Airport Screening Stories


Once upon a time, in an airport far far away, some people had problems with passenger screening. Nice people found themselves on lists of naughty people. Some called or emailed their complaint to the TSA Contact Center, in the hopes of fixing their problems or getting off the naughty lists (the Selectee or No Fly lists). The Electronic Privacy Information Center obtained the logs of their complaints, which contain many interesting tales.

From the call logs:

Consumer called and stated that

she was on a no fly list.  She would like to know what she would have to do or

who do [sic] she have to talk to to get off the list.  She stated that she was

informed at the airport that she was on a list.  I informed Mrs.

******* that since she’s allowed on the

plane after secondary screening, she isn’t on the No Fly List.  Mrs.

******* spoke to local detectives

stationed at FLL.  They informed her that she may be on the No Fly List.  But

the case is out of their jurisdiction.  She was referred to Homeland Security. 

Info has been forwarded to the appropriate source.  No accurate timeframe for


* * * * * * *

Dr. ******* complains that every time he tries to fly commercial airlines, especiall United and Continental, he is “submitted to the most embarrassing and humiliating security checks at the counter even before they take my luggage.  It takes up to 25 minutes standing up.”

From the email logs:

I would like to know why my name is on the No Fly List and how I can get it removed. When I fly Continental for business, I have to have an airline representative check my identification and a TSA representative clear the reservation so my ticket can be issued for me to fly. This seems to only happen at Continental Airlines, but frequently I have had to go through the additional search at other airlines. The Continental agent did tell me that my name was on the No-Fly List and that it would be next to impossible to get if off, but I shall try anyway. I have not had any run-ins with the law or nor the airline, so I do not understand the reason for being on this list and subject to additional security when I fly for business or personal reasons. . . .

* * * * * * *

I AM on the No-Fly list . . . the whole rigmarole happened yet again this past Thursday: can’t check in at a kiosk, gate agent goes into a frenzy, confiscates my passport, disappears and finally comes back to issue me a boarding pass. This SUCKS. I have never done one thing to deserve this treatment. . . .

* * * * * * *

I am having a problem with my identity in your system being flagged because a person with the same name as I has committed a security breach. I have been trying to get a hold of someone with whom to communicate and all my email attempts have bounced. I sent a registered letter to your office, which was returned saying that the addressee was unknown. I copied it directly off your web site, but evidently it is incorrect. . . . I need to talk to someone about this problem. I am a frequent flier and this is causing me great distress. Please send me the address and name of the person I need to contact to have this identity problem rectified. HELP!!!!!!!!!!!

* * * * * * *

. . . . They pulled me aside to do a full search because I didn’t want to take off my tennis shoes (which didn’t beep). When asked why I was having extra screening and I wasn’t a selectee, the agent said “just because.” . . . .

[By the way, Gordon Smith at the Conglomerate tells an interesting tale about his shoes and the airport screeners.]

* * * * * * *

I am a well dressed, 100 pound, 5’2”, 69 year old, grey haired grandmother who has traveled several times since “9/11”

I have been completely searched, both personally and my baggage on each leg of each trip and am certain that this is not a coincidence. Is my name similar to one on your watch list? I see no reason why I should be “selected” on a regular basis. . . .

By the way, I was born and raised in the USA, have had a passport for more years than I can remember, own my own home, free and clear, have the highest of credit ratings, and always charge my airline tickets on American Express, well in advance of the trip.

Please explain what could possibly trigger my “selection” so regularly.

There are a number of morals we can learn from these stories. First, people seem to lack much of an understanding about the lists. People regularly think they’re on the No Fly List when they’re really on the Selectee List (selected for extra screening). The system seems to create great confusion and concern, and the TSA has not done a good job explaining to the public the purpose and procedures of the system.

Second, the stories indicate that the system creates a Kafkaesque situation where people experience a bureaucratic nightmare when they find themselves on one of the lists. There seem to be few clear procedures for addressing these situations. It would seem rational for the TSA to do a better job about this, because it is a waste of valuable security resources giving extra screening to people who don’t need it. The nightmare is made worse by the opacity by which the system operates. There are also few clear lines of authority, and hence no accountability mechanism for unresponsive and abusive conduct by officials. In the story that Ryan Singel reported on and that I blogged about earlier – which Orin Kerr dubs “the flying nun” story – the nun desperately tried to get off the list and only did so after using her connections to get Karl Rove to make some calls. This is not how any government program should be run.

Third, the lack of transparency exacerbates the feeling of helplessness when one is singled out. People feel as though they are on a blacklist, and they become a kind of disfavored class who cannot travel like normal people. They are given no reason why.

How did these stories end? I’m sorry, my lads, but you’ll never know. The logs don’t tell us. But I like to think that they all ended happily ever after. . . .

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9 Responses

  1. Illuminati says:

    So any clue what the names of these people were? It would seem a more ‘foreign’ name would be targeted more than a name commonly used in the States for the last two centuries.

  2. Scipio says:

    I am surprised.

    No, wait, I’m not.

    It took the IRS over two years to catch my failure to report early-disbursed state retirement income. TWO YEARS for MONEY I OWED THE FEDS.

    This is the classic example of high marginal costs for unquantifiable benefits.

  3. Richard Hunter says:

    Bruce Schneier — who’s well-known in information security circles — said recently that persons on the no-fly list are examples of a new class of criminal: people who are too dangerous to be full participants in society, but too innocent to charge with a crime.

    In cases such as these low-level administrative procedure, supported by extensive (and secretive, hence irrefutable) data analysis, substitutes for due process. As availability of data increases and the price/performance ratio of computer processing power continues to improve, absent continuous monitoring and outcry by concerned citizens, such data-driven approaches to justice can be expected to proliferate. The same can be expected of many private sector activities, such as hiring and firing. After all, something very much like this happens every time you apply for credit.

    In other words, we can all expect a lot more of this stuff.

  4. Dan says:

    Thank you for submitting your comment Richard, the data mining bots successfully recognized that you [have dangerous information] are hallucinating.

    Another bot will automatically remove all information that you ever existed, and you will be brought to a [insane asylum] safe place to be [tortured] treated.

    Everyone else go about your business.

  5. Fast forward to 2010, we’re all on a no fly list. Travel through any airport with any airline and you get to answer lots of questions, be photographed, finger printed, and if you’re really lucky, go through a machine that shows a nice security guard what you look like naked ! Perhaps I’ll put myself on a no fly list.

  6. Frank F says:

    Just make all flights nude flights; NOBODY gets on a plane with cloths on!

    (Just be sure to book me on a flight with the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders!)