To Keep The Skies Safe, The TSA Wants To Know What You're Reading

The TSA continues to expand the intrusiveness of its searches, supposedly justified by an increased threat to air travel that doesn't seem to have materialized. In fact, the TSA has admitted attacks on airplanes are the threat voted Least Likely To Occur. One only needs to look at the recent string of terrorist attacks to see there are far more efficient ways to attack the populace than purchasing a ticket and making your way past security.

Nevertheless, the charade continues, only with more of it as often as possible. Fliers are now being asked to stow explosive batteries in the cargo hold and liquid limits are still being enforced to ensure dangerous things like medication and breast milk aren't brought on board.

Now, the TSA wants to know what you're reading. As airlines have increased rates for checked bags, travellers are packing more and more into their carry-on luggage. This is causing problems for the TSA's X-ray machines, which are having more trouble discerning what's actually being carried in passengers' bags. The densest materials are the hardest to "see" through, so TSA agents will now be demanding access to reading materials travelers are carrying.

The TSA is testing new requirements that passengers remove books and other paper goods from their carry-on baggage when going through airline security. Given the sensitivity of our reading choices, this raises privacy concerns.

Tests of the policy are underway in some small airports around the country, and DHS Secretary John Kelly recently said that “we might, and likely will” apply the policy nationwide. “What we’re doing now is working out the tactics, techniques, and procedures, if you will, in a few airports, to find out exactly how to do that with the least amount of inconvenience to the traveler,” he told Fox News. The policy may also apply to food items.

There's no good reason for the government to know what you're reading. In fact, as the ACLU points out in this post, there are protections in place to prevent the government from obtaining that information.

[T]here is a long history of special legal protection for the privacy of one’s reading habits in the United States, not only through numerous Supreme Court and other court decisions, but also through state laws that criminalize the violation of public library reading privacy or require a warrant to obtain book sales, rental, or lending records.

But, as government lawyers have reminded citizens, travelling via air is a privilege, not a right, even in a country where someone's destination might be 3,000 miles away. (Travelling by car has its own set of Fourth Amendment problems. It's also far more dangerous. Deciding to drive not only takes longer, but subjects people to a whole new set of issues.) The decision to fly means allowing the government to do whatever it wants to make flying secure, even if nearly everything it does has zero effect on curbing terrorist activity.

There are plenty of reasons people might not want to share their reading habits with other fliers in eyesight of the examination are, much less a bunch of government employees with the power to detain people for almost any reason. It's not just about hiding trashy novels from TSA agents. It's about any number of reading materials that could subject to additional scrutiny by the government.

For example, in 2010 the ACLU sued on behalf of a man who was abusively interrogated, handcuffed, and detained for nearly five hours because he was carrying a set of Arabic-language flash cards and a book critical of U.S. foreign policy. We also know that the DHS database known as the “Automated Targeting System,” which tracks information on international travelers, has included notations in travelers’ permanent files about controversial books in their possession.

Since the searches aren't limited to books, but any set of papers flagged by scanners, lawyers carrying privileged legal documents might find themselves having to these over to TSA agents to page through. Reading anything about national security and/or terrorism is likely to result in enhanced screening efforts and (possibly) missed flights. The government has no right to know what you're reading, but it has the right to make you hand over everything you're hoping to carry onboard to do with it what it pleases. This includes adding travellers to secret lists that are almost impossible to be removed from or simply asking a bunch of irrelevant questions based on the incredibly faulty premise that terrorists would read certain materials when engaged in acts of terrorism.

The ACLU suggests two things the TSA can do to minimize privacy violations. One would be strict policies and new training procedures to better ensure travelers' privacy and to prevent the additional search from becoming a handy way to increase detentions and add travelers to secret lists.

The second thing would be more along the privacy lines voluntarily adopted by companies selling and shipping sensitive goods: the plain brown packaging program. Travellers should be allowed to use plain book covers to obscure titles and other sensitive information while still allowing agents to verify the books are just books and not, say, sheets of explosives or hollowed-out weapons containers. The TSA should only be interested in ensuring a book is a book. It should have zero interest in the title or content of travellers' reading materials.

X-ray machines are supposed to minimize intrusiveness by allowing travellers to keep their bags closed. The TSA is undoing this small privacy protection step-by-step, with books and other papers following electronic devices onto X-ray belts and into the hands of TSA agents. If the TSA is honest about its reasons for examining books separately, the lack of exterior identifying information shouldn't pose a problem. If it does, the TSA (or the agent performing the search) has ulterior motives and should be prevented from stripping away yet another layer of personal privacy at security checkpoints.

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