TSA abuses?

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The ACLU has been collecting people's comments about their treatment at the hands of the TSA, and I've seen some comments on Interesting People. In general, people seem to feel that the screeners are insensitive, rude, or were being... overenthusiastic while frisking them (these complaints typically come from women).

From the ACLU page:

A September 2004 TSA directive granting airport security screeners broad leeway to conduct "pat-down" searches has led to numerous reports of sexual harassment and abuse.

Victims are reporting that they are not being offered private searches or searches by screeners of the same sex, and that "private" searches are being conducted behind screens that provide no privacy. Passengers are reporting rough, rude, and humiliating manhandling and groping of their breasts and crotch areas, demeaning sexual comments, and being forced to remove business jackets in full view of crowds, despite the fact that it is a widespread convention in our society for women to wear only bras or other undergarments underneath such jackets.

I generally think that airline searches are not that valuable, but I'm a little curious what people expect. The complaints I hear sound like the generic kind of complaints I hear about people's encounters with authority, whether the authority is police, customs agents, security guards or whatever. When you give humans significant power over others and fairly wide latitude to exercise it, you're going to get people feeling like they've been abused.

As a simplification, imgagine that we rank behavior on a linear scale with totally appropriate (but ineffective) as a 0 and totally inappropriate (but effective) as a 10. Now, if we tell the screeners to behave with an appropriateness value of 5, there's actually going to be some dispersion in terms of their behavior. In particular, about .25% of searches will actually be at appropriateness level 8. When you factor in people's varying opinions about what's appropriate, you're going to get people who feel they've been abused.

There are two basic approaches to this problem:

  1. Reduce the overall intensity of the search, say to a 3.
  2. Reduce the variation in search intensity by promulgating stricter guidelines, better training etc.

Unfortunately, there's only so much you can do to reduce the variation, because people are imperfect and there's a limited amount of training you can afford to give, especially when you have a very large number of screeners, as TSA does, and enormous number of passengers s being searched. The situation is actually much worse here than I suggest above, because the screening being used--a pat down search--is probably on the very borderline of what people consider appropriate, so even a small amount of variation leads to people feeling aggrieved.

Certainly it's legitimate to complain that the enforcement "quality control" isn't good enough and we need better policies to control the variation, and there's obviously some room for improvement. (In particular, the rule that people should be offered private searches should be something that can be enforced unambiguously), but as long as the TSA officials are in the business of patting people down, some people are going to feel that they were groped. As a society, we need to decide whether that's a price we're willing to pay, but we shouldn't have any illusions that it's going to somehow go away just by the TSA becoming more diligent and professional.

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It's time to invent the robo-pat-down :-)

Whoa! HUGE miss---this is NOT a one-dimensional problem.

Appropriateness & effectiveness are NOT 100% corrollated. There are numerous search techniques. Each has scores for appropriatness & effectiveness.

For instance, creating semi-private, sex-segregated Special-High-InTensity screening areas does nothing to reduce effectiveness, but practically eliminates the listed complaints.

Such an arraingment, however is not free on the dollar side. So now we have three dimensions in play.

If I ever fly again, I'm going to try to use El Al. If I'm going into a police state, I want there to be some benefit.


You're quite right that it's not one-dimensional. I meant to write a footnote pointing out that I'd massively oversimplified the problem. However, that said, I think that the simplification is a lot more revealing than you give it credit for. In particular:

1. A lot of people find patdowns invasive no matter where they are performed. That's what the groping complaint is about.

2. Being singled out for special searching and having all your stuff gone through *is* invasive.

So, it's certainly true that there's stuff that's effective and not invasive (and I suspect even more vice versa), but I think as long as the TSA continues to believe that intense searching buys security there's going to be an apparent tradeoff between appropriateness and security.

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