Frustrated with the liquid ban while flying? Too bad. Wondering why the Transportation Security Administration can strip search you? Good luck with that. That is, until now. The TSA has started a blog and security expert and TSA critic Bruce Schneier thinks it may usher in a new era of understanding between the government and the jet set.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let's say you’re the Transportation Security Administration and you’re tied for next to last place as the United States’ most hated federal agency, in a dead heat with the IRS. What’s a relatively new agency to do?
Well, the TSA has started a blog. Six months ago, if you had a beef with the agency, you mailed a letter, left a phone message or emailed – and got no response. Today there’s something like a dialog taking place online and anyone can offer observations, like this one recently. Quote, “Too many of your TSA workers are just power-hungry morons.” Unquote.
But, amidst the abuse, something else is happening, at least according to security expert and writer Bruce Schneier. Schneier’s an unlikely fan of anything TSA- related. He’s publicly slammed TSA Director Kip Hawley and coined terms like security theater to describe what he sees as the agency’s tendency toward elaborate safety measures that provide little in the way of actual security. BRUCE SCHNEIER: What pisses the public off most is less the ridiculous rules and more that they're so capricious. There’s no explanation. There’s no discussion. There’s no recourse. And take the no-fly list. If you’re on the no-fly list, you not only can't get off but nobody will tell you that you’re on. You’re in this Kafkaesque nightmare. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, there was one early attempt at user feedback back in 2006 when a man who was angry over yet another TSA rule change wrote, “Kip Hawley is an idiot” on his clear plastic toiletry bag and he was detained for 30 minutes, and the incident got a lot of press. Are these just embarrassing for the agency or, you know, do they represent this groundswell of rage? BRUCE SCHNEIER: There’s no other way to talk about it than amongst ourselves. You know, you can't go to the TSA and say, hey, excuse me, why are you doing this? When you’re walking through airline security you can't complain about policy. The TSA agent doesn't make policy. He’s just a cog in the machine, just like you are.
So there’s no way to speak out against the bureaucracy other than to write or to post or, I guess, in some cases to engage in civil disobedience, such as writing “Kip Hawley’s an idiot” on your carryon luggage. BROOKE GLADSTONE: But now we're there. We have the blog. It’s called The Evolution of Security.” Describe it for us.
BRUCE SCHNEIER: There are five or six different TSA people who are blogging and they talk about some of the rules. There are conversations about the liquid ban, about screening shoes. They do myth-busting. Just the other week, there was a lot of chatter about laptops being confiscated by border control when you go into the country.
And in some of the other blogs around the world, it turned into the TSA is doing this. So the TSA posted a message saying, hey, it’s not us. It’s this other organization. So there’s that.
There’s also some attempt at dialog where people are getting up and saying on the blog, we're trying to do this. We're thinking about that. What do you, the traveling public, think?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I was struck by the impact that the blog can have on TSA operations in various places. I'm thinking of this example of in one airport the screeners there said, you have to take out all your electronic devices and put them next to your computer in the bin, you know, your PDA, your cell phone. And those aren't in the rules. People complained to the blog and those screeners had to stop forcing people to do that. BRUCE SCHNEIER: Right, and that was in Los Angeles. And there’s an example of the dialog working. In the beginning, if you read the first posts, there were two basic styles of comments. There were TSA employees who got the memo to go to the blog and say nice things, and there’s everyone else who complained about the liquid ban. BROOKE GLADSTONE: But it was more than that. It was a kind of ecstasy of flaming. BRUCE SCHNEIER: Because people were really annoyed, and here’s suddenly a forum where you can talk to the TSA. But it’s interesting. If you look at the comments now - I mean, the blog’s been going on for just under a month now, and if you look at the comments now, it’s people saying things like, you know, I thought this was a joke, but thank you for doing this.
So I think the blog has gone a long way to humanize the TSA. BROOKE GLADSTONE: But, Bruce, you say that some of these rules, no matter how well explained, are still dumb. Now, [LAUGHS] we've talked to many people on this show about how the U.S. tries to win hearts and minds around the world with various campaigns and we're always told that if the underlying policies don't change, then no amount of good public relations will help win hearts and minds. Isn't the same true here? BRUCE SCHNEIER: It is. But this isn't about terrorism. This is more about the bureaucracy. So there’s the larger discussion of what we as a nation should do about airport security. You know, whether it makes sense to play catch-up and defend against what the bad guys did last month – you know, if we spend billions defending the airports and the terrorists go bomb shopping malls, it’s arguable whether that’s a good investment.
So there is a much larger discussion, but that’s not what the TSA blog is about. The TSA blog is about the details of people trying to get from point A to point B via plane and being frustrated with the rules or not understanding them, wanting to talk about them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So the blog makes us feel better. Do you think that the IRS should have one? BRUCE SCHNEIER: I think every government organization should do this. I think this kind of transparency, this kind of accessibility, this kind of humanization, will go a long way to making people’s interactions with government smoother. And whether it’s the IRS or the FDA, I think this should serve for a model for accessibility to government in the information age. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Bruce, thank you very much. BRUCE SCHNEIER: Hey, thank you. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Bruce Schneier is a security specialist and author of Beyond Fear: Thinking Sensibly About Security in an Uncertain World. You can read his entire interview with Kip Hawley at Schneier.com.