Sunday, September 28, 2008

In the Interest of Security

My friend was flying from Canada to visit a friend in the US for a couple of days and wanted to bring a gift of local wines (don't laugh, Canada does too produce wine) for his host. As wine is now a terrorist threat, he couldn't carry it on the airplane, but as he was only going for a couple of days he only had one small bag, so he checked the whole thing. The bag also contained a palmtop computer with a folding bluetooth keyboard. In hindsight he knows he should have taken the computer out and put it in his shirt pocket, but he didn't.

So the bag goes through security, onto the airplane and back off again. The wine arrives unbroken. But his computer has been turned on and left on. The computer is of course also a wireless communications device. So in the interest of 'security' the TSA has activated a transmitter and left a heat generating device in a container with flammable material. I'm thinking the clothing, when I say flammable: Canadian wines aren't like Scandinavian liquors. Now, the chance of a small computer either interfering with airline navigation or starting a fire in a suitcase is very small, but this was in no way a positive move for anyone's security. They had looked at his e-mail and his media files. Checking, no doubt, to see if any of it read "Dear Osama bin Laden, here are the naked photographs of my eight year old daughter which you requested. Do you have any more of those music downloads to share with me?"

It was a positive move for someone in security, though. That is for the person who got an almost new wireless bluetooth keyboard for nothing. The keyboard was missing from the suitcase. I guess the bag checker thought it was pretty cool. So even if the battery hadn't been run down from running in the suitcase during the flight, he still wouldn't have been able to use his computer.

The most grievous thing about this kind of treatment is that you can't even write them a letter to complain. Well you can, but you might as well word it as "Dear TSA, Please make as much trouble for me as possible at all security checkpoints. Here is my name and address."


nec Timide said...

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Who ever it is they aren't doing their job!

dpierce said...

At one point in time, when the TSA had to open your bag, they left a little card inside to explain their action. Now, you don't even get the card. You can tell they've been rummaging around as I always pack my bag in the same tight, precise pattern that I've used for years, and when things aren't replaced in the right sequence, it stands out. My favorite is when they leave bits of clothing hanging out of the case, trapped (and usually ruined) between the jaws.

So far, I've never had anything stolen, but I only stow clothes and a shaving kit.

"To Professionalize, you must Federalize" - Senator Tom Daschle on the need for the TSA

On the subject of handheld device radiation -- I'm amused that FAs give grief to people who use their devices in-flight. In my experience (limited and non-scientific as it is), the people who actually use their devices are the power users who know how to turn off their cellular and Bluetooth transceivers. The scary ones are those that get a device and stuff it into their pocket, not paying attention to it unless they get an incoming call or message. They seem to have no idea what radios their devices may have, much less how to turn them off.

"No, I don't think I have Bluetooth." "Yes you do. That's what the icon on your screen means. See, my phone has already found your phone, and your audio gateway is turned on because I play your MP3s." (Actual conversation with guy at airport.)

Maybe I'm naive.

nec Timide said...


Maybe that's why I've started to find Airplane Mode icons on some devices. I wonder how often commercial pilots here the distinctive buzz of a GSM phone on their headsets as it clucks away to a cell tower.

Anonymous said...

Baggage handlers in some airports are/were? famous for being able to pop open and rifle through a suitcase in record time. That's why we're told not to ship valuables in checked luggage.

Without the courtesy card dpierce mentions, how is anyone to know if it was security messing with your bag, or TSA?

nec Timide said...

Occam's razor.

A baggage handler intent on theft, not authorized to have the bag open, would not take the time to turn a PDA on and go through the data.

dpierce said...

@nec Timide
My ancient (circa 1997) Nokia 9000 had an 'Airplane Mode'. It even showed a rather large graphic of an airplane labeled "AIRPLANE MODE" that an FA could easily see from across several seats. It, or the airplane mode on my current phone, has never made a difference to anyone I've shown it to. "You shouldn't be using that."

Ironically, they let people use LAPTOPS, which may have Bluetooth, cellular, and WiFi transceivers all blasting away and the owner without a clue. I have heard the GSM noise on the aircraft's inflight entertainment audio system!

It seems you have no recourse either way, so it apparently doesn't matter!

Anonymous said...

The unaccountability of anything to do with the government is legendary.

The unaccountability of anything to do with those in government who wave the "I am supporting national security" flag appears to be inpenetrable.

However, you gave your luggage to the airline, and before they gave it back, something got stolen. Ergo, make a claim with the airline.

If the airlines get pissed off enough, maybe they'll do something about it. It will be just as hopeless to have them deal with TSA any anyone else, but with the level of indirection at least you have someone listening to your claim.

And if they claim "you should have locked your bag, just say "I did, but someone, probably the TSA, cut off the lock".

Guy said...

I've found that whatever it is that GSM does to interfere with speakers seems to need fairly close proximity. I forget to turn off my phone on a pretty regular basis and have come to recognize the "dot-dit-dot dot-dit-dot" pattern quite well.

Tossing it in the back seat works just as well as turning it off. Looks like it needs to be within a couple feet of another device to interfere with it (in flight my phone is in my left pocket, and the headset cables are usually over my left leg).

I doubt the pilots have heard GSM interference from any phones other than their own...

silver horde said...

I had a jar of Boysenberry jam (a gift for my mum)very well wrapped, in case it broke, packed and placed in the middle of my suitcase. The TSA had unwrapped the jar and left it, unwrapped, on top of everything with a letter explaining why they had opened my bag. Good thing it did not smash during the journey from LAX to LHR, would have made a horrid mess of my clothes.

nec Timide said...

Some recent related news on Slashdot.