The TSA (Théâtre de Sécurité Américain Transportation Security Administration) has been generally accused of incompetence, failure to detect bombs smuggled in luggage, and of making flying even more miserable than it would be otherwise. Far from fighting back against such hassle — particularly in the face of 16 years of demonstrated proof the organization is incompetent — the TSA has seemingly embraced it. The organization has announced that it will now begin screening all devices larger than a cell phone on all flights, foreign and domestic. The exact text reads:
To ensure the security of airline passengers and the nation’s airports, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is implementing new, stronger screening procedures for carry-on items that require travelers to place all electronics larger than a cell phone in bins for X-ray screening in standard lanes… As new procedures are phased in, TSA officers will begin to ask travelers to remove electronics larger than a cell phone from their carry-on bags and place them in a bin with nothing on top or below, similar to how laptops have been screened for years. This simple step helps TSA officers obtain a clearer X-ray image.
The TSA notes that it has already tested the program in 10 airports, and will now roll it out nationally. But the new check doesn’t apply to TSA Pre, which means for the price of your fingerprints and $ 85 per year, you can still opt out of America’s draconian airport security procedures. That’s a loophole large enough to fly a plane through, unless you actually believe that the NSA and FBI are capable of catching every would-be terrorist on Earth.
But more to the point, in all the years of the TSA’s existence, there’s been no evidence that passengers are materially safer for its efforts. There have, however, been thousands of complaints of inappropriate behavior (3,408 in 2012 alone). There’s also been a Government Accountability Office report stating the TSA’s SPOT program, meant to train TSA employees to spot the tells of would-be terrorist, is completely ineffective.
In addition, there have been accusations of gross inventory mismanagement, fraud, abuse, illegal gambling, and theft; testimony from a previous employee that TSA agents regularly joked about passenger’s breast and penis size, weight, and physical attractiveness; and that TSA employees would use the code word “Hotel Papa” to alert fellow workers that an attractive flyer was passing through the line, so they could view the nude imagery. The TSA did not deny these accusations.
Now, some may argue the TSA is obligated to take these new measures, given intelligence suggesting terrorists have developed bombs capable of being packed into devices larger than a smartphone. But the ban is problematic for two reasons.
First, cell phone sizes have exploded (sometimes literally) in recent years. The Galaxy S8 Plus is a 6.2-inch phone, which means the largest smartphones are verging on the size of small 7-inch tablets. There’s still a gap, but it’s shrinking year on year, as people evidently enjoy cradling a device gingerly with both hands while trying not to drop it. There’s no clear guidance on where the line is drawn between “cell phone” and “not a cell phone” where size is concerned. Is a “cell phone” the size of an iPhone 5? Is it the size of an older Galaxy S5 or S6? What about so-called phablets, as mentioned above? The TSA doesn’t say.
Second, this is a move that’s going to inconvenience millions of people on a daily basis. Imposing extra security on flights from dangerous areas or airports is a reasonable idea. Making those security arrangements mandatory on every flight is ridiculous, unless you think domestic terrorists are likely to be flying from Wyoming to West Virginia with plans to commit a little casual murder-suicide along the way.
Ultimately, how you feel about this rule probably comes down to how you feel about the TSA. If you believe, contrary to all available evidence, that the TSA provides a meaningful level of security, you probably are fine with this increased screening step. If you believe the TSA is the very definition of what security expert Bruce Schneier has dubbed “security theater,” you probably don’t. Either way, traveling with multiple electronic devices just got even more difficult, slower, and less passenger-friendly.