Time For A TSA Overhaul

There is a serious problem brewing at the TSA, but you wouldn't guess that if you looked at the TSA press website. Not a single mention of the upcoming long lines, or any ways to fix those things. Instead the site boasts a wall of articles touting how the TSA caught this bad item, or this illicit item. These incidents are largely from someone carrying a knife by accident, or forgetting to remove something prior to flying. From the TSA website though, I'd think we were in a post apocalyptic world.

There in lies part of the problem. Customers at the airport know the TSA is terrible at their job. They miss 95% of illicit items, yet the agency tries to make themselves sound like the best thing to ever grace the United States. This is the fundamental disconnect with the TSA. They focus so heavily on their wins, they don't even realize that they are missing almost every illicit item that passes through the checkpoints. Despite this, we have virtually no incidents on aircraft involving these major missed items. What is the point of the TSA if they statistically speaking, are stopping pretty much nothing, and yet we are still safe... maybe the TSA isn't as required as they want to think they are.

In reality, security is sometime referred to as security theater. Secure checkpoints at all airports, checkpoints at football games and political rallies. Yet, in every one of these cases, people still make it into these places with items that are not allowed. Those who are determined will find a way around security measures. TSA checkpoints merely make travel more difficult for the honest person. It's the paradox of security. As the old saying goes, the more you tighten you grip, the more star systems slip through your fingers... ok maybe that was a Star Wars version of the saying, but it still applies in some ways. Tightening security massively impacts honest travelers, while the people that we are worried about will find a way to bypass the security all together.

Personally, I think it's time to rethink the way we do security in the US and for that matter in many countries. The TSA isn't working, no matter how you measure it... maybe it is time to do away with it all together. No such security measures are in place on trains in the US, and I can think of no terrorist activity that has ever occurred on a train, maybe I'm just unaware of it, but it's rare if it has ever happened. That isn't to say we shouldn't take some security precautions. Having bulletproof doors to the cockpit is a good idea, and helps prevent takeover of the plane. 

Simple changes usually have the biggest effect on security. Large scale searches rarely work and it has almost always been that way. We need to realize that terrorism is scary... but not a common occurrence. We need to look at things logically and not emotionally. The TSA logically isn't working... they are not a good solution. Emotionally we feel safe, realistically the TSA is missing almost every illicit item that passes through the checkpoint.

It's time to do away with the TSA.

Senators Want To Expand The TSA To Your Local Subway

On the streets of New York City... it's evening, skyscrapers lit up all around me. The night is moving by quickly and it's almost time to leave. The Red Line subway station is nearby, so I walk down into the station, let the ticket machine scan my paper ticket and through the turnstiles I go, quickly grabbing the next train. 

After a short ride, I arrive at my destination. Exiting my car, foot traffic sweeps me along to the nearest exit, and I move for the underground tunnel, winding my way through the subterranean city. Shops, restaurants and lots of people in a station completely underground... uniquely New York. Just as I arrive at the Amtrak status board, my train pops up and boarding starts. We all rush for the stairway, scan our ticket and I make way for the business class cabin. Within 15 minutes, we're on our way back to Philadelphia.

If you have ever been to New York city, this may have been a scene you have experienced yourself. Penn Station is an amazing, bustling and crazy place filled with people, restaurants and stores. At the center of everything is the Amtrak station, where we all make way for our trains departing to destinations up and down the Eastern coast... this is the Northeast Corridor, no rail system busier in the US.

There is a good reason that rail in the Northeast has grown so much. Amtrak and subways are massively easy to use. Rail traffic has grown substantially in the past few decades and there is no sign of slowing. The Northeast corridor is perfect for train travel. Many large cities clustered closely together allow travel on a train to quickly get you from one place to another. 

"Congress can't help but try to disrupt the ease of train travel"

Congress can't help but try to disrupt the ease of train travel though. New laws are now being proposed to add TSA security to Amtrak rail stations. The laws don't stop there, we are looking at the possibility of adding TSA to public transit stations as well, a move that makes me feel like I'm in mainland China again. What the hell are our lawmakers doing?

I have been all around the world, and there is only one country I've ever been searched entering a subway station.... China. We as a country try to distance ourselves from China, always claiming we are nothing like them, China is considered awful here. Simultaneously lawmakers are adding more and more police and security to every day life. We don't currently have massive security checkpoints at public transit stations, and to add it would be an insane idea. Train stops are not designed to have security checkpoints. If you have ever ridden on a regional rail type of setup, these platforms are very open and would need massive changes to implement TSA security.

Have you ever been to Philadelphia? I spent the last 3 years of my life there and know the public transit network quite well. Philadelphia has a train network for commuters called the Regional Rail. This regional rail network has over 150 train stops currently and plans to further expand the network. Can you imagine adding 150 TSA checkpoints to the regional rail system in Philly. That's not to mention trolley lines that are essentially road side stops, and two subway lines. Added to a fully functional Amtrak station.

Now take the Philadelphia example and multiply it many times to deal with New York City. NYC has a massive transportation network. Just to outfit these stations would be an incredible expense. 

Lets take a look back at the TSA again. I've been hugely critical of the horrible job that the TSA does. Lines have started to back up at airports and exceed 3 hours in some places. The TSA can't handle the current job it has been tasked with, can you imagine what it would be like to have the TSA handle every subway stop and rail stop in the US? 

"can you imagine what it would be like to have the TSA handle every subway stop and rail stop in the US? "

We can't go two days without hearing about the TSA misconduct at airports, yet we trust them to protect the rail stations?

So why is it that we are seeing this new legislation in the Senate?

We all know how people react in this country. These laws are in direct response to the recent bombs at train stations in the New York City area. This is the same old story of how the patriot act was passed. Someone commits a terrible crime, we hyper react with a law that limits the freedom of everyone in the country because of one person's actions. Meanwhile we ignore the fact that public transportation has been in place for well over 100 years in New York City, and very few massive incidents have ever occurred.

This type of legislation is not the answer to an attack. We do not need to expand surveillance, we do not need to restrict people's movements. These are all the things we have as a country fought against for a very long time. We should not throw that all away for a very minor incident. More people died in car accidents today, than died in those bombings... why do we not outlaw cars? We all know the answer to that, and we need to apply similar logic to this situation.

"New York City subways see an average of 5.64 million passengers a day"

The TSA causes lines in excess of 3 hours at Chicago ORD airport and it sees an average of 210,000 passengers a day. New York City subways see an average of 5.64 million passengers a day during the week... do you think the TSA can handle that level of ridership? I don't, and I'd hate to see what would happen in NYC if this law was to pass.

Beyond cities like New York, Amtrak services many stations across the country that are used only 1 time per day as a long range train passes through the area. Are we really suggesting that it is a plausible plan to outfit a station with TSA style x-ray equipment, and employees for a train that arrives only 1 time per day, sometimes less? Are we going to pay to upgrade these stations to even handle that kind of scrutiny. Is it even worth it if many train stations would probably use more TSA employees per day than it sees passengers? 

Nothing in this bill makes sense, it was not thought out, and there in defines the problem with this type of legislation. It is completely reactive, no thought is put into how much this would cost, or if this is plausible to even make happen. I'd like to say this has no chance of passing, but I have almost no faith in our politicians to do the right thing here.

This is not a smart move. The solution to an ineffective agency is not to expand their power.


Will The TSA Ever Shorten Lines?

Just another day with the TSA as our main form of airport "security." Seems that the TSA is warning us yet again that this fall will come with heavy airport security lines in a reoccurring problem that the government agency can't seem to get a handle on.

Not too long ago we were blindsided by the TSA way understaffing airports and stretching lines out the door. Wait times skyrocketed to 3+ hours in some airports like Chicago. My fiance was privileged enough to experience one of these lines, lucky for her she had decided to get to the airport way in advance that day to get some work done.

As the people stacked up and down the block, the TSA seemed to have no answer for the growing problem. Airlines stepped in where they could in an effort to avoid missed flights. Despite that effort, little has been done on the TSA side of the equation. No increased staffing seems to be coming as the TSA has once again issued a warning that lines would remain extremely long for the fall travel season. 

So brace yourselves, the TSA is gearing up to screw up another travel season. Plan accordingly. 

The TSA and The 9 Year Old Security Threat

In the past, I've been quite critical of the TSA, and rightfully so. This year has seen long lines that exceeded 3 hours in Chicago, record high complaints about employee misconduct, and a success rate of only 5% when finding illicit items in luggage. In an effort to outdo itself, the TSA has now detained a 9 year old pace maker wearer... because those pace makers could be bombs.... really TSA?

My last job took place at a research laboratory, and it consisted of working in very high magnetic fields. We were all very aware of how magnetic fields can inversely impact those that wear pace makers. Walking through a metal detector at a TSA checkpoint is no different. Magnetic fields are not something that should be messed with for these patients.

A family from Wyoming, Minnesota was well aware of these issues when they attempted to pass through a TSA screening point at the Phoenix airport.  Their 9 year old son was born with a disease that caused deformation of the heart, requiring no less than 15 surgeries on his heart and a pace maker to keep him alive. Since the family was no stranger to travel, they came armed with paperwork on his condition and requested a pat down instead of the normal metal detector system. 

After handing the paperwork to the TSA agent to bypass the metal detector, the agent then decided the 9 year old child was a terrorist threat. He was quickly pulled aside and detained for over an hour while 4 police officers and TSA agents in the double digits came to investigate the apparently threatening child. 

At some point a TSA agent attempted to justify their actions by claiming that a 9 year old with a bomb in his chest was once captured by the TSA. When the mother asked when that happened, the TSA agent merely responded with a canned response that they couldn't disclose that information.  They couldn't disclose it, because it never happened. The TSA has a hard time proving that they've ever foiled any terrorist, let along a 9 year old chest bomb toting terrorist. 

The family was detained long enough to miss their flight and cause them to stay an extra day in Phoenix. Even after bring this up, getting media attention and a promise from the TSA to contact the family to resolve the situation, no TSA representative had at the time contacted the family as promised.

This just exemplifies the problems with the TSA. They claim to keep us all safe, hold us up at the airport, and generally cause so many problems, that even the most hard core security expert needs to question the usefulness of the agency.

In tests, the TSA only found 5% of contraband passed through security checkpoints. No discernible capture of any serious threat has ever been proven by the TSA, and yet we spend millions employing generally horrible people.

This all in an effort to feel safe, but there in lies the problem. TSA agents are stationed throughout the US costing taxpayers money while failing at their jobs. We want a sense of security that cannot exist, but the TSA plods on unwavering in their horrible behavior, lack of ability to do their jobs and general laziness. Even TSA precheck is a crap shoot in many places I've flown to.

Maybe it is time we stepped back and looked at the true cost of the TSA and whether we need security on this level in any airport in the world. Likely the answer is no... but there is certainly a debate to be had there. We can probably agree on one thing, the TSA has a systemic problem and it needs to be dealt with quickly. 

Hotel Data Breach Compromises Guest Information.... Again

In what sounds like a broken record, yet another hotel group has been hit by computer system malware, possibly compromising many guests personal and credit card information. This malware did not target a specific hotel brand, but instead a group that physically owns a number of hotels. Overall the number of impacted hotels is 20.

In the hotel world, each building may be part of a larger brand such as Marriott, IHG, Hyatt, or Starwood to name a few (these were all brands included in this breach). While they may on the surface look like each building is owned by that brand, in reality each hotel is often owned by a group or by individuals that use the brand for advertising and some back end booking systems. In this case, the group that actually owned each property was hit by a malware attack. 

Since this was a property owner and not the brand, this breach was unique in that it crossed 4 different hotel brands. Starwood, Marriott, Hyatt and IHG hotel groups were impacted by this breach, a total of 20 individual hotels. Take a look below for the full list of impacted hotels.

  • Boca Raton Marriott - Boca Raton, FL
  • Dallas Fort Worth Marriott - Fort Worth, TX
  • Equinox Resort - Manchester Village, VT
  • Hotel Chicago - Chicago, IL
  • Hyatt Centric - Santa Barbara, CA
  • Intercontinental Tampa - Tampa, FL
  • Le Meridian Arlington, Arlington, VA
  • Renaissance San Diego - San Diego, CA
  • Royal Palm - Miami, FL
  • San Diego Marriott - La Jolla, CA
  • Sheraton Music City - Nashville, TN
  • Sheraton Pentagon City - Arlington, VA
  • The Hotel Minneapolis - Minneapolis, MN
  • The Westin -  Pasadena, CA
  • The Westin - Philadelphia, PA
  • The Westin - Snowmass Village, CO
  • The Westin D.C. City Center - Washington D.C.
  • Westin - Fort Lauderdale, FL

That is the entire list of impacted hotels. I've actually had stays booked with the Arlington Le Meridien for an event I was attending, but we stayed with friends instead... maybe a good move in the end due to these breaches.

Many of the impacted dates reach all the way back to March of 2015. So if you stayed at any of the hotels in the last year and a half, you might want to keep a close watch on your credit report for a while.