TSA Agents Outwitted By Cory Doctorow's Unlocked, 'TSA-Safe' Suitcase

from the the-skies-won't-be-safe-until-every-checked-bag-has-been-destroyed dept

Prior to the 9//11 attacks, you only had to worry about airport baggage handlers beating the hell out of your luggage or stealing your valuables. Thanks to the post-attack panic, there’s a new layer of ineptitude and deceit your luggage is subjected to on its way to its destination (which may not be your destination).

Boing Boing’s Cory Doctorow (or rather, his luggage) was recently subjected to the brutish charms of the Transportation Security Administration.

[T]he TSA still routinely and unaccountably destroys luggage equipped with “TSA-safe” locks, just because they can. Last week, TSA inspectors at Phoenix’s Sky Harbor airport pried the locks off of my unlocked, “TSA-safe” suitcase before taping it shut again and loading it onto my London-bound flight.

Here’s what Doctorow’s luggage looked like after the “TSA-safe” locking mechanism outmaneuvered the TSA agent in charge of crowbar-wielding and packaging tape application.

This appears to be the luggage Doctorow “submitted” to the TSA (although Doctorow’s is possibly an earlier iteration), which then handled it with all the grace and skill of two male supermodels trying to retrieve files from a computer.

The TSA should have had no trouble unlocking the suitcase (using keys, rather than physically attacking it). Rimowa’s site states that its luggage features “TSA combination locks.”

Bypassing it with a master key was the option the TSA was supposed to use. Instead, it just forced it open, taped it back together and handed it back to Doctorow without even a shrug of bureaucratic regret.

It did, however, respond to his legitimate complaint. If you can call it a response. First, it loads up on disclaimers. (Doctorow’s interjections are bracketed.)

Thank you for contacting the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) Contact Center regarding damaged or missing checked baggage locks.

TSA is required by law to screen all property that goes onboard commercial passenger airlines, including checked baggage. To ensure the security of the traveling public, it is sometimes necessary for Transportation Security Officers (TSOs) to inspect checked baggage by hand. Locked checked baggage [[MY BAG WAS UNLOCKED]] may cause delays due to the need for TSOs to open locked baggage by using alternative measures, including force. Please be advised that TSA is not liable for any damage to locks or bags that are required to be opened by force for security purposes. [[HOW CONVENIENT – WHY NOT?]]

Yes. The agency takes no responsibility for breaking something that was a.) unlocked and b.) even if it wasn’t, had passkeys it could have used. It inexplicably mentions this unused option while explaining why it manhandled Doctorow’s luggage like the world’s most inept burglar.

In cooperation with private industry, TSA implemented a system under which TSOs are able to identify, unlock, and then relock certain locks using passkey sets available to TSA screeners [[AND ANYONE WITH HALF A BRAIN AND A BIT OF GUMPTION]]. TSA-recognized locks can be opened and relocked by TSOs without force and with little delay. TSA cannot, [[WHY THIS COMMA?]] guarantee that such locks will never be damaged or lost while TSOs and airline employees handle checked baggage [[HOW CONVENIENT]].

On top of being unable to perform its job without destroying luggage, the TSA is apparently unaware that URLs can be copied and pasted, rather than carelessly typed into a response email for maximum ineffectiveness.

To learn more about damaged locks, please visit www.tsa.govnode1428.

Just try to do what the TSA didn’t and paste that not-a-URL-at-all into an omnibox. (Well, it will be automatically converted into a real URL, but that’s only because web browsers are smarter than TSA Customer Service agents.) Doctorow says this indicates some sort of DOS mindset, which is its only level of scary.

So, to recap: the TSA can break your stuff, despite having the tools to do otherwise and despite having a number of luggage manufacturers specifically making passkey-compliant suitcases to prevent this sort of thing from happening and despite the suitcase being UNLOCKED THE WHOLE TIME. And the traveler’s path of recourse is a mistyped URL surrounded by “not our fault” boilerplate.

The TSA will never have to pay for broken luggage. Because terrorism.

I miss the good old days when this sort of behavior was only displayed by baggage handlers searching for valuables/setting distance records in amateur luggage-tossing competitions. At least then you could find someone to hold accountable for the damage sustained.

The TSA, however, is above even the most minimal level of accountability. If its employees are outsmarted by a “TSA-safe” lock, it’s your fault for not ensuring your checked luggage was already open and dumping its contents all over the conveyor belts by the time it reached the TSA’s elite group of suitcase-battering counterterrorists. This entire situation (especially the TSA’s “response”) cleary shows that Doctorow is the guilty party here. If he truly loved America, he’d have prepared for this eventuality… or at least just taken back the taped-together remains of his $1000 suitcase and shed a tear of gratitude for all the hard work the TSA did to ensure his flight didn’t get blown up/hijacked.

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Comments on “TSA Agents Outwitted By Cory Doctorow's Unlocked, 'TSA-Safe' Suitcase”

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Just Another Anonymous Troll says:

Oh, I doubt this was an accident. Cory Doctorow (my favorite author) wrote Little Brother, a novel in where the Department of Homeland Security goes full police state on San Francisco after a terrorist attack. The protagonist is grabbed off the street by DHS thugs and is sent to a secret prison, eventually released, and threatened that they will disappear him if he ever talks. It’s pretty subversive, so I would not be shocked if this was done on purpose.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: BUT

Contracts require a “meeting of the minds” or in other words and agreement by both parties in order to be valid. Simply posting a sign claiming you are not liable does not absolve you of liability. The only thing it can do is make people believe that it absolves you of liability such that they choose not to pursue an action against you that they think is futile even if the absolution claim is utter horseshit.

anony says:


You know what pisses me off is when someone or some department of government states that they are not liable for something they have done by law but do not provide the specific law and the paragraph on the law that covers their illegal action.

there is no law that says your baggage may be damaged due to the TSA in any agreements signed by anyone and that is why this Gentleman could and should take them to court.
Damn if costs a few hundred dollars to start a case and if they start upping the costs you can always cancel it.Well worth it if you can make them look like the twats they are.

Gordon says:

How about an impenetrable cable tie?

I still use a zipped suitcase, and although most of the time I use a small easily-forced-open-if-someone-really-wants-in padlock, I sometimes improvise with a plastic cable tie (zip tie? not sure of the US term…) that can easily be broken if a ‘security’ inspection is needed.

Would the TSA be flummoxed by that too, I wonder?

Lord Binky says:

Re: Re: Re: How about an impenetrable cable tie?

Now there’s a great business idea for UPS. Overnight shipping between airports for less than or equal to the cost of typical checked bag costs. Have a little place open during the airport’s hours of operation. For frequent fliers it could be setup like the amazon shipping of travel.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 How about an impenetrable cable tie?

Actually if set up a certain way, a premium could be charged for a business like that. Add a courier service option that would pick up and deliver your bags to you before you leave and after you arrive so you didn’t have to jack with lines at the airport in addition to being able to skip TSA snooping through your stuff. I think many people would gladly pay more for that value added.

Mason Wheeler (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:4 How about an impenetrable cable tie?

No, that’s just annoying. With me, in multiple different places I’ve lived over the years, it’s been consistently horrible. For example:

– Not delivering the package, not calling or emailing me to say why, and then when I get in touch with them, claiming they couldn’t find my house. After some discussion, it turns out somehow the address got munged and they were attempting to deliver to a nonsensical location. The lady on the phone explained that they had sent me a postcard (not an email: stupidity #1; after they already knew the address they had did not exist: stupidity #2) explaining how to take delivery of my package. I was not permitted to tell them my real address and get it delivered (stupidity #3) but instead had to head out to the UPS depot, 30 miles away, (stupidity #4) to pick it up in person.
– Not delivering the package, and leaving a sticker on the door stating they had left it with the apartment manager. (Outright lie; the apartment manager was not in that day.)
– Not delivering the package, and when I called to ask why, explaining that the driver did not have “the code to get in.” (Another outright lie; I was not living in, or anywhere near, a gated community that would require such a code.)
– Making me jump through any number of hoops to get a delivery note attached to the package instructing the driver to leave the package with the apartment manager if I wasn’t there when it came time to deliver it… and then not delivering the package anyway. (Apartment manager was going to be there that time.) I called UPS and they said they would re-deliver it. Three hours later, I called back, and they said the driver attempted to deliver and found me not home. (Another lie; I was there the whole time and no one ever came.) Requests for another re-delivery were refused, even though I explained I was going out of town the next day and I had paid extra for expedited shipping.

It’s gotten to the point where I specifically request, when ordering a package, that they not ship via UPS. Remember Jim Cramer on the first Iron Man movie, mocking Stark Industries as “a weapons company that doesn’t make weapons”? That’s exactly how I view UPS: This is a package delivery company that doesn’t deliver packages!

Namel3ss (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:5 How about an impenetrable cable tie?

“they said the driver attempted to deliver and found me not home. (Another lie; I was there the whole time and no one ever came.)”

I’ve had that happen with Fedex. Was waiting at home for it, sitting 15 feet from my door, and went out a bit later to find a note “sorry we missed you, come pick it up tomorrow”. A-hole, couldn’t you at least be arsed to knock on the GD door?

Or 2-3 times I left a note on the door instructing them to leave the package in the leasing office and they leave it on my doorstep anyway. In the rain, snow, whatever.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:5 How about an impenetrable cable tie?

That’s fascinating. I use UPS frequently, and have never experienced a single problem with them. I can even easily give them special delivery instructions (and even pre-sign for deliveries that would otherwise require a signature) online.

I wonder what the difference is?

Mason Wheeler (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:6 How about an impenetrable cable tie?

I have no idea, but it’s to the point where I hold them in the same esteem as Comcast, Monsanto and Bank of America. Their service has been so abysmal for so many years that they’ve earned themselves a place on the list of Companies That Do Not Deserve To Continue To Exist.

Lord Binky says:

Re: Re: Re:3 How about an impenetrable cable tie?

Nationwide businesses get well deserved reputations in various regions.

For me in SE New Mexico, UPS is fantastic when it comes to handling products from Amazon. Fed-ex doesn’t have a local office within an hour of the city and the USPS will throw a yellow you-weren’t-home slip in my mailbox when I’m sitting in front of a giant street facing window in the living room. It wouldn’t be bad if I could do down to the post office the same day and pick it up, but I have to wait until the next day because the package is on the vehicle.

Lord Binky says:

Re: Re: Re:4 How about an impenetrable cable tie?

From an efficiency standpoint, they should be charging for carry-ons and not checked baggage.

Carry-ons slow down the transition of passengers on and off a plain and most importantly have an unknown weight.

Checked bags on the other hand provide the airlines a lot more flexibility and predictability on the load weight of the aircraft, alleviating issues with unexpected over loading and having to remove luggage then figuring out how to route the luggage last minute or delivering luggage to people later.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:5 How about an impenetrable cable tie?

There’s a size limit on carry on bags that keeps them from being that big of a factor in weight issues. If a carry on bags were capable of having that big of an affect on weight and balance, then the airlines would also have to require passenger weights just like smaller aircraft do.

Lord Binky says:

Re: Re: Re:6 How about an impenetrable cable tie?

I’ve re-arranged my checked and carry on baggage frequently in the past to get under the checked luggage weight. Now I just go ahead and carry the heavy high density items with me from the start. If it forced me to change my personal habits, I figured it would be similar for a sufficiently large number of other people.

It could still be the case that many would still rather pay the extra fee to have the heavy items in their checked luggage than have to carry it with them though.

I’ve also seen crew check outside of carry on size items at the gate as well, especially for 3 seat row size aircraft that have the smaller overhead bins.

For full flights, it isn’t uncommon in my experience to have a delay as the remove luggage from the aircraft after hitting a load limit. At that point I get a little worried if my luggage will be the one to be removed and then waste time trying to pick up something that never arrived. This also gets compounded when there are layovers and aircraft changes in reaching particular destinations.

Lord Binky says:

Re: Re: Re:6 How about an impenetrable cable tie?

Which makes sense and would most of the time taking an average and accounting for long term trends. Still, optimization is a major trend to airlines at the moment, and when they have issue with carrying pillows on flights, I can see this line of reasoning having some value to them.

Derek Kerton (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 How about an impenetrable cable tie?

I’m a United frequent flyer. And they tried this side business in partnership with UPS (as I recall) about half a decade ago. It didn’t work. Insufficient demand, I would guess.

I don’t like the idea myself. Bad as airlines are with your bags, I still like the odds of my bags arriving with me a lot better with the airline than with a parcel carrier.

Maybe you guys trying this haven’t shipped larger boxes very often, but the speed of delivery is variable, and tends towards slow. This is not a “priority envelope” service, unless you want to pay $150 per box.

And then factor in International. If you’ve ever shipped abroad, you will learn the sad lessons of how long parcels can spend held up in customs. For trade shows, twice I’ve tried to ship booth supplies to Europe to meet me at the trade show. On both occasions, the parcel was shipped two weeks before the show. On both occasions, our stuff was held up in customs, and never made it to the show. On both occasions we spend hours on the phone, roaming fees, etc, but to no avail. You’ll need to ship one month ahead to be sure, unless you want to go commando for your entire holidays.

Lord Binky says:

Re: Re: Re:3 How about an impenetrable cable tie?

Customs is a valid worry for international, time certainly moves differently for them and I’ve heard stories of the amazing feats parcel carriers can achieve in mishandling packaged (How the hell do you break an iron anvil in transit?!).

Still, if a parcel carrier wanted to make a legitimate attempt at such a service they could have that worked out to make it timely and economical.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: How about an impenetrable cable tie?

Shipping luggage (or anything else) is a major security breach. In some cases, those bags will get loaded on the exact same airplanes that carry passengers. While the TSA is putting so much interest in rigorously examining people’s genitals, potential terrorists have much easier ways of getting bombs on planes via other means.

But then for some TSA agents, having the ability to grope anyone’s genitals at will is the most satisfying part of the job.


Gumnos (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: While I posted this a while back…

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Transportation Security Administration announces its recent partnership with the Roman Catholic Church. Beginning in time for the Christmas travel season, the Vatican will supply additional staff to perform pat-down searches and monitor the full-body scanners.

A small but vocal minority of fliers have expressed concern regarding the program. TSA spokesman Dick Tickle dismisses the opposition as an aggrieved minority, stating that the financial savings and increased security benefit taxpayers and travellers alike.

“My co-workers and I are uncomfortable with the intimate nature of the pat-down searches required for those who opt out of the full-body scannings,” notes TSA agent Willie G. Roper. “The priests don’t seem to object, the people trust them, and they reportedly bring years of experience with them.”

Father John Geoghan eagerly looks forward to helping secure America’s transportation network. “I’ve seen the images produced by the backscatter/millimeter-wave systems, and there’s no hiding anything.”

Given the expected success of the new program, Tickle hints that the agency plans to extend its subcontracting relationships, starting with state correctional institutions. “A number of parolees and work-release prisoners have a difficult time finding jobs because of their record. In some cases, their names will appear on the sex-offender registry for the rest of their life. We offer them hope at reintegrating into society while making travel safer.”

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: How about an impenetrable cable tie?

This is true. But given that flying is already an expensive and tiresome thing to do, I don’t personally find that it makes the process much more work or expensive, and I get a lot of peace of mind from it.

You have a good point about spontaneous trips — that’s not a problem that I have. Since the TSA has made flying such an awful experience, I avoid it unless I have no other option. So I don’t make spontaneous trips.

Anonymous Coward says:

So why are TSA agents allowed to live in homes that have working locks?

Clearly they can’t figure out how to open a lock they have a key for, so to keep the agents (and by extension, everyone else) safe, we should restrict TSA employees to living in homes that have no locks at all.

My argument is broken and full of holes, you say? Isn’t that standard practice when TSA is involved?

Anonymous Coward says:

I wonder if the problem is that they only have one set of keys that they deliver from airport to airport when they need to open a suitcase much like the mechanics at the three U.S. military bases that sent their one pair of wrenches to so that they can open a missile.


Anonymous Coward says:

Also outsmarted by a plastic case for an electric razor

My electric razor has a plastic case that doesn’t even lock but requires only pushing the button on the end of the case to open it.

Of course, the TSA couldn’t figure it out. When I got to my destination, I found the case broken beyond repair. I remember being angry at first, briefly, before then being amused at how stupid one must be to be unable to learn how to push a simple button.

Anonymous Coward says:

this land is your land, these things are your things
from kauai island to caribou
from that northern slope to miami beach
my stuff is yours to do whatever you care to.

the america that woody knew, sullied though it was, is long gone and the wrongs and inequities that made woody sing will soon seem silly to complain about.  if not already.

singapore, move over.  we’re in for a bad time, us ordinary yokels.

Angels six says:

Re: Buy a starter pistol and travel with it.

Not true, not even a little bit. TSA does not have to inspect your luggage in your presence, gun or not. Firearms are checked in by CSA’ s at the airline, NOT TSA. Please stop spreading false information. They will still open and go through your bags, but will require you to open THE WEAPON CASE. Guns must be in a locked case of their own, even if packed inside of a suitcase. To open the firearms case, you must be present, but your presence is not necessary to go through your luggage.

anoncoward says:

Re: Re: Buy a starter pistol and travel with it.

Not if the luggage is the weapons case .

“The firearm must be in a hard-sided container that is locked. A locked container is defined as one that completely secures the firearm from being accessed. Locked cases that can be pulled open with little effort cannot be brought aboard the aircraft.”

so proper hard bagage will do it without any interior weapons case.

Spaceman Spiff (profile) says:

TSA - Totally Stupid Agency

A few years ago, I had to check in some luggage with my 1904 Gibson mandolin. The mandolin was in its hard-shell case, wrapped in bubble wrap, inside an aluminum suitcase, with TSA-approved locks. Of course, they broke into the case, dropped the mandolin, and caused $100s in damages to a unique instrument… Fortunately, it was repairable, barely. This is an instrument that has been played by the likes of David Grisman and Andy Statman (2 of the top bluegrass and jazz mandolin players in the world). Now, I NEVER check it in – I carry it onboard if I need to travel with it. At least the case is small enough to do that…

Liz Burton (profile) says:

Re: Homeland Security Money

Better we should allocate the DHS to oblivion. It’s done nothing with regard to the alleged reason it was created—ensuring cooperation among all government agencies involved for the sharing of necessary information to prevent terrorist attacks—and has instead militarized local law enforcement to the point many departments are small armies with elitist mindsets more focused on control than protection.

Somewhat Anomalous says:

Re: Re: Re: Force Detonated

“Of course, I could also bring a solid block of ABS plastic, shaped like a suitcase and with the handles and trim so it looks like a suitcase.

This suitcase can not be opened…”

Use a 3D printer to print a solid translucent/transparent ‘suitcase’ with a non-operable printed gun inside, and the words “Fragile – Work of Art” on the exterior.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: From the stupid is as stupid does dept.

Ok Mr. “All Government Regulation is bad, M’Kay?” Do you think child labor laws are a bad thing? How about OSHA standards? Sure OSHA often makes little sense in the way it does things, but the alternative is WAY worse. Go read some history about working conditions during the Industrial Revolution before the government stepped in to regulate things. That’s what happens when rich corporations are allowed to operate without rules.

You forget why all those nasty regulations that the telcos are worried about were created in the first place. It wasn’t an inherently evil government that wanted to persecute them for the lulz. No it was to force them to stop abusing the public. And most of these companies are either the same or descendent from the same companies that were responsible for those abuses in the first place. The telcos made this bed. Now they don’t want to lie in it anymore but they haven’t changed their ways at all.

JMT says:

Re: From the stupid is as stupid does dept.

It amazes me that there are people who confuse government control of the Internet (not what’s happening) with government control of ISP’s (what’s actually happening). It’s not like there’s a subtle or confusing difference between the two, or this something that hasn’t been discussed to death. It’s a wonder you can tie your own shoes…

DB (profile) says:

Shipping luggage separately from a flight sounds good in theory, but has major problems.

Two of the last three trips across the country have had canceled flights that left me overnight in Denver and Chicago. That’s especially unlucky, but not exceptional. In both of those cases I was scheduled to spend one night in the destination city, have a morning meeting, then travel onward. By having my luggage with me I was able to both change clothes and reschedule my flights without having to deal with luggage left behind.

And what happens when your shipped luggage arrives a day or two late, after you have already left?

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Shipping ahead is not appropriate for all travel situations, obviously. One like you describe, where you’re basically engaging in a stopover before continuing your flight, counts as one of those.

If I were making a trip like that, though, I wouldn’t rely on checked baggage regardless. I’ve seen far too many instances where the checked bags are lost or delayed. I’d bring what I need as a carryon instead.

“And what happens when your shipped luggage arrives a day or two late, after you have already left?”

I ship my baggage a week in advance so even if it’s a day or two late, it will probably arrive before I do. That said, you face the exact same risk with checked baggage — except that when your checked bags don’t arrive, you probably won’t be seeing them for at least a couple of weeks.

steeleweed says:

2nd time around

After clearing TSA for a connecting flight in Houston, the flight was canceled and we had to exit the gate area and go back to ticketing to reschedule. 2nd time thru TSA, they pulled me aside and rummaged thru my carry-on, checked me out, etc. I asked why and was told ‘X-ray showed something suspicious. Asked why they hadn’t noticed it the first time, since nothing had changed. No response from Mr TSA. Being a bit snarky, I asked if this meant that someone with contraband had a 50/50 chance of slipping by unnoticed. Again no comment, but you see Mr TSA was pissed at being challenged – and not having an answer.

yankinwaoz (profile) says:

Perhaps it wasn't the TSA

So he has a busted up piece of luggage and the only clue is the TSA branded tape used to keep it closed. His article does not mention any other clues.

What if some scumbag within the airline luggage system stole himself a roll of TSA tape?

Then all he has to do is target promising bags, break it open, and close it with TSA tape. TSA gets the blame. He gets whatever goodies he finds.

christoffer says:


A trick i heard about a while ago.
1) buy a startpistol (no licence required on most countrie/states)
2) buy luggage approved for transporting firearms.
3) checkin this luggage.
Now the rules for transporting firearms is such that the TSA is not allowed to open this case unless you are present. so you will be sent to a separate point and here they will inspekt you bag in your precence. then you will lock int and they will put a seal on to show that is is checked.

se http://lifehacker.com/5448014/pack-a-gun-to-protect-valuables-from-airline-theft-or-loss

Lisa Simeone (profile) says:

TSA abuse - happens all the time

Sadly, nothing new. The TSA bullies, harasses, robs, and abuses people every day in this country. Destroying luggage is all part of the game. They especially love destroying “TSA-approved” locks. At TSA News we’ve documented thousands of cases of TSA crime and abuse. I don’t have any illusions about things changing in my lifetime, but at least I’ll go down fighting.

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