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Update: Bob Screens the Apple MacBook Air

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Thursday, March 20, 2008

We were able to get our hands on a MacBook Air and run it through the X-ray in our lab. My suspicions were correct. The MacBook does look completely different than your typical laptop or DVD player. I can't get into specifics of course, but there were a couple of areas on the X-ray that could pique some interest for TSOs.



I think this is a very unique experience and a good example of how this blog can be used. I simply came into work one day, browsed the blogosphere and read about the MacBook Air having problems at a checkpoint. No more had I started researching the MacBook Air before a post popped up on our blog. I have since been in contact with Training and we're going to get an image out to our workforce (45,000).

I hope you enjoy my acting debut on the blog.

Legal Note:TSA and DHS do not endorse any product referenced in this video and associated blog post and any reference to a specific product is provided for the information and convenience of the public. Please visit our comment policy for more information.

Comments

Submitted by Trollkiller on

We have got to get you some better looking ties. Other than that your acting debut was fine.

Submitted by Tom (PHL) on

Bob, thanks for the info on this particular laptop computer. As a TSO, I'll be looking for those images pertaining to the macbook air.

Submitted by Anonymous on

Thanks for making good on your promise Bob!

Now I have another good reason to buy an Air ;)

Submitted by Anonymous on

How is an image of the insides of the MBA a state secret? I could, for $1400 buy one and cut it open and take a look. I suspect the real reason is that you don't want people to see how poor your xray machines perform.

Submitted by Nedra Weinreich on

Hi!

I think this blog is great, and would like to interview someone who is involved with its operations for my blog. Couldn't find any contact info, so I'd appreciate if someone could email me directly at weinreich at social-marketing.com so I can follow up with more details. Thanks!

Nedra Weinreich

Submitted by Anonymous on

First off, I would like to say that I've been reading these posts since the blog has debuted, and I think you guys are providing a great service to people who frequently travel, or even just the average Joe who has questions or fears about the security involved with flying.

However, you guys can discredit yourselves to those who read this when you fail to do a proper job editing your posts, as you used "peak" instead of "pique." I don't claim to be a grammarian in any sense, nor do I think that the small mistake is going to stop me from reading any following posts, but I do think that some people might see that as slightly unprofessional.

Hopefully a quick edit job can change that, and all will be well.

Keep up the good work.

Submitted by Phil on

Bob wrote:

"I can't get into specifics of course, but there were a couple of areas on the X-ray that could peak some interest for TSOs"

I don't think it's a matter of course that you cannot discuss what some laptop computer looks like when viewed by an x-ray machine -- that's hardly classified information.

Could you please explain why this is something you cannot discuss?

Submitted by Aaron on

Kudos to TSA for being responsive -- the bigger question remains, however: Why would a screener make a passenger miss his flight simply because of something they hadn't seen before? Wouldn't a simple explosives residue test put the issue to rest?

It's absurd to make a passenger turn a device on -- it doesn't prove a device ISN'T explosive, and is an unnecessary invasion of privacy.

The problem here isn't the Macbook Air -- it's the notion that anything unexpected is perceived as a threat, and could make you miss your flight. Are we expected to know which computer models TSA screeners have received x-rays of before we fly?

Submitted by Bill Harshaw on

I was just going to correct "peak" when I see "anonymous" beat me to it. However, as the NYTimes today says, bloggers shouldn't try to be perfect.
:-)

Submitted by Anonymous on

Not for nothing Bob, but for a "techy guy" you should know that this (/) is a slash, also referred to as a forward slash. Not a backslash as you stated while giving the feedback web address at the end of your video.

Submitted by Phil on

Thanks, Chance, for the prompt follow-up.

I skimmed a couple documents within Title 49, Chapter XII, Part 1520. It looks like part 1520.7 Sensitive security information" is particularly relevant.

Could you please cite the paragraph(s) of the regulations you cited that lead(s) you to believe that an image of a commonly-available device like this laptop, created using a less-common, but still available to anyone who can afford it, device -- an x-ray machine -- should be considered "sensitive security information"?

It seems to me that relying on the hope that someone who would like to use x-ray images of the MacBook Air for nefarious purposes will be unable to acquire such images, as part of our national security, is rather risky.

Security through obscurity is folly.

Submitted by Anonymous on

also, in the video, you say that your blog is located at "www dot tsa dot gov backslash blog"

if you put a backslash - \ - in the URI, you won't get anywhere except, maybe to a 404 error page, because backslash is a windows-only phenomenon that doesn't work anywhere else.

what you meant to say was "forward slash" - / - or "solidus" (which most people don't know, but is actually the "real" name of the "forward slash" character).

Submitted by Dave X The First on

For the price of a MBA, you could buy your own x-ray machine and look inside it yourself.

Submitted by Anonymous on

Don't tell China that Bob! Ive been seeing a ad campaign that we have been sending portable xray devices to China!Aggg! The irony! They might put 1+1 together and we will have anarchy!

Submitted by Anonymous on

The x-ray image is sensitive security information? I'm sorry, but I don't buy that.

Anyone working in a radiology lab could take 2 minutes to x-ray something and post the picture online.

Submitted by Anonymous on

Yeah, you guys should really revamp your policies so they are less '1984' and more '2008'. I mean, whenever we ask you WHY you do something it's always "I can't tell you why, just trust that it's in your best interest"

Slippery slope. Blah blah blah. But I'm sure you guys don't care all that much about civil liberties.

Submitted by Sandra on

The mind simply boggles when reading some of the nonsense that the TSA and its representatives, chosen or not, put up on this website.

Do you have ANY concept in the world at how you come across - refusing to answer questions, "it's SSI", getting back and forward slashes mixed up, making foolish statements about alleged "rules", etc., etc., etc.

Submitted by Bob on
Trollkiller said...We have got to get you some better looking ties. Other than that your acting debut was fine.

Come on Trolly Baby, that’s one of my favorite ties! You sir have rained on my parade.

Anonymous said... How is an image of the insides of the MBA a state secret? I could, for $1400 buy one and cut it open and take a look. I suspect the real reason is that you don't want people to see how poor your xray machines perform.

It’s not a state secret, it’s sensitive security information. (SSI) If you’ve got the cabbage to buy a MBA and slice it open, more power to you. While our X-ray machines may not be state of the art, they were good enough for our TSOs to find the anomalies on the MBA. (As well as millions of other items we’ve screened since our rollout)

Anonymous said... First off, I would like to say that I've been reading these posts since the blog has debuted, and I think you guys are providing a great service to people who frequently travel, or even just the average Joe who has questions or fears about the security involved with flying.

However, you guys can discredit yourselves to those who read this when you fail to do a proper job editing your posts, as you used "peak" instead of "pique." I don't claim to be a grammarian in any sense, nor do I think that the small mistake is going to stop me from reading any following posts, but I do think that some people might see that as slightly unprofessional.

Hopefully a quick edit job can change that, and all will be well.

Keep up the good work.

Thanks for the kudos. You piqued my interest, so I googled pique and now I know. Edited. Thanks

Aaron said... Kudos to TSA for being responsive -- the bigger question remains, however: Why would a screener make a passenger miss his flight simply because of something they hadn't seen before?

Hi Aaron. The passenger in question never stated how long the screening took. He also never said TSA made him miss his flight. We may have indeed taken a few extra minutes of his time, but he also may have been running late. I don’t know the details. Thanks for your comments.

Bill Harshaw said...
I was just going to correct "peak" when I see "anonymous" beat me to it. However, as the NYTimes today says, bloggers shouldn't try to be perfect. :-)

Bill, I like the way you look at things. You know, I was bummed out due to my tie being bashed and my misspelling of pique. Your reference to the NY Times article has made me feel better. Thanks! :)

Anonymous said... Not for nothing Bob, but for a "techy guy" you should know that this (/) is a slash, also referred to as a forward slash. Not a backslash as you stated while giving the feedback web address at the end of your video.

Man…just as Bill had me felling better about myself, WHAMMO. Good thing we spelled it out on the screen, huh? Thanks.

Anonymous said... what you meant to say was "forward slash" - / - or "solidus" (which most people don't know, but is actually the "real" name of the "forward slash" character).

From this day forward, it’s solidas! Thanks.

Sandra said... Do you have ANY concept in the world at how you come across

Yes. Thanks to Trollkiller, I’m well aware that I come across as a guy with an ugly tie.

Thanks,

Bob

TSA EoS Blog Team
Submitted by Anonymous on
The x-ray image is sensitive security information? I'm sorry, but I don't buy that.

It's not the x-ray in and of itseld that is SSI. The image from TSA's x-ray machines would show how our machines are calibrated, allowing someone to circumvent that layer of security.
Submitted by Phil on

Chance wrote:

"The reason we can't discuss or show certain things (such as the X-Ray images) is because they are considered "Sensitive Security Information", called SSI for short."

In response, I asked for pointers to what led him to believe that x-ray images of an Apple computer are Sesitive Security Information.

He responded by explaining that he's not an expert on SSI and stating:

"I think that paragraphs e-g of 1520.7 may apply to X ray images, especially g."


Paraphraphs e - g of 1520.7 are:

(e) Technical specifications of any device used for the detection of any deadly or dangerous weapon, explosive, incendiary, or destructive substance under the rules listed in Sec. 1520.5(a)(1) through (6).

No pictures of that laptop, from the outside or the inside, are technical specs for a device used for the detection of anything.

(f) A description of, or technical specifications of, objects used to test screening equipment and equipment parameters under the rules listed in Sec. 1520.5(a)(1) through (6).

No pictures of that laptop are a description or technical specs of an object used to test anything.

(g) Technical specifications of any security communications equipment and procedures under the rules listed in Sec. 1520.5(a)(1) through (6).

No pictures of that laptop are specifications of any security communications equipment or procedure.

Chance, what made you think that any of those paragraphs would apply here?

Also, if you're not an expert on SSI, how do you know that pictures of the inside of a laptop are considered SSI?


Chance also wrote:

"Also, 49 U.S.C. 40119(b)(1) seems to my non legal mind to be a catch all that could include images."

Everything in that short paragraph is contingent upon a declaration by the Secretary of Transportation. Are you telling us that the Secretary of Transportation has decided that with respect to pictures of the insides of a MacBook Air, (quoting 49 U.S.C. 40119(b)(1)) "disclosing the information would – (A) be an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy; (B) reveal a trade secret or privileged or confidential commercial or financial information; or (C) be detrimental to transportation safety."?


Blogger Bob, would you please comment on this? You're the one who first wrote that of course you couldn't get into the specifics of what you saw when you x-rayed the laptop.

Submitted by Phil on

Somone anonymously wrote:

"It's not the x-ray in and of [itself] that is SSI. The image from TSA's x-ray machines would show how our machines are calibrated, allowing someone to circumvent that layer of security."

Assuming this anonymous information is accurate, looking looking over the shoulder of those doing the screening in an airport would accomplish the same. I've been through plenty of airports where the x-ray terminals are in view of those passing by. It's often obstructed a bit, but it's certainly not in some secure location.

Next?

Submitted by Bob on
March 20, 2008 5:58 PM
Phil Said: Blogger Bob, would you please comment on this? You're the one who first wrote that of course you couldn't get into the specifics of what you saw when you x-rayed the laptop.

Hi Phil. As Chance said earlier, we are not SSI experts. it is common knowledge among the workforce that x-ray images are SSI. They can be made public (As in the shoe article) but the decision to make them public comes from a higher pay grade.

We're going to find an SSI expert to answer your questions. Stay tuned and thanks for posting...
Submitted by Phil on

Bob wrote:

"it is common knowledge among the [TSA] workforce that x-ray images are SSI [...] We're going to find an SSI expert to answer your questions."

Ah, got it. Thanks for clearing that up. I'll be looking forward to an explanation. Obviously, this is not particularly important, but it's frustrating that a public agency would take this, "anything we do is secret, whether it needs to be or not" stance.

When you folks, as new TSA'ers, are told about some seemingly-nonsensical policy like that, do you speak up and ask for an explanation, or just blindly follow? I've been in work situations where thinking is encouraged, and I've been in work situations where you're expected to keep your mouth shut and your brain empty when some muckety-muck speaks.

Submitted by Anonymous on

yeah I dont quite understand why the image is SSI either, you can do a google search for xray images, maybe not specifically of the MBA but I've seen them of normal laptops, bags, explosives etc.

Ive seen TSA xray images what i find online isn't much different, heck ins some cases the images are a bit better.

Not only that but some news website, I forgot who, maybe CNN, had a game where you could screen items on a "xray".

Submitted by Phil on

I hate to belabor this, but the thing is, if our security hinges on people not getting x-ray images of a laptop, we're in big trouble.

Really: TSA should assume that anyone who could do anything bad with such an image will get one. Not showing it to us will slow that criminal down about as much as putting an extra stop light on the road to the airport.

Or maybe TSA should just tell us, "Look, we know we can't stop a determined criminal like a well-funded terrorist from bringing on explosives, so we're really just trying to avoid letting Joe sixpack smuggle a bit of cannabis on vacation with him by stuffing it in the battery compartment of his laptop."


And one other thing: Bob, you said in your video that these laptops look completely different from others because they use a solid-state drive. The MacBook Air comes with either a traditional hard drive or a solid-state drive. The part that differs is 2.5" wide by about 4" long and about a quarter-inch thick. There's no way it makes the whole laptop look different to an x-ray machine. Give me a break.

Submitted by Anonymous on

For those of you curious for a taste of what we see, here is a link to an x-ray training service with a simulator. This is in the public domain, so as to not violate any SSI agreements. Has been up for several years. Though easy, it gives an idea (complete with background noises and grumpy fliers!)of what we see, I know my kid's enjoy doing it.

Your humble servant,
Random STSO

Submitted by Anonymous on

Dear TSA,

Did the wannabe terrorists in the London plot have a working binary liquid explosive?

Submitted by Aaron on

Bob said:
"He also never said TSA made him miss his flight."

No, he said Steve Jobs made him miss his flight. That's quite generous of him. He did miss his flight regardless.

While not getting into a timeline, the original post makes it clear he's an experienced traveler who would have made his flight had the TSA not held him up. You're nitpicking words and avoiding the issue here.

You also didn't address my question as to why a security screener would want to see the MBA run a program. Is that actually an approved security procedure? If so, why? If not, why would a screener insist on it?

The other question you didn't address -- why wouldn't a simple (and fast) explosives residue test have sufficed in this case? Why would an unknown computer require the attention of 10-20% of the security agents at the checkpoint?

Submitted by Anonymous on

FROM THE "RUMOR ALERT" Topic:
Anonymous said (in response to Trollkiller: I don't understand why it would be difficult to explain the avenues TSOs have open to report abuse, gross mismanagement, or safety issues.)

It's not difficult. The process
for posting a Francine-quality response just takes time. Requests from the blog go from Public Affairs to the subject matter experts, who take time from their other work to research and draft a response, back to public affairs, to a busy Office of Chief Counsel to ensure the response is legally correct, (often) back through the pipes with changes, and then finally to the bloggers to publish. Remember that every TSA post (as opposed to ad hoc comment responses) are treated as statements of agency policy.

March 20, 2008 9:20 AM

AND FROM THIS TOPIC:

Bob said...
March 20, 2008 5:58 PM
Phil Said: Blogger Bob, would you please comment on this? You're the one who first wrote that of course you couldn't get into the specifics of what you saw when you x-rayed the laptop.

Hi Phil. As Chance said earlier, we are not SSI experts. it is common knowledge among the workforce that x-ray images are SSI. They can be made public (As in the shoe article) but the decision to make them public comes from a higher pay grade.

We're going to find an SSI expert to answer your questions. Stay tuned and thanks for posting...

March 20, 2008 6:10 PM


Why weren't Blogger Bob's statements originally cleared by the (SSI) subject matter experts during the "draft a response" stage?

Submitted by Christopher on

Oh, anonymous…if life were only that black and white. As anyone that has read my posts and comments can attest, we’re pretty free-wheeling around here. Yes, we do work with our attorneys to keep us out of serious trouble but the moderators of this blog write their own posts, comments and are even encouraged to think independently. Our lawyers have not been heavy handed or seriously edited out posts, in fact they’ve worked really, really well with us.

When we have a guest blogger like Keith Kauffman, our intel chief, or if bloggers are asking detailed, legal questions that Francine Kerner is best qualified to answer, you bet they’re careful about what they say and how they say it. You would be too if your every consonant and syllable were scrutinized and dissected. It’s a balancing act between being conversational and providing detailed answers to very detailed questions that will help the public understand why we do what we do.

With that in mind, the moderators don’t wordsmith subject matter experts either, we just don’t. When you read something that says written by Kip Hawley, it was actually penned by Kip Hawley.

I’ll end with a quick roll call of the moderators:

Bob: security officer and behavior detection officer
Chance: intel analyst
Ethel: professional pilot evaluator and all-around creative thinker
Jay: federal security director
Christopher: obligatory PR guy

As you can see, we’re not exactly a room full of PR people here.

Christopher

EOS Blog Team

Submitted by SeeSaw on

Bob:
I liked your tie. My interest peaked.

Submitted by SeeSaw on
Anonymous said...
Dear TSA,

Did the wannabe terrorists in the London plot have a working binary liquid explosive?

March 20, 2008 8:26 PM

The answer to that, as I understand is NO. I have the feeling that you already new that, and you are fishing for an invitation to share your knowledge.
I would like to know what wasn't working with their binary liquid explosives. And, how much more time would they have needed before it could have been a functional binary liquid explosive? Are there other similar plots in the works right now that actually might create a working binary liquid explosive? When they discovered this plot in London, did they catch everyone who was involved in it, and get all the materials describing the plans, so that no paperwork or recipes fall into the wrong hands, and it gets started all over again?
Submitted by Phil on

Regarding the feasibility of the binary liquid explosive plot:

The Register: Mass murder in the skies: Was the plot feasible?:

"Once the plane is over the ocean, very discreetly bring all of your gear into the toilet. You might need to make several trips to avoid drawing attention. Once your kit is in place, put a beaker containing the peroxide / acetone mixture into the ice water bath (Champagne bucket), and start adding the acid, drop by drop, while stirring constantly. Watch the reaction temperature carefully. The mixture will heat, and if it gets too hot, you'll end up with a weak explosive. In fact, if it gets really hot, you'll get a premature explosion possibly sufficient to kill you, but probably no one else.

"After a few hours - assuming, by some miracle, that the fumes haven't overcome you or alerted passengers or the flight crew to your activities - you'll have a quantity of TATP with which to carry out your mission. Now all you need to do is dry it for an hour or two."


The Guardian: The Timing is Political (Former UK ambassador to Uzbekistan Craig Murray):

"Nine days on, nobody has been charged with any crime. For there to be no clear evidence yet on something that was "imminent" and would bring "mass murder on an unbelievable scale" is, to say the least, peculiar. A 24th person, arrested amid much fanfare on Tuesday, was quietly released without charge the following day.

[...]

"None of the alleged terrorists had made a bomb. None had bought a plane ticket. Many did not have passports. It could be pretty difficult to convince a jury that these individuals were about to go through with suicide bombings, whatever they bragged about on the net."



On the implausibility of the liquid explosives plot:

"The news this morning was full of stuff about "ordinary looking devices being used as detonators". Well, if you're using nasty unstable peroxides as your explosive material, you don't really need any -- the stuff goes off if you give it a dirty look. I suspect a good hard rap with a hard heavy object would be more than sufficient. No need to worry about those cell phones secretly being high tech "detonators" if you're going this route.

"Anyway, from all of this, I conclude that either

"1) The terrorists had a brilliant idea for how to combine oxidizer and a ketone or ether to make some sort of nasty organic peroxide explosive in situ that has escaped me so far. Perhaps that's true -- I'm not omniscient and I have to confess that I've never tried making the stuff at all, let alone in an airplane bathroom.

"2) The terrorists were smuggling on board pre-made organic peroxide explosives. Clearly, this is not a new threat at all -- organic peroxide explosives have been used by terrorists for decades now. Smuggling them in a bottle is not an interesting new threat either -- clearly if you can smuggle cocaine in a bottle you can smuggle acetone peroxide. I would hope we had means of looking for that already, though, see below for a comment on that.

"3) The terrorists were phenomenally ill informed, or hadn't actually tried any of this out yet -- perhaps what we are told was a "sophisticated plot" was a bunch of not very sophisticated people who had not gotten very far in testing their ideas out, or perhaps they were really really dumb and hadn't tried even a small scale experiment before going forward."

Submitted by Seeker on

Bob,

First of all, don't worry about all the grammar nazis and tie haters out there. There are always people who find faults with something, no matter how good it is or how much effort went into it. Just ignore then and get used to it.

Second, I'm absolutely delighted to see this level of personal interaction between the TSA and its customers. Any chance a similar personal approach could be done with removing the names of people wrongfully or mistakenly placed on the TSA no-fly list? There have countless hundreds of nightmare stories of people being denied air travel due to a mistake. Even when the mistake is obvious, such as a 6-month old being denied travel because she has the same name as somebody on the watch list, there is absolutely no recourse, and that individual/family member is forever forbidden from flying, making travel -- particularly international -- virtually impossible. The only corrections ever made were with congressmen, and even then it was very difficult.

Is there any way you could suggest this, Bob? It would carry much greater weight coming from within the system.

Regardless, thanks for doing a great job.

Submitted by Anony on

Ohh, BTW, I believe the reason Bob is hesitant and/or uncertain as to whether he should post the x-ray of the macbook is because it then allows for a reference of comparison. A picture of a dissected MBA or even an image from another x-ray machine is not as good as seeing it with the same parameters as the TSA does. A nefarious individual could study the reference image as seen on the TSA's security system and attempt to alter the macbook's internals to accomplish whatever malicious purpose he has in mind while still appearing the same on x-ray as the reference image, thereby seeming to be unaltered.

It's obviously not a bid deal since virtually anyone can obtain a radiograph of the MBA, but I'd be willing to be that Bob took the common "better safe than sorry" or "why do their work for them?" approach rather than take even the slightest risk.

Submitted by Ruidh on
It’s not a state secret, it’s sensitive security information.

This is patent nonsense. There is nothing in the least sensitive about an x-ray of an off-the-shelf consumer item.

It merely demonstrates how much SSI is neither sensitive nor secret.
Submitted by Anonymous on

seesaw,

It's pretty straightforward (unless the open source reporting is lying to us). They wanted to produce TATP aboard an airplane. TATP is a solid (sort of a crystalline powder) that is made from liquids. According to the reporting, they were going to bring the liquids needed to synthesize it aboard. Go on and google TATP, or look it up on wikipedia. It's incredibly difficult to make. It requires many hours, including time to filter and dry the resulting precipitate. It requires careful temperature control as well, and creates loads of noxious fumes. If you think someone's just going to pop into the head and make this stuff, and nobody's going to notice them also lugging in stuff to make an ice bath and heaters, and fumes pouring out, and the door locked for hours...well, you're no smarter than the people who put the 3-1-1 rule into play.

It was not a credible plot. TATP, once made, is extremely unstable. I highly encourage any terrorist reading this blog to make it, as the chances are quite good you'll blow yourself up long before you take out anything tactically useful.

Submitted by Anonymous on
Ohh, BTW, I believe the reason Bob is hesitant and/or uncertain as to whether he should post the x-ray of the macbook is because it then allows for a reference of comparison. A picture of a dissected MBA or even an image from another x-ray machine is not as good as seeing it with the same parameters as the TSA does. A nefarious individual could study the reference image as seen on the TSA's security system and attempt to alter the macbook's internals to accomplish whatever malicious purpose he has in mind while still appearing the same on x-ray as the reference image, thereby seeming to be unaltered.

Pretty much impossible given the thickness of the laptop, varying densities of materials, etc.
Submitted by Anonymous on

This is such a *brilliant* parody. It's good to see that the TSO people can have a good laugh at themselves and at their ridiculous antics. Congratulations on a fine post -- I'm still laughing.

Submitted by SeeSaw on

Anonymous (March 21, 2008 9:02 AM)
said:

"It was not a credible plot. TATP, once made, is extremely unstable. I highly encourage any terrorist reading this blog to make it, as the chances are quite good you'll blow yourself up long before you take out anything tactically useful."

Sounds like a good idea. Let's weed them out by their own stupidity!

I have never been a fan of the 3.1.1 anyway.

Submitted by Trollkiller on
Bob said...

Come on Trolly Baby, that’s one of my favorite ties! You sir have rained on my parade.

Sorry but you look more like a Hawaiian tie guy. Something with tropical flowers, palm trees or hula girls on it.
Submitted by Trollkiller on
Anonymous said...

FROM THE "RUMOR ALERT" Topic:
Anonymous said (in response to Trollkiller: I don't understand why it would be difficult to explain the avenues TSOs have open to report abuse, gross mismanagement, or safety issues.)

It's not difficult. The process
for posting a Francine-quality response just takes time. Requests from the blog go from Public Affairs to the subject matter experts, who take time from their other work to research and draft a response, back to public affairs, to a busy Office of Chief Counsel to ensure the response is legally correct, (often) back through the pipes with changes, and then finally to the bloggers to publish. Remember that every TSA post (as opposed to ad hoc comment responses) are treated as statements of agency policy.

I am not a patient man, but you are right quality answers do take time. I will try to be a bit more patient in the future.

Francine did answer my question with a quality answer. Worth the read.
Submitted by Trollkiller on
Bob said

I’ll end with a quick roll call of the moderators:

Bob: security officer and behavior detection officer
Chance: intel analyst
Ethel: professional pilot evaluator and all-around creative thinker
Jay: federal security director
Christopher: obligatory PR guy

So we have Fred Jones, Daphne Blake, Norville 'Shaggy' Rogers, Velma Dinkley and Scooby-Doo. You guys figure out who's who.
Submitted by Anonymous on

I agree that the x-ray image is sensitive security information. It is one thing to see the inside of the laptop with your own eyes. Its another to see the layout under x-ray, which shows much more information than a simple visual inspection.

By the way, the TSA does not ask you to power on devices anymore Aaron.

Submitted by Trollkiller on

Dang folks, back of the venom just a little. If Bob thinks showing the image will put him in a world of hurt have a bit of sympathy. He make think it is a retarded rule too.

He has said he will try to get the image approved to be released.

Submitted by Trollkiller on
Anonymous said...

I agree that the x-ray image is sensitive security information. It is one thing to see the inside of the laptop with your own eyes. Its another to see the layout under x-ray, which shows much more information than a simple visual inspection.

By the way, the TSA does not ask you to power on devices anymore Aaron.

They did in this case.
Submitted by Anonymous on

The issue about secrecy, my guess, would be that its not what the computer looks like inside, since anyone could find that out. Rather, its how the MBA is different than others and what specifically cnocerns TSA about its appearance, which would give people a clue as to what potentially dangerous clues they are looking for when they screen computers.

Submitted by Qthrul on

Bob,

Thanks for this post. I went through ATL and MCO recently with my MacBook Air w/SSD without issues.

I am glad to see you guys mixing it up a bit with the routine. Randomized is good for everyone.

Now, if only the airlines could just put peanuts and drinks in those long security lines...

You have a posse.

Thanks,
Jay

Submitted by Anonymous on

(Note to moderator: the use of product names in this posting is not intended as promotion; if needed, you can remove the product names but please keep the word "sub notebook" as this is the key to TSA being able to find examples of these machines for testing purposes.)

Bob:

There are a number of other laptops you need to know about that will raise similar issues as this Apple machine. These are sometimes known as "sub-notebooks" because they are considerably smaller than conventional laptops, and they all use solid state data storage instead of hard drives.

Two examples that come to mind are the "XO" and the "eee PC".

The XO is the "hundred dollar laptop" that is made primarily for distribution to schools in the developing world. Last year these were briefly made available for puchase by the general public, so there will be a few thousand of them in circulation. (I have one, thought it would be a good travel machine because it's inherently rugged w/ no hard drive.) They are identifyable by a white and green color scheme with the XO logo on one side and a carrying handle molded into the plastic. The keyboard is a green rubberized membrane with notably small keys (designed for kids' hands).

Since there are relatively few of these in circulation they are rare enough that they might raise eyebrows. You can go to www.laptop.org and find the contact information for "OLPC" which is the organization responsible for these. They're not for sale to the public any more, but I'm sure OLPC would provide one to TSA so you can X-ray it and make the information available to screeners so they know what these should look like when they go through screening.

The eeePC is usually black or white but is now available in pastel colors. It has a small conventional keyboard. These are available from a number of sources for about $300 - $500 (Google "eeePC") so it should be easy to get one and run it through the same tests so your screeners know what to expect.

There are others of similar type made by other manufacturers; Google "sub notebook" and follow the leads from published articles to see about obtaining examples of these.

I think it is highly likely that solid state data storage will become far more common (in standard laptops as well as in the smaller models) due to its inherent ruggedness compared to hard drives.

Thanks for taking input from the public.

Submitted by Anonymous on

Re. the discussion of privacy & security issues:

Folks, it's important to distinguish between technical issues and actual civil liberties issues. And I say the following as someone who is highly critical of the Bush administration in a number of areas.

Secrecy about the X-ray images is legitimate. Yes, anyone (e.g. an Al Qaeda operative in a sympathetic foreign country, with access to sympathetic persons in appropriate positions) can run laptops through X-ray machines and see what they look like. However, X-ray images differ widely depending on how the screening equipment is calibrated and how the imaging software is configured. An image of a laptop taken with US screening equipment can provide an adversary with vital information about the calibration and configuration details used in the US, thereby allowing the adversary to gain an advantage in disguising a harmful object as an innocent one.

Having to turn on a laptop or other device to prove that it works is not an invasion of privacy, much less a 1st Amendment issue. In this case, the TSA screener is concerned only with the fact that the device shows normal activity, *not* with the content of the information on the device.

The copying of hard drives by security personnel is an example of a legitimate privacy and 1st Amendment issue, because in this case what is at stake is the content of your ideas and associations. The way to deal with this issue is to bug your Representatives and Senators, seek relief through the courts, support appropriate candidates for public office, and become involved with organizations such as EFF that are active in these areas.

We need to differentiate between things that would be nice to know for personal interest, and things we need to know as citizens in a representative democracy. Yes, I'd like to see colorful pictures of the insides of laptops, but no, I don't need that information in order to decide whether to support this or that candidate for public office or proposed piece of legislation.

And we need to differentiate between issues of convenience and issues of fundamental rights. Getting delayed while rushing for a flight is inconvenient but it's not unconstitutional. (And why did you arrive at the airport at the last minute? Come on now folks, 90 minutes means 90 minutes, plan accordingly, better yet plan for 2 hours and relax.) Constitutional issues pertain to things such as the content of what you write and read: your ideas, beliefs, etc.

To the extent that there is a legitimate risk of terrorism, we will all have to deal with a certain amount of inconvenience including missed flights; and on the other hand, as citizens we are always obligated to protect our essential liberties such as the freedom to read and write and vote. This is a careful balance to maintain but we have done it in the past. The inconveniences we face today are nothing compared to what people faced in WW2; and on the other hand, even WW2 did not cause reporters and editors to cease writing critically, or prevent us from having elections. As this is an election year, that difference is a good one to keep in mind.

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