Mikey Doesn’t Like It: Watchlists Are Not For Kids

Thankfully, our blog has Jeff Kahn, an expert on national security, guest blogging with us this month to teach us about the history and development of airline screening.  Picking up on Jeff’s insights, I’d like to follow up on stories about eight-year old Michael Hicks whose travels have been disrupted with frequent pat downs and questioning.  Why?  Michael’s name matches that of a person on the TSA selectee list.  As my previous posts, see here and here, and Technological Due Process article explored, the TSA uses crude matching algorithms by design.  The gamble for higher false positives is worth the pay off of nabbing a person bent on destruction.  This means that kids like Mikey and many others, even the late Senator Ted Kennedy for a time, face delays, intrusive questioning, and other inconveniences when they travel.

So how has the TSA responded to this recent flap about Mikey?  Blogger Bob on The TSA Blog explains:  “It’s inevitable that every several months or so, some cute kid gets their mug posted on a major news publication with a headline reading something like: “Does this look like a terrorist to you?” Anything involving kids or cats gets tons of mileage and everybody starts tweeting and retweeting that there’s an 8 year old on the no fly list.  There are no children on the No Fly or Selectee lists.  What happens is the child’s name is a match or similar match to an actual individual on the No Fly or Selectee Watch List.”  Now, Blogger Bob’s explanation is indeed spot on, but it seems callous and perhaps counter-productive if the TSA wants to tackle its PR problem with the public.  It seems dismissive to say that we only get up in arms when someone’s child gets ensnared in a screening mess.  While talking about Mikey may be a useful tool for newspapers to pique the public’s interest, so did the story about the late Senator Ted Kennedy and the many others, including airline pilots, who have difficulty traveling due to the TSA’s currently inefficient redress process.

Mikey’s mom, Najlah Hicks, commented on Blogger Bob’s post with this missive: “Instead of reaching out to our family, you chose to belittle the process by stating that ‘Anything involving kids or cats gets tons of mileage and everybody starts tweeting and retweeting that there’s an 8 year old on the no fly list.’  . . . It would have been far more helpful had he reached out to our family and help us formulate a solution than belittle the effort.  I am insulted and appalled that a representative from the TSA would chose to make such a juvenile and insulting statement.  You could have easily left the above quote off and just shared the Redress process with everyone.  It has been made quite clear to our family from both Continental and US Airlines that our son is clearly on a TSA list and they have absolutely no power in which to remove him.  If you think it’s far more helpful to belittle the process rather than just giving people the information they need, then I think the TSA has far more serious issues than any of us imagine.  I look forward to getting our son off a list he’s supposedly not on.”  Now, Blogger Bob assures the public that problems like Mikey’s will disappear once the Secure Flight program becomes operational.  We shall see.  Until then, while tricks may be for kids, watch lists are not.

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6 Responses

  1. Adam says:

    The TSA blog post is not spot on: it is not inevitable that they are incompetent, nor is it inevitable that they are unable to write procedures to better manage these situations; and finally, it is not inevitable that they have a set of processes that force their employees to disregard their common sense.

    That’s three ways they are wrong in the first 10 words.

  2. Danielle Citron says:

    Adam, I concur in your criticisms. My spot on comment referred to the preceding sentence where TSA’s Blogger Bob says that Mikey’s not on the list, someone with a name close to his or with his name is. That’s the way the crude algorithms work with a policy choice in mind: as Ed Felten notes, it is a construction designed to have more false positives. I agree with your criticisms that we could do it better all around. Thanks so much.

  3. Bruce Boyden says:

    “There are no children on the No Fly or Selectee lists. What happens is the child’s name is a match or similar match to an actual individual on the No Fly or Selectee Watch List.”

    This strikes me as a meaningless distinction.

  4. Ken Rhodes says:

    “There are no children on the No Fly or Selectee lists. What happens is the child’s name is a match or similar match to an actual individual on the No Fly or Selectee Watch List.”

    This strikes me as a meaningless distinction.
    ============================
    I do not see it as meaningless, but I see a pretty lame choice of words that leaves that impression.

    A “No Fly List” is not a list of names, it’s a list of people. Those people are not to be allowed to fly. A “Watch List,” on the other hand, is keyed by name, so if you share a name with a person on a No Fly list, you will be “watched,” which equates to “examined, searched, delayed, and generally annoyed.”

    A real problem the TSA hasn’t figured out how to solve is to get people to understand what’s going on. They contribute mightily to the misunderstandings by their own ineptitude with telling us about it. On their website they have a “Mythbusters” page that tells us this:

    Myth
    The “No Fly” List includes an 8 year old boy.

    Buster
    No 8-year-old is on a TSA watch list.

    See, that’s wrong. What they mean is that no 8-year-old is on a TSA No Fly list. But when they ineptly miswrite their own “Myth Buster” web page, they make it hard for us to be patient with them and their problems.

  5. “There are no children on the No Fly or Selectee lists.”

    This may be true, but it seems like many ground-level screeners don’t know it.

    If it were announced to the screeners, then Mikey would stop being stopped, right?

  6. Bruce Boyden says:

    Imagine 2 travellers. One is on the watch list, and one has a name similar to someone on the watch list. If both of them are delayed, hassled, and searched each and every time they fly, then what exactly is the advantage of not actually being on the watch list?