure. If you want to debate whether it's effective or appropriate, we can do so, but I have a tough time thinking that the employees are generally doing much more than a dull job that theoretically contributes to security. Maybe it's that I generally assume good faith of people, but your use of those terms suggests character to the workers that seems really unlikely to me.

The thing about attacks like this is that we're trying to navigate a data-scarce field that involves a lot of bluffing and deterrence. I don't know, given the environment, how we might really guess at effectiveness or answer your call for data.


Re: The government that cries terrorism

Would "naked scanner" satisfy you? Certainly "full body scanner" is intentionally deceptive.

Anyway, from the person being scanned's point of view, those machines sure look pornographic to me (and many others), so I'm not sure how your criticism should be taken... Nobody's worried about hurting TSA's feelings.

"The thing about attacks like this is that we're trying to navigate a data-scarce field that involves a lot of bluffing and deterrence. I don't know, given the environment, how we might really guess at effectiveness or answer your call for data."

This field is far from data-scarce. "Has TSA caught any terrorists in the last 10 years? Using what procedures? How were airport terrorists caught, whether by TSA or otherwise? How much did TSA's new procedures cost, individually? Did they catch anyone? Were they canceled? Similar questions for other countries." Of course there are hard things to measure, but data-scarce does not that equal.

Even if we couldn't have any data, your position seems to be, "We don't know how to evaluate effectiveness, therefore whatever TSA says is good is good." Is that actually your position?


Re: The government that cries terrorism

I'm not worried about hurting TSA's feelings, but I am concerned when people use sensationalist terms that have little relation to reality. It doesn't matter how many people decide "this looks pornographic to me" - they're wrong. Disliking an organisation doesn't mean they're "fair game" so people get to make things up about them - it reflects badly on people and hurts discussion when that happens.

Some of the most interesting questions are the ones that are data scarce - "How many attacks has this prevented/deterred?" "How has this raised the cost/difficulty of performing attacks?"

Your restatement doesn't adequately capture my position, but it's vaguely in the neighbourhood - I don't think I or anyone I know is in a position to judge efficacy of these security measures, and so I'm willing to give certain deference to whomever wrote the policies in the presumption that they've studied these things and have some expertise. I'm willing to give similar deference to other people who have similar expertise. All of this is limited in scope to questions of "what is effective", not "what is acceptable". I think these are separate questions, and I have a certain distrust for people who will attempt to push hard against it on both sides because I suspect they're going to let their conclusions in one taint their consideration of the other (unless they show a sensitivity to this concern).

Re: The government that cries terrorism

I agree the deterrence question is hard to answer when it comes to evaluating the effectiveness of existing procedures. However, no answer to that question would justify NEW scanners. If there have been terrorist attempts that have been deterred by existing technology and procedures, then they're working like a dream and there's no need for the new scanners. If there *haven't* been terrorist attempts deterred, then nothing the TSA has ever done has had any point whatsoever, so why give them another $2.4 billion for this?


Re: The government that cries terrorism

The TSA has a history of implementing senseless policies that prevent nothing, inconvenience a great many people, and cost a lot of money (e.g., air marshals, puffer scanners, screening at the gate). To assume that this time is different with no evidence to the contrary looks like a combination of denial and wishful thinking.


Re: The government that cries terrorism

I like the term "virtual strip search." To me it's a more accurate description both of what they're doing and why it's problematic. Porn isn't inherently problematic. :-)