TSA Withdrew Subpoenas On Travel Bloggers… But Serious Questions Linger

from the this-is-security? dept

Last week, the news that the TSA visited two travel bloggers who had written about some rather obvious “security directives” that the TSA had refused to confirm publicly (i.e., that everyone boarding a flight to the US would get a pat down) got a fair bit of attention. Beyond just seeking their sources, the TSA agents had subpoenas and with one of the bloggers, were quite threatening and ended up confiscating his laptop (which was then damaged when it was returned). With the story getting so much attention, the TSA withdrew the subpoenas saying they were no longer necessary. While some are attributing this to the negative publicity received in the press, it seems more likely that they had figured out what they needed (especially with Steven Frischling handing over his laptop).

There are two other aspects of the story that remain in question and are somewhat troubling. The first is the issue raised by Danny Sullivan about Google’s role in this effort. It came out in the early reports that both bloggers had received the notice from someone with a Gmail account. Google won’t comment on whether or not it received a subpoena in this case, but it seems likely that it did. In fact, as Sullivan points out, Google — unlike some other companies — often seems quite willing to comply with such subpoenas without giving users a chance to protect themselves. This is the company’s right, of course, but given Google’s own positioning as a protector of user rights, you would think it would be a bit more aggressive on this front.

The second issue concerns reports that the TSA more or less forced Frischling to post a Twitter message, asking the guy who sent him the original email to email him again. Again, earlier reports had noted that Frischling had already deleted the email when the TSA agents had arrived. So, the suggestion is that they wanted to get him to email again. An “anonymous source” (so take it for what it’s worth) is claiming that the TSA agents typed a message into Twitter asking the guy to send Frischling an email, but told Frischling to actually “send” the Twitter message, so they could deny that they had posted it.

Given all of this, it seems like there’s a half decent chance that the TSA withdrew the subpoenas because it already had what it needed. It could get the guy’s email from Frischling’s computer after the guy emailed back — and then could subpoena Google to find out who it was, without getting much pushback. The bigger question, though, remains why this is happening at all. The “security directive” wasn’t classified. It wasn’t secret and it was obvious to anyone who happened to fly into the US from a foreign country. If the TSA really thinks that keeping something like this secret somehow makes us more secure, it’s even more messed up than previously thought.

And, once again, we’re reminded why we should have a federal shield law to protect anyone engaged in journalism from having to reveal their sources.

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Comments on “TSA Withdrew Subpoenas On Travel Bloggers… But Serious Questions Linger”

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interval says:

Given Google’s record on individual privacy and rights in China and other countries with repressive regimes its obvious that couldn’t really care less about the topic. The management would have lined up with the top brass of German industry during the Nirenberg trials had they been around at the time. Do not (DO NOT) trust Google with any information if your group is planning to protest any ruling organization’s behavior with regard to freedom or civil rights.

Anonymous Coward says:

It sounds like the TSA is pursuing some internal disciplinary action. Just because an item is not technically ‘classified’ does not mean it can be distributed (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/FOUO). The original document as posted on the blog does not include any sort of classification/use information, but neither does it include email headers. This may have something to do with the TSA’s motivation.

Their methods and practices are another discussion entirely, of course.

303.Rick (profile) says:

TSA=Tourism Suppression Administration?

As a Canadian who enjoys traveling, I find the USA far less appealing than it once was. I have a lot of good friends who live south of the boarder who, unfortunately, I will never visit again.
Driving into the USA is ridicules with the American boarder guards overstepping their duty, responsibility and position at every opportunity. The Homeland security is as close to being a Gestapo Force as one can imagine. TSA does there damn best at making ordinary people reconsider traveling to the USA.
I am not alone when I say,”My tourist dollars in 2010 and beyond will not be spent in the US. Also,I will not be on international flights that touch down on American soil until such time as the American administrations show respect for their neighbours,as well as their own citizens.”

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: TSA=Tourism Suppression Administration?

I also want to mention something that was on Bruce Schneier’s podcast before.

Crowding people at an airport does nothing to increase security. The only thing it does is creates a huge crowd at the airport which just turns the airport itself into a big target for terrorists. We would be more secure scattered around in different locations across many different airplanes than all bunched up in one place at the airport going through a bunch of security measures.

but do you think that those in charge of national security and the government don’t know this? This is common sense, of course they know this. So then what’s the true purpose of subjecting us to these “security” measures when in fact all they do is make us less secure.

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