Recent news on the TSA watchlists

| Comments (2) | Security: Airport
Three stories about the TSA's name-based security scheme this week.
  • A muslim airline pilot (an American Gulf War I veteran who converted) has lost his flight priviliges because he is on "some TSA list" and is suing
  • James Robinson, an airline pilot and retired National Guard Brigadier General says he get hassled whenever he tries to fly
    But there's one problem: James Robinson, the pilot, has difficulty even getting to his plane because his name is on the government's terrorist "watch list."

    That means he can't use an airport kiosk to check in; he can't do it online; he can't do it curbside. Instead, like thousands of Americans whose names match a name or alias used by a suspected terrorist on the list, he must go to the ticket counter and have an agent verify that he is James Robinson, the pilot, and not James Robinson, the terrorist.

    "Shocking's a good word; frustrating," Robinson -- the pilot -- said. "I'm carrying a weapon, flying a multimillion-dollar jet with passengers, but I'm still screened as, you know, on the terrorist watch list."


    But although the list is clearly bloated with misidentifications by every official's account, CNN has learned that it may also be ineffective. Numerous people, including all three Robinsons, have figured out that there are ways not to get flagged by the watch list.

    Denise Robinson says she tells the skycaps her son is on the list, tips heavily and is given boarding passes. And booking her son as "J. Pierce Robinson" also has let the family bypass the watch list hassle.

    Capt. James Robinson said he has learned that "Jim Robinson" and "J.K. Robinson" are not on the list.

  • The 9th Circuit has ruled that people have a right to sue to get off the no-fly list.

Maybe I'm not cynical enough, but I find the TSA's behavior vis-a-vis the watch list to be somewhat confusing. Here you've got a system that's clearly very inconvenient for a large number of apparently innocent people (even the low range estimates of the size of the watch list are 400,000 people) is trivial to bypass, and really has no evidence that it's useful at all. And rather than somehow quietly roll it back, TSA's response has been to dig in and make it extremely difficult for people on the list. Moreover, they threaten the airlines even for telling people they are on the list. Ordinarily, one can explain the TSA's behavior by recourse to Schneier's "security theater" model, and maybe it's just the circles I travel in, but I don't get the sense that the general public somehow believes this works. And even if they do, would they really be annoyed to hear that Capt. Robinson is slipping through the cracks? Actually, now that I've said that, there is a beyond cynical rationale here for why TSA is so intransigent about removing people: they like it when it comes out that some 10-year old kid is on the watch list. Sure, people realize it's nuts, but that's the evidence that TSA is doing everything it can; they care so much about your security that they'll even stop grandma from flying.


A cousin of mine who works in customer support for Continental Airlines told me that the majority of people who call to complain are people with Irish-sounding surnames like Ted Kennedy, not Arabic ones, presumably because of IRA homonyms. There certainly are far more Irish-Americans than Arab-Americans, and Bayes law strikes in all its glory.

As for the difficulty in getting one's name off the list, the explanation is very simple: CYA (cover your a**). The inconvenience to someone wrongly on the list is extreme, but the inconvenience to a bureaucrat of fielding the odd irate call is slight to nil (seldom happens, since most people call hapless airline CSRs like my cousin). The consequences to a bureaucrat of erroneously approving the removal of someone who does indeed belong on the list and then goes on to do something bad would be extremely severe. Any rational person in the bureaucrat's position would do exactly the same thing, namely nothing.

The people at TSA surely realize how absurd the situation is, but the system does not encourage initiative and puts little to no value on customer satisfaction. TSA is actually not as user-hostile as you would expect given the set of incentives it has. It's even more complex since the list is actually fed by multiple agencies, and expunging someone would require an extraordinary level of inter-agency cooperation, or just give-a-damn. It just isn't going to happen until Congress gets serious, which won't happen until many senators or representatives are importuned. Ted Kennedy alone is apparently not sufficient.

My guess is you're right. If the watch list (I thought it had recently passed the 1M mark?) never stopped anyone, people would think it's worthless, or just forget about it altogether (and perhaps wonder why on earth the TSA wasn't using a list of known terrorist names to screen people). So this is an obvious way to make it visible.

Still looks useless to us, but just possibly that's not how it's seen by politicians and others who determine policy (those whose names aren't on the list, anyway).

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