Border Travel in an underpants bomber world

I just landed on a flight from Toronto to San Francisco. If you were inside the USA you may not have heard about the various crazy rules applied to travel to the USA, or at least not experienced them. While we were away the rules changed every day, and perhaps every hour.

Toronto was hit the hardest because it has the most flights to the USA of any airport in the world (with a few other Canadian airports not far behind.) Due to the busy border, you clear U.S. customs and immigration through their satellite office in Toronto, so your plane lands you at domestic gates in the USA, making connections far easier.

The USA started insisting on intimate pat-downs on all passengers and complete hand screening of all carry-ons. For a while there was even a regulation that passengers would have to sit in their seats with nothing on their laps (not blankets, not books, not computers) for the last hour of the flight. That got reverted to "pilot's discretion" and in our case there was no talk of this.

The heavy search requirements brought Toronto's heavy to-USA traffic to a standstill. Even with extra mounties pitching in, there was now way to get all those people through the terminal, so the CATSA brought in a near-ban on carry-ons. You could only carry on items from a short list. Notable things not on the list (ie. banned) included books, kid's toys, lenses and various items people bring on not because they need them in flight, but because they are essential to their trip, or are fragile.

After a few days of reduced carry-ons, they got the processing down, as long as you got there 3 hours in advance, sometimes more. A real burden on 1 hour flights to New York, Boston or Washington. Still a burden on my 5 hour flight to SFO, since that was at 7am, meaning getting to the airport at 4am, (1am Pacific Time, about the time I would get to bed.)

The process included the fairly standard x-ray (with agents making various exceptions for people, generally allowing books that could be paged through and even some small knapsacks) with pat down only if you set off the alarm. Then, shortly after you started walking down the row of gates was a 2nd checkpoint. There you got a serious patdown that might remind you of a massage, and a complete hand inspection of everything in your bags. (I suggest they should let you pay extra for a real massage, which also of course detects anything on your body.) Many checks of ID and boarding pass and you are on your way.

There are many disturbing things about the reaction to the underpants bomber but a few stand out.

  • It is certain that the TSA and all other major agencies knew about the risk of somebody strapping explosives to their legs and taking them through the magnetometer. So a plan should have been in place long ago about what to do about it, and how to react at the first public incident.
  • In spite of this the agencies are out running around like chickens with their heads cut off, changing plans every day, no sign of forethought. Are they just testing the public to see what they will tolerate?
  • Lots of talk of thz scanners to see everybody naked. Is this a way to get those accepted, after people complained?
  • For Toronto, and most of the Canadian airports, a bad guy can quite readily drive just 90 minutes and go to another airport like Buffalo and get no special screening! While the public does not like this extra trek, it's no burden to the terrorist to do this. Only the innocent are punished.
  • You could still smuggle your stuff inside a laptop, or a body cavity or several other places I noticed.
  • Keep this up and people will stop flying, and they will definitely go to airports like Buffalo.
  • As I have suggested before, appointments for security inspections are one answer to the 3 hour early arrival.
  • For me the worst thing was packing lenses in checked bag. I had to improvise protection for them. When such a rule is put in place by surprise over Christmas, you have to expect a lot of people brought stuff that they needed to carry on on the way back, even if they would not plan a new trip today expecting to carry on their fragiles.

With some irony, all this came after a lunch with Peter Watts. If you didn't hear, Peter was crossing back into Canada at Port Huron/Sarnia and got pull over for exit inspection leaving the USA. Because he wasn't a complete little sheep, he reports he was beaten up by the border patrol and now is charged with assaulting an officer. I really doubt he did those things, but the most disturbing thing are those who comment on the story saying it's his fault for not being subservient enough. I understand the reasons for letting police do their jobs, but when you are just inspecting people driving out of the country, with no special reason to believe they are criminals or worthy of above average suspicion or anything but the presumption of innocence we are all owed, then there should be standards, and better defined rights for the subject of the inspections. If a person is not a known threat, why should they not get to ask questions about what is being done to them and their vehicle? Yes, one time in many thousands, an actual nasty criminal might do something odd and need to be set upon with force. It's one of the risks people take doing an armed policing job. It can happen anywhere, any time. But must the people give up their rights and be complete sheep because of it?

Can't we have a system where different situations suggest different levels of police control? Where the police, while they may have the power to give you orders and you have to obey without much chance to question, get in trouble if they abuse that power in a non-hostile situation? Where they have a simple way of explaining that they think the situation has escalated, and a way to declare it that we are taught in school to understand? So if the copy says, "I'm escalation -- get on the ground now" you have to get on the ground, but the cop has to justify later why he escalated. Simply being a citizen who is mindful of his rights doesn't seem much grounds for that.


We should disband the TSA. It's clear that they're not up to the task of protecting us, since every few months there's another predictable threat that causes them to revamp their procedures.

I'll bet dollars to doughnuts that more Canadians would die in the process of driving to Buffalo than would die if anybody and anything were allowed on airplanes on Toronto.

There is some speculation that explosives in a body cavity were used in the attempted assassination of a Saudi Prince.

There has been some discussion if these attempts by al-Qaeda are to bring down a plane or the US Airline industry. If the later they seem to be working quite well. I wonder if investments in videoconferencing companies would be warranted before rectal exams become a regular part of the air travel experience.

Actually, that subject is ambiguous, and thinking, I mean it both ways.

The airline security system is not that organised. The idea that there is someone in charge is a myth created by our desire for order. Forward planning consists mostly of asking for more money and fighting to keep control of the bits each part currently controls. In other words, it's a collection of bureaucrazies. So the idea that there's a detailed plan... not so much. In eveery specific case there's a fight as each part of the system tries desperately to CYA at the expense of every other part. The airlines fight to avoid paying for anything and to minimise disruption to their operations, so we see their staff go largely unscreened and so on. The airports fight to minimise screening because they're the ones that host it, and they want the government to pay and provide it all. The government fights itself, between the politicians who want headlines saying "politician X keeps you safe" and the bureaucrazies who just want to avoid being blamed... and so on.

Likewise "Al Quaeda"... similar but more distributed. They're not trying specifically to kill air travel, they're just trying to disrupt anything they can and air travel has turned out to be an easy target. I'm guessing it's closer to the Open Source bounty system than the Apple command and control hierarchy. If you think Bin Laden (or any other single person) has the level of control that Steve Jobs has... you're off the planet.

I think it's bleakly amusing that rather than fix your long-haul rail system you're working very hard to bring air travel down to the level of Amtrack. And Amtrack, frankly, sucks. It makes much of the third world look pretty damn organised. Hopefully the Chinese fast rail system will give someone in the US a good kick up the arse and prompt a bit of catch-up investment. For what you pay[1] just for air security you could start ploughing HST tracks into major corridors and actually have high speed centre-to-centre travel within a few years.

[1] both money and loss of liberty etc. There would have to be China-style land resumptions and so on, but right now Merkins are losing way more rights than that in the name of job security for the political classes. I know which one I'd rather be up against. Would you raher face the TSA with their unclear but unbounded mandate or a rail authority with the budget and political will to hammer you flat if you don't get out of the (clearly defined) way?

The U.S. just has not got the geography for a useful rail system, outside the concentrated N.E. Even the LA-SF corridor, which is the busiest in the world apparently, will be a boondoggle if they build the high speed rail.

Nobody tries new thinking in air travel though. Whatever supposed advantages rail has would be eliminated by having trains that go right to the planes at the airport for a quick transfer, and a computer-run air traffic control system.

Air travel has a mentality that safety comes at any cost -- be it money or the usability of the system. Safety is good, but it's not the only thing. Making the system unusable for tiny increments of safety is pointless, when what you do is convince people to drive, which is far less safe.

I agree with Brad. I live in Orlando. I have 112 different cities that are a direct flight from Orlando and 89 different cities that are non-stops. There is no way a rail system could give you that kind of connectivity. The trains themselves would be terrorist targets and the thousands of miles of rails would be almost impossible to protect.

Because my last name *could* be Farsi (it isn't) I spent 20 months after 9/11 with every boarding pass I was issued crosshatched for full inspection. I travelled a lot for work at the time, mostly puddlejumper flights on the west coast. I grew to truly *loathe* the TSA.

Very shortly after 9/11, a number of MIT geeks were speculating on all the ways we could bypass airport security, and how the TSA was more about herd control through safety threat/appeasement than it was about security. One friend named the TSA the "Republican Full Employment Agency." Those discussions involved a great deal of high tech, but I came up with a scenario that was literally paleolithic that would completely bypass modern security measures.

When I was executive director at The Tor Project, Roger Dingledine and I were going to France to talk to funders. I told him I had a somewhat passive-aggressive ritual going through the checkpoints and asked if he minded -- he said no. So we went through the international checkpoints, both directions, discussing the fine points (pun intended) of the art of obsidian knapping -- the creation of deadly weapons that are invisible to x-rays.

No one blinked.

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