Wednesday, May 02, 2007

My case against TSA

Shortly after the system of luggage searches by TSA went into effect, some inexpensive jewelery in an outer pocket of a suitcase I checked disappeared. I suspected pilfering by whoever searched it, but since I had no way of either proving anything had been stolen or identifying the person responsible, I did nothing.

On my most recent trip by air, I had two suitcases--a big metal one and a smaller soft sided suitcase. The metal suitcase had a combination lock which I left unlocked, since otherwise TSA was likely to break it. Since without the lock I thought there was some risk of the suitcase opening, I put a luggage strap around it. The strap had no lock--you just pressed the sides of the catch to open it.

When I picked up the suitcases, the strap had been broken open. The other suitcase has two built-in straps to cinch it tight. Both were unfastened and hanging loose, at obvious risk of getting tangled in the luggage handling machinery. Nothing stolen, so far as I know, but the wanton destruction of about ten dollars worth of property and a risk of further damage.

Obviously, even if I knew for certain that TSA employees were responsible in both cases, that would not demonstrate that the organization itself was at fault--even a well run and well intentioned organization may sometimes hire a dishonest, irresponsible or careless employee.

My case against TSA starts by asking what they would do if they cared about such matters--if they were concerned to prevent vandalism or pilferage by their employees. The answer is pretty clear. When they search your luggage, they leave you a printed note telling you that they did so. All they would have to do in order to identify employees responsible for stealing or damaging property would be to have each note stamped with the name of the employee who did the search. If they got complaints from multiple passengers about the same employee they could then investigate further.

I take their falure to follow that policy or something similar as clear evidence of culpable negligence, reason to think that they don't actually care. Am I missing something?


Anthony said...

You are missing something - never assume conspiracy when incompetence will do. Probably nobody in the TSA had two connected thoughts: that a) there is a problem, and that b) there is a solution. It's not their job to protect *your* property, just the airlines'.

Anonymous said...

I work at TSA as a contractor and your idea about putting an individual's name on the inspection slip makes sense to me. I will "run it up the flagpole".

Tristan said...

If you have anything valuable for internal flights get a starting pistol and put it in the case with that.
Its a firearm, so has to be kept in a locked case which only you have the keys to. The TSA will inspect it with you there and you will lock it.

It is also far less likely to go missing since they don't want to lose guns.

Milhouse said...

No, I don't think you're missing anything, in fact I think you've got it exactly right - the TSA isn't some evil conspiracy to rob us of our civil liberties and our material possessions, it doesn't intend to harm us in any way, but it just doesn't care whether we are harmed or not.

It exists in order to exist. If you cast your mind back to when it was founded, the entire purpose was to employ thousands of public servants, who could be counted on to support the Democratic Party. The more regulations it issues, the more work it makes for itself, and the more people it must employ. All other considerations are not even secondary, they don't even register.

Karl said...

I see Tristan beat me to the punch on that suggestion.

It seems to me, it's in TSA's best interest to implement some sort of procedure that will make carrying a firearm in your luggage unnecessary, otherwise the system will be flooded with people declaring weapons in their luggage (and the extra paperwork and tracking that results therefrom).

Mike Huben said...

TSA will never use such a ticketing system to assign responsability because it is an invitation to steal while assigning blame to somebody else.

It would require two kinds of additional security for that ticketing system to work: first, the ticket distribution would have to remain secure, and second the luggage would have to be secure against any tampering after it is ticketed.

The first is needed because TSA coworkers could pin the blame on each other by putting each others tickets in the luggage.

The second would be needed because otherwise baggage handler theft or damage would be blamed on TSA employees. Or TSA employees could blame their thefts on subsequent handlers.

The simple solution is to keep valuables in your carry on.

Anonymous said...


If it were the case that every tenth, or even every hundredth, speeder, legitimately caught speeding, had his car ransacked and some property stolen, would you have no more of an objection than: "The simple solution is not to speed."

Mike Huben said...

There's a difference between having a moral objection and asking pragmatic questions about means, motive, and opportunity.

Both David and I object to the damage and theft. David suggested a very flawed system to eliminate the means: unaccountable access to luggage. I pointed out the flaws, and suggested that removing the opportunity (presence of valuables) is much more obviously reliable, is an option open to individuals immediately without changing the system, and is essentially free and uncomplicated.

I'm actually surprised that David suggested adding bureaucratic procedures rather than taking individual responsibility.

Andrew said...

In countries with more advanced airport security, your check-in luggage is inspected in front of you, then shrink wrapped. The shrink wrap does not get opened until you take your luggage home with you.

Richard P. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Richard P. said...

Maybe Mike if you weren't so interested in discrediting Mr. Friedman, you might have arrived at his solution.

Consider the instance where it is not jewelry but an article of designer clothing that is the target of a TSA worker's covet. Is your hack solution anything close to generalizable? Or should I just put everything I own into my carry-on?

Your solution, while opposite of David's, is intellectually bankrupt. Consider: if the government claims to protect us through socializing the means of protection, then having to take precautions because of the governmental agents' actions diminishes the legitimacy of that claim.

It's nice that you tag all your comments with your name. Next time, I can just skip over your subsequent text.

Matt Burgess said...


You strike me as an intelligent guy, but your thinking on this one is exactly backwards.

David suggested a very flawed system to eliminate the means: unaccountable access to luggage.

I have no idea how you get that from what David suggests. It is the unaccountable access currently in place which he is trying to prevent. And even if David's system can be gamed, it is surely harder to game that system than what is currently in place.

David is talking about individual responsibility.

Garth A Brazelton said...

Well my partner just flew back home from Maryland, and he was pulled aside in front of everyone and was told he tripped some alarm (though none went off) and these two TSA people started frisking him, going through each item in his carry-on, and interrogating him like some sleezy cop drama to the point where he actually felt like he did something wrong! "Why are you in Baltimore," "what's the weather like where you are from today," "Did you go out at all while you were here," ...back and forth firing off questions like bullets. And they finally let him go after humiliating him and almost making him miss his flight.

So, I second "milhouse"'s comment that they just don't give a care what they do.

cheerful iconoclast said...

I'm not sure why you assume it was the TSA, as opposed to a baggage hander or other person with access to the bag.

I really doubt a TSA employee is going to stick his tag in the bag from which he steals something. That seems a bit like asking a thief to leave his calling card.

Anonymous said...

I like the shrink wrap idea. However, it would seem to cause bottlenecks. Have you ever been in a New York area airport!?

I've never faced the problem David describes. I usually lock my cases with a lock which can be unlocked by the TSA and me but nobody else.

I don't put ANY valuables in a checked in bag. I don't even put cables and other accessories for things like ipods and laptops in checked bags. People steal the oddest things.

Anonymous said...

Two thoughts: One, I don't think
you're going to have much luck getting TSA employees to put their actual name out for the general public to see. Too much chance for
extortion, bribes, and retaliation.
You might be able to get them to put an inspector number in there that the airport/airline can translate to a real person. But that leads me to thought two: You're asking the baggage inspectors to squeal on themselves. If said person is willing to trash your stuff, or steal it, what makes you think they're not going to be willing to fail to put the little note in your bag, or put in a note that lies?

And if you have some mechanism to keep the baggage gorilla from lying or not participating, why not use that system to keep him from stealing your stuff in the first place?

But the root complaint still holds.
If it cost the company(ies) handling the baggage more to let
baggage get mishandled than to
prevent it, they'd find a way.


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