Monday, January 04, 2010

Secret Security Measures

Oh look, I forgot to do a blog entry for tonight. I thought I had them all done for the week. Those of you who read the comments on The Wings Stayed On! know that I was just ruminating over whether to blog about the US federal crackdown on someone using bloggers to leak the TSA security directives enacted immediately after the Christmas Day underwear bomber incident on NW253. I guess that settles it: this will be today's entry, then.

Within hours of the discovery of a man who tried to blow up an a airplane using explosives concealed in his underpants, the TSA provided airlines with a new set of security rules to add to all the existing ones. That's a pretty quick reaction on the second most major holiday on the American calendar. I don't know the exact method of dissemination but getting this thing in the hands of everyone who had to know about it was probably some combination of fax, e-mail and hand delivery. The complete text is here in an entry by Steven Frischling on his blog Flying with Fish.

Almost all the rules in the document are things that passengers had to submit to or were not allowed to do. To summarize, all passengers (with the exception of heads of state) and their carry-ons must be re-scrutinized at the boarding gate with a physical pat-down; for the last hour of international flight to a US destination passengers must remain in their seats with nothing on their lap and no access to carry-on baggage; passengers may have no external communication nor real time information about the flight path. There are no secret codes in the security directive, and nothing that you wouldn't learn from taking a flight while subject to the regulations. Just those rules.

Obviously all flight attendants, pilots, boarding area staff and their supervisors would have to know this information. That includes such staff members of foreign carriers operating into the US. The document, as is standard for such documents, requires acknowledgment by the airline and prohibits further dissemination of "this document or information contained herein." So the TSA have made it technically illegal for the airline to specify to passengers what they are required to do or not do. The airlines callously ignored this, and if you travelled across the border over Christmas you know that most of the elements of that document were repeatedly yelled, broadcast, or posted for your attention before and during your flight.

The reason the complete text appears on Flying with Fish (and another blog, Elliott) is that someone along that chain of distribution leaked the document to a number of bloggers. Those two posted it.

Aviation security was not compromised. The entire procedure as experienced by the passengers had been tweeted, texted, blogged, relayed by old fashioned word of mouth and even published in mainstream media before the blogs went live with it. Maybe the bit about no locational PAs would take a while to deduce. Perhaps no one had yet noticed the exception for the heads of state. But nothing in it is or should be secret. It should have been posted on the TSA website for passengers to read before embarkation.

Both bloggers who posted the text of the document were subpoenaed by the feds. Both subpoenas have since been dropped. Fish had his MacBook damaged in the process (perhaps it was dropped too?) but he has faith that the feds will do the right thing and replace it, so that episode is over. I don't know whether it is because they found the leak, realized that there was nothing harmful in it, or decided there was no point in trying to stop information being passed on when it was so widely disseminated to foreign nationals in the first place.

The concept of secret rules that must be obeyed without being communicated does explain why people over the last eight years have suddenly found themselves being arrested for queuing for the restroom and other "what was I doing wrong? where is this written down?" offenses. It's illegal for you to do it and it's illegal for the airlines to tell you it's illegal. I don't like that.

I can see the screening policy and things like secondary screening criteria being guarded; I don't mind rules giving airline personnel some leeway for interpretation and enforcement, but the actual RULES should be public and known. I want to live in a society where the rules are publicly available and subject to public debate. If there's a secret rule out there saying that my government can make secret rules, then I want a new government.

Update:

Today, the Transportation Security Administration issued new security directives to all United States and international air carriers with inbound flights to the U.S. effective January 4, 2010.

The new directive includes long-term, sustainable security measures developed in consultation with law enforcement officials and our domestic and international partners.

Once again the changes are secret, distributed only to the airlines, so you won't know what you are doing wrong until they tell you.

14 comments:

Jarkko said...

Once again the changes are secret, distributed only to the airlines, so you won't know what you are doing wrong until they tell you.

This is exactly what I am against. By the name of security, it is not right that the paying passengers don't even know what to do to do it right. Not blaming the airlines or airport operators but the U.S TSA. Those little things they announce once in a while, will actually hurt the airline business eventually. Of course, safety comes first but the passengers should know where the travel restrictions come from.

Cheers,

Jarkko

amulbunny said...

Remember Carnac the Great on the Johnny Carson show? He'd hold an envelope up to his head and give an answer? We now have the TSA equivalent. We'll make the rules up but you'll have to guess them.

Jeremy said...

It is refreshing, however, how the airlines stand up to the TSA's silly secrecy policies when they can -as you point out, these new rules were as clearly as possibly communicated by the airlines to the actual travelers.

I live in Australia. Regarding the queuing for the restroom policy, when I fly to the US, the flight crew usually makes an announcement along the lines of "the US TSA has required us to notify you that..." and then describes the policy. It it said with a hint of exasperation and reading between the lines, you know that the crew isn't really going enforce this. Indeed they never do - during the whole flight, people are never bothered. (Admittedly, usually as we leave international airspace to arrive at LAX, arrival procedures are in place anyway and we wouldn't be allowed to get up, but overall the Australians seem to have a reasonable sense about it.)

On my more recent domestic trips on Southwest and Virgin America, there were often people waiting in near the front despite the "policy."

I'm not sure what this proves, as you'd think the flight crews would get in trouble with the TSA/air marshalls for allowing this, so does this mean the TSA doesn't really care about enforcing their own rules? Or do the airlines truly stand up to them?

MathFox said...

Jeremy, living in Europe and flying to the US for business regularly I do notice the difference in presentation of TSA rules between US and European carriers. Enforcement of the "queuing rule" has been lax by US carriers... non-existent for European carriers.

You should know that US authorities have limited jurisdiction with respect to foreign airlines; they can get nasty and refuse incoming (or overflying) flights, but have little to say when the outbound flight has left US airspace.

John Lennerton said...

Flying domestically over the recent holiday season (one trip before the incident, the return after), I noticed only a minimal increase in security. In fact, while departing KPHL late on 2 Jan, we were 'stuck' in the alley after push back, thanks to a broken down fuel truck. During the 10 minutes it took to tow the truck out of our way, 2 people left their seats and moved forward to the galley area. No one panicked, no one yelled, the flight attendants were calm, and all was well. I've been on flights where the crew will scream at us for wriggling in our seats.

I hope, and do believe, that common sense will win over government rules that make no sense, or are unenforcable. Certainly the early indications are promising.

Aviatrix, there is a secret rule against complaining about secret rules. You should have known about this. You are now on double secret probation.

Aluwings said...

There's a great comedy skit in all this somewhere... Where are Harvey Korman and Tim Conway when you need them!?...
click here

mattheww50 said...

The real reason for secrecy has nothing to do with National Security.

If we were actually able to read the regulations, we would discover just how inept, and incompetent the TSA really is. HOwever we cannot do so, therefore we can only guess.

So far the TSA has managed to catch more intoxicated crew than terrorists!

Paul said...

You are seeing the end of the air travel industry. *sigh*

The terror threat is a parasite on a host that cannot be controlled except by killing the host.

Sorry to be so glum. The site of 10,000 trying to get through security at KEWR is appalling. Who would travel by part 121 except those who absolutely have to?

--paul

Richard said...

First time I read it I thought the exemption of Heads of State (and Heads of Government) plus their spouse, and one (only) nominated other, was daft, but then I realised that the USA, hosting the UN probably gets at least one HoS or HoG a week, and for General Assembly, lots more, so it probably made sense.

If Pax can't go to the loo for the last (scheduled) hour of the flight, there is going to be a rush, as soon as they disembark, particularly if there has been any delay in landing! Er, do those curious mobile lounges at Washington Dulles have sufficient loos for all Pax to "go"?

GPS_Direct said...

@John Lennerton

If folks where up and about while you were taxiing - even if stopped - then the airline/FAs were ignoring FAA rules too. "Seatbelts on for taxi, takeoff, and landing."

While SOME TSA folks may be moderating, the secretive rule structure and lack of public oversight leave room for unending abuses.

Unreasonable search and seizure...
No probable cause...
How about "body scanning" a 13 year old girl??? Sure the images are "immediately" deleted.
The legal issues continue to pile up.

How can you legally defend yourself when the crime you've committed is secret?

"Double-secret probation" is nothing... Let's hope she's not on the No-Fly List!

Sarah said...

It is a very troubling precedent. I recall the issue came up a while ago when we were talking about the "Large Aircraft Security Program" ( I think: LASP, anyway )

The document, a proposal for rulemaking, was 'secret'. Fortunately, one could look at certain web sites to find out what our goverments are planning. "wiki leaks" and/or "crypto me" ( one word each plus ".org", obfuscated 'cause I'm feeling paranoid )

I have no problem with keeping some things secret - weapons and defense come to mind - but legislation?

Curt Sampson said...

My initial thought upon hearing about this incident was that it should be counted as a success in counter-terrorism. The passenger screening appeared to be good enough that the perpetrator couldn't manage to bring an effective bomb aboard the aircraft, passengers stepped up to stop him when they discovered what he was doing, and the aircraft landed safely.

Bravo! One attempt at terrorism has little to no effect.

Until the TSA steps in, of course, and decides to make it a lot more successful. Now we have yet more secret rules, an elevated climate of fear, and a greatly elevated level of passenger annoyance and inconvenience, including losing the right to read a book (or was that never a right in the U.S.?) for an hour of one's life.

It makes me wonder if TSA really stands for "Terrorist Support Agency." Terrorists wouldn't get nearly as far at disrupting our lives without the TSA's to assist them in this way.

Sarah said...

Anyone hear of the TSA logo contest?

There are some good ones - here is my favorite.

GPS_Direct said...

Now THAT is funny! Some folks out there are smarter than your average bear.

My favorite has an OK logo, but the slogan nails it.