Spotlight: Joe McTee

26 Nov

November 26, 2011

A quick story. A few years back, not long ago but before body scanners, I was traveling back from Cleveland. One of my souvenirs was a replica street sign. Like a real street sign, it was around three feet long and made out of metal. It also had fairly sharp edges. Not wanting and unable to put it in my luggage, I was carrying it onboard the airplane with the intent of putting it in the overhead compartment. I was worried that I would be stopped before I got on the plane. With the extreme focus on security I could not imagine being allowed to carry on what was more or less a weapon- a large, heavy piece of metal with sharp edges. After all, nail clippers and cuticle scissors were confiscated at the security checkpoint. So I was shocked that I was waved through security without a glance. The only concession to the possible dangerous nature of my souvenir was the fact that the metal street sign had to go through a metal detector.

Joe McTee is far more eloquent than I am. He is also a thorough researcher and writer. He has taken a look at the TSA and airport security and many of the things that I may have hinted at in my little story above but lacked the words to put explicitly, he has. And he has also said much that simply would not have occurred to me. What follows is an essay I hope all of you take to heart. In fact, I hope you’ll pass it along. As Thomas Jefferson said, “an informed citizenry is the only true repository of the public will.”

Joe is the head software guru for JEKLsoft, and a solar collector from somewhere near the People’s Republic of Boulder. His contributions to the FlashCast make up the backbone of the mail segment, and, though the opinions he provides are often strong, they are always well backed with interesting logic and a well-read cranium full of considered facts.

When he’s not busy saving the world from its energy crisis, he enjoys watching his daughter race planes, or being trounced by his offspring in a game or two of Catan.

Joe can be found online at for technical issues, and at for things like you will find below.
He tweets
Under the alias “Colorado Joe,” you can hear him on the Flash Cast.

The TSA – A Waste of Time and Money

There is a Franklin quote showing up in blogs and essays all over the web…

“Those who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” – Benjamin Franklin, circa February 1775 [1]

Given the current policies and procedures used by the TSA, this quote really hits home. But I started to wonder, what was Franklin referring to? Does it apply to our current situation? So I did some digging. I found the quote in “Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Benjamin Franklin, Vol 1”. It was in correspondence with Lord Dartmouth regarding a British proposal designed to avert military action by requesting reparation from the Massachusetts Colony for the Boston Tea Party. Franklin was interested in a diplomatic solution as well, but felt the British proposal was too one-sided.

The quote above was in response to a section of the proposal that would move the southern border of Quebec such that Quebec would subsume the Massachusetts Colony and their laws, the subtext being that this would make them easier to govern. Franklin would have none of it. At the end of his correspondence, in a section titled “Hints”, Franklin furthers the point with the following observation…

“We cannot endure despotism over any of our fellow subjects. We must all be free or none.” [1]

As is always the case when researching our founding fathers, I am impressed with the depth of their commitment to the idea of freedom. In this particular case, I found that the ideas Franklin was espousing really do apply to our present situation with the TSA. To wit, the United States Government has enacted laws purported to make the general public more secure that remove civil rights guaranteed us in the Constitution of the United States, the most notable of these being the Fourth Amendment.

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” [2]

The TSA is flouting the highest law of the land in a purported attempt to make us safer. This action raises several questions that need answers.

Does the TSA, or any other government agency, have the legal right to ignore the civil rights of US citizens?

Both the TSA full body scan and pat down meet the definition of a search as defined by the Fourth Amendment and the Supreme Court [3]. I expect that my body is private and this is an expectation society has as well. The TSA’s process of selecting random travelers for these invasive searches takes place without probable cause. The argument that this is a violation of a travelers guaranteed rights is easy to make. So easy in fact, that this point has been ceded by our elected officials and at least one former TSA Director.

Mo McGowan, former TSA Director of Security Operations stated “No one likes their Fourth Amendment rights violated going through a security line..” [4]

Do the procedures used by the TSA make us any safer?

The short answer is no. The longer answer is we may even be less safe.

Adam Savage, of MythBusters fame, has produced a video describing how he inadvertently brought a 12″ razor blade through security undetected (he went through the backscatter x-ray machine). [5] Noted security expert Bruce Schneier has demonstrated several times how ineffective the security screening is at airports, faking boarding passes and bringing large amounts of untested liquids through the lines. [6] There are several other similar stories that can be found online.

And we all know how much safer we are because of the liquid ban, correct? Well, it turns out that the premise behind instituting the ban, brought on by a plot to build a liquid bomb and detonate on a plane, is flawed, i.e., the liquid bomb in design at the time the plot was foiled was unlikely to ever work and in general, a liquid bomb is extremely hard to make. So we are being inconvenienced without being kept any safer. And even if it might be possible to build an effective liquid bomb, Schneier points out that the current TSA procedure would simply slow down a terrorist, not stop them, as they simply have to keep trying to get their liquid through security until they are successful (the point being, liquids are confiscated, but the person with the liquid is not punished in any way). [7]

I have personal experience with bringing a bottle of water through security undetected. Another time, I forgot to remove a leatherman tool from my backpack (a folding tool that contains pliers and assorted knives, including one with a 4″ blade”). It went through the x-ray undetected. These are just my own experiences. The TSA has time and again shown that its detection techniques are ineffective. Based on this, at a minimum, we aren’t any safer than we were before, but…

The government indicates that the full body, backscatter x-rays are safe. But how did they arrive at this decision? Apparently by taking the word of the manufacturers of the products. No peer-reviewed, blinded studies of the safety of these devices has been published, leading several leading scientists to question their safety. [8] and [9] A litmus test as to the reasonableness of these scientist’s concern would be, if a company tried to sell one of these devices to a hospital as a medical device, would they be able to with the current level of testing? The answer is no. So why are they deployed in our airports?

A personal observation about the safety of these devices. I have worked on devices classified by the FDA as a Medical Device and have first hand knowledge of the types of testing and documentation that must be provided to prove the safety of the devices. This is a rigorous process developed over time that has a proven track record of improving the safety of these devices. These processes were put into place because of device failures that cost lives. One of the most tragic failures was of the Therac-25, an radiation therapy device that inadvertently delivered lethal doses of radiation to patients due to a flaw in the control software. [10] The backscatter x-ray machines, which also have a radiation source controlled by software, are not required to be certified as a medical device. This makes no sense!

So we have an extremely expensive combination of devices and processes that are demonstrably ineffective at finding weapons and contraband, very invasive and inconvenient for travelers, and in the case of the backscatter x-ray, potentially unsafe to use. And as one person on twitter observed, “TSA nude scanners: so safe the TSA operators stand behind radiation shields.” [11]

Is there a less intrusive way to achieve the goal of better security that does not require travelers to relinquish their civil rights?

Bruce Schneier has commented that there were two changes, post 9/11, that improved the security of airline travelers. Locked, reinforced cockpit doors was the first. And passengers armed with the knowledge that they can and should fight back is the second. [6] Everything else, he argues, is security theater. [12] He also makes an excellent point, which resonates deeply with me, that we can refuse to be terrorized. [13]

A great example of low-key, but effective security is the model used by the Israeli government. A layered security model, it is designed to efficiently detect and address problems while minimizing the impact of the vast majority of travelers who do not pose a risk. [14]

If we have don’t have anything to hide, why should we care?

This is, perhaps, the most disturbing argument I hear regarding the government’s intrusion on our rights in the name of security. At a minimum, there is the fact that the system wastes enormous amounts of time and money, potentially endangering the health of travelers. But there is a deeper reason to be concerned with the issue. As noted earlier, our founding fathers put quite a bit of thought into setting up a government predicated on the notion that certain rights are inalienable. It is up to the citizens of the country to demand that these rights remain so. As another founder, James Madison eloquently stated, “We are right to take alarm at the first experiment upon our liberties.” Congressman Ron Paul agrees and has introduced legislation to give us back rights we never should lost in first place. [15]

What can we do about it?

I am not a criminal. I am not a terrorist. I do not recognize the government’s power to take away rights guaranteed to me in the Constitution of the United States. I sincerely hope that the citizens of our country will realize they are losing rights and will do everything in their power to take them back. Make sure your elected representatives know how you feel. Vote for those who best represent your interests and will protect your rights. Recognize that this problem is inherent in both of the large political parties in our country. It is time to look beyond these parties for effective leadership. And when you travel, opt out of the backscatter x-ray machine. Make the process as onerous on the TSA as it is on you. Ensure the TSA agents understand that you are submitting under duress and that they are infringing on your rights. If the system is sufficiently bogged down, it will have to be changed.

All our elected officials have given us up to this point is security theater, really expensive security theater. It is time to demand that the TSA stop terrorizing Americans.

5 Responses to “Spotlight: Joe McTee”

  1. JRD Skinner November 26, 2011 at 12:10 pm #

    This is a great, extremely well considered piece. Here, in the Canadia, it often feels like we have even less control over our security theater, as we inevitably just follow whatever the American standards are at the time.

    I’d never heard of the Israeli system till this post – fascinating stuff, and heartening to know that a nation so at risk can secure themselves with minimal inconvenience.

    This is the sort of post that should be forwarded about vigorously, especially to policy makers.


  2. Thomas Stazyk November 26, 2011 at 5:27 pm #

    Very interesting. The trouble is that the genie is out of the bottle and no politician is going to risk championing change because he’ll be blamed the next time something goes wrong.

    What they should do is leave it up to the airlines. They can compete on how much screening they do or don’t provide and price accordingly. So an airline that uses the full TSA model would charge higher than one that just waves you through. People could make the decison. Gives new meaning to the saying “You pays your money and you takes your chance.”


  3. Ingrid November 27, 2011 at 8:50 am #

    Thank you very much for this post!
    This was a very interesting read. I couldn’t agree more. I always feel very uncomfortable when I get known that any kind of observation in the name of more security is becoming legal.


  4. Nuchtchas November 28, 2011 at 1:18 am #

    you bring up a lot of good points and a lot of stuff I too have been saying for years. I truly believe the liquid ban is more to get people to pack their shampoos and other liquids in their checked baggage and to prevent them from bringing their own drinks on board or in the terminal. Once you are through security you can buy as much bottled water as you want for three times the price, and you have no recourse because you can’t bring liquid through security, even if it is factory sealed water and you can buy the same thing in the air port and then get on the plane with it. (Also, you can buy and bring on the plan a multitude of other items they confiscate at security in the terminal, but they will not prevent you from carrying it on the plane, including those multi tools with knives) So once the country got used to not bringing on Liquid what came next? The charging for carry on baggage, not just extra baggage but any baggage. Canadians who fly within Canada don’t have this, they are safe, those who fly on Southwest are also safe, but the airlines in the US (most of which are running their companies into the ground) charge for you to check a bag, yet, if you want shampoo, lotion or shaving cream you need to check a bag, even if it’s just an overnight trip. You get to pay the airline $25-$40 for that privilege too, and that’s per bag, imagine if you are traveling for a longer time? It’s a scam in my opinion and as you said isn’t stopping anyone from doing anything.

    Though I will disagree on the full body scanners, why, because I find it much more invasive to be groped and manhandled by TSA then to stand in the scanner and then just walk on by. I travel a lot and I have said to the TSA patting me down “You want to buy me dinner first?” a time or two, half the time they apologize for being so thorough but they don’t have a choice. I have had them lift and separate my girls, that to me is a greater invasion of my privacy. I passed the metal detector, why must I be pat down? And why must it be so invasive? No, give me the body scanner, so someone might see my outline on a screen, so what. I really don’t care if given the choice. Do we need it to be a choice? Should we have to choose between the two evils? no we shouldn’t, but I’m being realistic, my choices are on or the other or not flying and I don’t think my boss would like that last option.


  5. The Hook December 2, 2011 at 8:11 am #

    “Joe McTee is far more eloquent than I am.”
    Is that even possible?
    Cool post, my friend!


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