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To Keep The Skies Safe, The TSA Wants To Know What You're Reading

from the how-could-this-go-wrong dept

The TSA continues to expand the intrusiveness of its searches, supposedly justified by an increased threat to air travel that doesn’t seem to have materialized. In fact, the TSA has admitted attacks on airplanes are the threat voted Least Likely To Occur. One only needs to look at the recent string of terrorist attacks to see there are far more efficient ways to attack the populace than purchasing a ticket and making your way past security.

Nevertheless, the charade continues, only with more of it as often as possible. Fliers are now being asked to stow explosive batteries in the cargo hold and liquid limits are still being enforced to ensure dangerous things like medication and breast milk aren’t brought on board.

Now, the TSA wants to know what you’re reading. As airlines have increased rates for checked bags, travellers are packing more and more into their carry-on luggage. This is causing problems for the TSA’s X-ray machines, which are having more trouble discerning what’s actually being carried in passengers’ bags. The densest materials are the hardest to “see” through, so TSA agents will now be demanding access to reading materials travelers are carrying.

The TSA is testing new requirements that passengers remove books and other paper goods from their carry-on baggage when going through airline security. Given the sensitivity of our reading choices, this raises privacy concerns.

Tests of the policy are underway in some small airports around the country, and DHS Secretary John Kelly recently said that “we might, and likely will” apply the policy nationwide. “What we’re doing now is working out the tactics, techniques, and procedures, if you will, in a few airports, to find out exactly how to do that with the least amount of inconvenience to the traveler,” he told Fox News. The policy may also apply to food items.

There’s no good reason for the government to know what you’re reading. In fact, as the ACLU points out in this post, there are protections in place to prevent the government from obtaining that information.

[T]here is a long history of special legal protection for the privacy of one’s reading habits in the United States, not only through numerous Supreme Court and other court decisions, but also through state laws that criminalize the violation of public library reading privacy or require a warrant to obtain book sales, rental, or lending records.

But, as government lawyers have reminded citizens, travelling via air is a privilege, not a right, even in a country where someone’s destination might be 3,000 miles away. (Travelling by car has its own set of Fourth Amendment problems. It’s also far more dangerous. Deciding to drive not only takes longer, but subjects people to a whole new set of issues.) The decision to fly means allowing the government to do whatever it wants to make flying secure, even if nearly everything it does has zero effect on curbing terrorist activity.

There are plenty of reasons people might not want to share their reading habits with other fliers in eyesight of the examination are, much less a bunch of government employees with the power to detain people for almost any reason. It’s not just about hiding trashy novels from TSA agents. It’s about any number of reading materials that could subject to additional scrutiny by the government.

For example, in 2010 the ACLU sued on behalf of a man who was abusively interrogated, handcuffed, and detained for nearly five hours because he was carrying a set of Arabic-language flash cards and a book critical of U.S. foreign policy. We also know that the DHS database known as the “Automated Targeting System,” which tracks information on international travelers, has included notations in travelers’ permanent files about controversial books in their possession.

Since the searches aren’t limited to books, but any set of papers flagged by scanners, lawyers carrying privileged legal documents might find themselves having to hand these over to TSA agents to page through. Reading anything about national security and/or terrorism is likely to result in enhanced screening efforts and (possibly) missed flights. The government has no right to know what you’re reading, but it has the right to make you hand over everything you’re hoping to carry onboard to do with it what it pleases. This includes adding travellers to secret lists that are almost impossible to be removed from or simply asking a bunch of irrelevant questions based on the incredibly faulty premise that terrorists would read certain materials when engaged in acts of terrorism.

The ACLU suggests two things the TSA can do to minimize privacy violations. One would be strict policies and new training procedures to better ensure travelers’ privacy and to prevent the additional search from becoming a handy way to increase detentions and add travelers to secret lists.

The second thing would be more along the privacy lines voluntarily adopted by companies selling and shipping sensitive goods: the plain brown packaging program. Travellers should be allowed to use plain book covers to obscure titles and other sensitive information while still allowing agents to verify the books are just books and not, say, sheets of explosives or hollowed-out weapons containers. The TSA should only be interested in ensuring a book is a book. It should have zero interest in the title or content of travellers’ reading materials.

X-ray machines are supposed to minimize intrusiveness by allowing travellers to keep their bags closed. The TSA is undoing this small privacy protection step-by-step, with books and other papers following electronic devices onto X-ray belts and into the hands of TSA agents. If the TSA is honest about its reasons for examining books separately, the lack of exterior identifying information shouldn’t pose a problem. If it does, the TSA (or the agent performing the search) has ulterior motives and should be prevented from stripping away yet another layer of personal privacy at security checkpoints.

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Comments on “To Keep The Skies Safe, The TSA Wants To Know What You're Reading”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: democracy is sad

vv] — ” It’s sad it’s come to this though. “

But “it” was delivered by the democratic-process that everyone strongly praises.

All Presidents, Congress-persons, Supreme Court Justices, and media endorse TSA general search authority. Do you have some objection to democracy?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: democracy is sad

Do you have some objection to democracy?

The beauty of democracy is that you can object to it’s results without rejecting their source. That’s actually the entire basis of democracy, that each member has separate opinions about everything but only the more popular opinions are implemented.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: democracy is sad

“…..the entire basis of democracy”

No, the entire basis of democracy is majority-rule — that a numerical group majority inherently has the ethical right to forcibly impose its will on the group’s minorites.

51 people force the other 49 to obey them.
(or in the U.S. plurality system — 5 to 33 people force the remaining majority of people to obey)

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 democracy is sad

That’s actually the entire basis of democracy, that each member has separate opinions about everything but only the more popular opinions are implemented.

the entire basis of democracy is majority-rule

Thank you for rewriting my sentence in short form. As Pascal would say, [I didn’t have time to make it shorter].

Roger Strong (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 democracy is sad

Of course that’s not actually true with democratic governments.

The US and every other democracy have things to prevent “The Tyranny of the Majority.” A Constitution. A Bill or Charter of Rights. A very large body of established law. All of which put strict limits on the ability of the majority to dictate to minorities and individuals.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:4 democracy is sad

“4th Amendment expressly PROHIBITS the general, warrantless searches conducted by TSA — but it has no effect at all.”

Because people are okay with destroying protections when it serves their political purposes. They just never realize that it always comes back to bite them on the ass.

For example, the Religious right’s assault on the 1st with free speech regarding the 7 words you cannot say on public TV are just as wrong as the Religious left’s assault on the 2nd with gun control.

I have only met 1 other citizen of the US face to face that fully supports the Constitution in my lifetime. Most other will happily sacrifice any number of the other protections if it served their politics.

If you have enough intellectual dishonesty to allow just a single right be trampled “for any reason” then you have no standing to complain about other when they trample the rights you “happen” to agree with.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:5 free 2 choose

” Are you not free to refuse a TSA search? … But getting on the flight was never a right. “

… try leaving the immediate screening area once the TSA has actually begun searching you & your belongings — you will be immediately detained (arrested) for questioning (or worse)… as a highly suspicious person. If you even look nervous/anxious standing in the main line, you will be tagged for ‘special’ TSA treatment.

The ‘right to travel’ is a bedrock of Anglo-American law going back to the Magna Carta.

49 U.S.C. § 40103 : US Code — Section 40103:
Sovereignty and use of airspace

(2) A citizen of the United States has a public right of transit through the navigable airspace.


Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:7 free 2 choose

I wonder. If there is no law prohibiting, or restricting people in general from using any public transportation service, and there is no Constitutional restriction against the use of public transportation, then the government has no right to restrict such rights. Any right not restricted by the Constitution is a right held by the populace.

IANAL but so far as I can tell, all the restrictions are rules promulgated by law enforcement departments, that don’t have the same force as law.

So, why isn’t the use of public transportation a right? Where is the prohibition? Any constitutionally trained lawyers care to comment?

The Wanderer (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:5 democracy is sad

Are you free to offer other people rides on your private aircraft, and fly them to their destinations?

What about if you charge them for it – just enough to cover your costs, of course?

What about if you start charging more, to make a profit?

What about if you use some of those profits to buy more aircraft, and hire other people to pilot those aircraft on your behalf, to fly other people to their destinations?

At what point do you cease to be permitted to ignore the security-theater requirements that the TSA has in place?

And if you can’t ignore them at that point, why can you ignore them before that point?

Cowardly Lion says:

Re: Re: Re:5 Cafes

"You can still get in your own private aircraft and fly to your destination."

Not even remotely true – you’d never be allowed to traverse from land-side to air-side. Air crews, ground staff, security, VIPs… EVERYONE at a commercial airport has to pass security.

That said, I know of at least 3 international airports where cafes straddle this nominal barrier because once upon a time it made sense to have a single facility serve two sets of customers. Which to my mind means baristas are higher up the pecking order than those TSA clods. Kind of makes sense I suppose, baristas do at least have some skills…

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:6 Cafes

at a commercial airport

Therein lies the rub. There are plenty of non-commercial airports.

I went up in a two-seater with a buddy of mine who was getting his pilot’s license. We pulled into a parking spot, walked into a small building where he checked the weather and signed & paid for a plane, then walked out the back door onto the tarmac.

Not a TSA agent in sight.

I believe this is the scenario that many folks are talking about when they say “get your own private aircraft”.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 democracy is sad

“the entire basis of democracy is majority-rule”
Tyranny of the majority.

When (not if) the majority does not rule, is it still a “democracy”?

Many political systems make the “democracy” claim, do any of them actually fit the definition?

Is it a democracy when leaders are voted on but issues are not?

What is a cult of personality?

Inquiring minds want to know.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

This makes sense, as the TSA agents have to carry maps to find their own asses half the time.
No terrorist is going to have a card with tick off instructions of, make it past security, get on plane, sit near wing, count to 100,000 , ignite the bombs, make sure to scream god is great.

Ken White (Popehat) had posted on twitter when he ran afoul of the TSA when he was flying to trial. The notes binder fell open onto a page with a diagram of a weapon. It took a supervisor and much time to decide it wasn’t a threat to the flight. From the agency that seized the plastic weapon a childs GI Joe was holding because it was a weapon & “rocket shaped” camera lens dusters… do we really want them to have the right to dick people over because they think the book is bad & should be banned?

(Kens Tweet Thread with Bonus responses from others who have been singled out because of books)

This is just trying to expand the theatre du security to make it more acceptable. Once they get it here, they will expand and expand for less actual security returns but more ways to hassle citizens & justify searches & seizures.

Anon says:

Re: Yes and No

I’m tired of people making fun of TSA limitations on liquids. the problem is that some chemicals that can be mixed to make explosives (in the airplane washroom) look like water. Your choices are – ban all liquids above minor quantities, or turn every TSA agent into an advanced chemist and have them test every liquid. I think the first choice is the simplest.

(Of course, if a dozen terrorists get together on the same flight with 4 oz. apiece, that could make a fairly hefty batch of explosive.)

Similarly, requiring travelers to haul out their dense materials for closer examination makes sense. I had that happen on recent flight – I have a large collection of US coins culled from Canadian tills where I work. Exchange them at par,30% profit! but a big wad of metal, of course they want to look.

Similarly, the zero tolerance policies – like all such – need a degree of common sense. If GI Joe’s gun couldn’t be mistaken for a deadly weapon, then who cares? (Or Kelly Osborne’s half-inch gun-shaped flat bracelet charm) But weapons come in all shapes and sizes, better to err on the side of caution.

I do seriously wonder about the content though. If you don’t read Arabic, then why is any Arabic material automatically suspect? Over a billion people have a holy book written in Arabic. Is “Eyewitness Illustrated Guide to Military Weapons” (or the History of Medieval Weapons, or Guide to Airliners) an automatic no-no? Anyone involved in History, Political Science, and a number of Engineering and Science disciplines are guaranteed to have objectionable reading material. Can he TSA screening tolerate a system where half the lineup is subject to a deeper scrutiny?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Yes and No

Can he TSA screening tolerate a system where half the lineup is subject to a deeper scrutiny?

Yes. TSA is not accountable to anyone in particular for missed flights. Airlines have gone out of their way to ensure they do not compensate passengers for flights missed due to TSA malfeasance, so they do not care. (Perversely, they may consider it a bonus, since they keep your money, but save the fuel that would have been spent hauling you.) Put together, this means that the TSA can tolerate a system which causes more delays and more missed seats, up until they manage to concurrently interfere with enough motivated voters that Congress is pushed to rein them in. Given how abusive they already are, and that Congress has not disbanded them or even seriously discussed reducing their power, I think they have quite a bit of slack to go.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Yes and No

I’m tired of people making fun of TSA limitations on liquids. the problem is that some chemicals that can be mixed to make explosives (in the airplane washroom) look like water. Your choices are – ban all liquids above minor quantities, or turn every TSA agent into an advanced chemist and have them test every liquid. I think the first choice is the simplest.

You’ve been watching too many movies (or TSA theater). Besides, in order for that approach to work, they would have to ban liquids above some small amount in total for the entire plane. Otherwise, several people could just get together and combine their nefarious liquids into a larger amount.

Anonymous Coward says:

I am willing to accept risk levels of over 100X our current risk to return airport security measures to 1990 levels. Quick googleing shows me there were 37.4 million flights and 3 hijackings worldwide in 2014. Alternately 2001 was the most recent year that there were more than 10 hijackings worldwide and almost half of that total was accumulated on the same day.

Anonymous Coward says:

Social Engineering

Welp, can’t we just call this what it really is?

Government is just socially engineering us to accept tyrannical authority like it is everyday life.

And yes, this shit really works, history proves it. People are more than willing to submit to several forms of slavery as long as they understand that… you better to what the TSA says or we will make your life miserable or just dead.

The police are already walking examples of this. The TSA will not be much farther along to where they have socially engineered us to be accepting of people being shot right in line for making a joke the TSA did not like.

Capt ICE Enforcer says:

Paid access

Earth Citizens,

The TSA is proud to announce an additional service to our TSA pre check policy. The TSA Precheck Gold package allows you to keep your shoes on. While the Platinum package allows you to keep your books and electronic devices secured from us. The Gold package starts at $35, while the Platinum is a mere $50. Get yours now.

TSA is proud to serve.

Bruce C. says:


It’s not completely clear, but the purpose of this doesn’t appear to be to see what you’re reading, it’s to get the dense organic books out of the containers that might contain dense organic explosives.

Knowing the surveillance state, it’s entirely possible they’ll have the people who assist passengers along the conveyor belts checking out the literary contents of the bins. So I foresee more instances of people reading books in one of dem dam furrin’ languages getting pulled aside/kicked off flights, etc.

I guess it would be a small benefit to have it happen at the security checkpoint, rather than when your seatmate on the aircraft realizes he can’t understand the title of your book and calls the flight attendant to finger you as a suspicious character. At least it saves all the time waiting in the gate area and so on.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

It’s kind of funny that anything considered a “medication” in the eyes of the TSA is completely exempt from their three-ounce-per-bottle rule, and travelers have reported being allowed to take some rather large bottles of things like contact lens fluid.

It would not be surprising if a large bottle (or even many small bottles) of “medical” nitroglycerin were allowed onto the plane in carry-on, since in any large government bureaucracy, following “the rules” to the letter generally overrides even the most basic common sense.

Anonymous Coward says:

I think you missed the point of this one. Its all about the density of the books. They don’t care what your reading they just need to be able to see through it with the x-ray. I don’t know what the thickness is, but there is some thickness of paper that will block the x-ray to a point that the tech looking at the image cant determine if its paper or explosive. When the paper is removed it can be spread out into thinner piles that the x-ray can go through. In fact this is the same reason they make you take you Laptop out. The battery is so dense that it can be hard to determine if it is a battery or not, and if there is something else behind it then the tech really cant tell what is in the luggage. When they are separated they can tell what they are looking at, kinda, X-ray is not really that good, which is the problem.

This idea that they want to know what your reading is just as much FUD as going dark.

There is certainly a privacy issue for people who have to take books out, but in most cases that can be fixed with by putting you books in individual paper bags. The TSA won’t open each one up to read the book. They will just send them trough the X-ray not in one big stack. If they decided to use the chemical detector thing then they may want to open up the bag. That could case an issue but the TSA still isn’t going to be intentionally checking what the book is, and a book cover would fix most of that.

That said I do agree that TSA is mostly theater and much of the crazy things they do could be gotten rid of.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

“I think you missed the point of this one.”

I think we all know who is missing the point. Only a fool would be willing to assume that any government entity is 100% honest with you up front about their motives.

But don’t let me stop you from drinking the kool-aid… it is a mighty fine beverage after all.

Trottingwolf says:

Re: Re: Re:

You can be ignorant about what is going on around you and assume people are involved in some crazy conspiracy, or you can understand the motivation for peoples actions to determine when you need to be concerned about those actions.

The government does not have to be upfront with me about its motives if I understand the reasoning and technical issues in a decision they make.

I understand how the x-ray works and what some of the limitations are. I have encountered those limitations and modified my behavior to make my times in a TSA security line go faster. It was a simple as taking the bag of batteries for my drone out of my luggage so that the x-ray would not have a problem looking through them. The same would be true if I was taking a large stack of books. Or, as I have also experienced, having a pocket with a couple of flashlights spare change, car keys and a few other metal items. They had to rerun my jacket because the way everything stacked the x-ray tech could not determine if there was anything dangerous in my jacket. When they re-scanned my jacket they just made sure the stuff was spread out better. The TSA didn’t even open the pocket on my jacket. All they needed was to be able to see nothing in there was dangerous. If I had spread the stuff better or used more pockets so it was not all stacked up it would not have been an issue.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

Of course there are people who are looking to do nefarious deeds.

The TSA making people take out paper is not being considered for nefarious reasons. There may be some nefarious side effects, but to claim that the reason they are making people take out paper is so that the TSA can read it is total FUD. Saying that the TSA might be implementing a that can have some privacy concerns and here is how you can deal with it, would be much more accurate.

Sure some people may have issues if some stupid TSA gets it up their butt that reading a book on something they don’t like/understand makes a terrorist, and that is an issue. However scaring people into thinking that the TSA WANTS to read every book going through the airport is not going to help the situation. INFORMING people about the new policy, why it was implemented and how to deal with it would help.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

“in most cases that can be fixed with by putting you books in individual paper bags.”

Dunno about that. They still won’t be able to see through the book, so then they will need to open the bag to flip through the pages to make sure something isn’t in a cutout section in the book”

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

This is where a lot of the misunderstanding is coming from. A single book would not be thick enough to block to X-ray to the point that they have to look through the book. However a stack of books would block the X-Ray. So they are not going to spend a bunch of time opening up all the books in a stack when they can just un-stack them and send them back through the X-ray. That would be much faster. Oh wait if they have people do that before they even put the luggage through the X-ray the first time then they wont have to send stuff back through a bunch of times. Well that’s the logic anyway.

This is now becoming a problem because the number of people who have too many books in the luggage, thus requiring a second run through the X-ray, is high enough that it would be faster to have everyone unpack books first. If people with too many books was still just a rare occurrence then it would still be faster to only re-scan the few that the x-ray can’t see through.

I had a similar problem when trying to take lipo batteries for my drone on some flights. I have all the batteries in a “Lipo Safe” bag to help limit problems if there is a fire. If I keep the bag of batteries in my luggage the X-ray cant see through the batteries and the stuff in my bag. In that case TSA will make me pull them out and run just the bag of batteries through the X-ray again. If I pull out the bag of batteries before I go through the X-ray the first time they never even say anything about it.

Its all about what the X-ray tech can see in the crappy image and X-ray gives. If they are not sure its safe they will recheck somehow. If they can tell what it is and that its ok then they just let it pass.

OC says:

I’m a bit late to the party so apologies if someone already brought this up.

This has nothing to do with paper books, it’s just the first step which they will later use to justify looking at other types of books, like e-books. If people have accepted having their paper books inspected, surely they understand that looking at their e-books is necessary as well. And since they then already have access to the tablet or phone they might as well have a quick look at other things as well. Nothing to worry about.

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