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.