Computer Privacy Annoyances
Authors: Tynan D.
Published year: 2005
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ON THE ROAD
Grounded By No-Fly Lists
I'm a frequent flyer, and just about every time I go through a security checkpoint some beefy guard pulls me to the side, waves a wand over my entire body, and interrogates me before I can get on the plane. Am I on some sort of government no-fly list? How do I get off?
You may well be, though good luck finding out. Since 1990 the feds have maintained a list of passengers deemed a threat to civil aviation. In fact, there are at least two separate lists: one contains "selectees" who must undergo extra scrutiny before boarding; the other contains the names of those who are prevented from flying at all. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 vastly increased the scope of such lists—from a handful of names to more than 20,000, according to an October 2004 report in the Washington Post .
In April 2004, the ACLU filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of six individuals who believe they were unfairly singled out, either because their name is similar to one on the list or because of their political activity. For example, attorney David C. Nelson, one of the plaintiffs in the suit, says he's been stopped more than 40 times. (Former TV star David Nelson of "Ozzie and Harriet" fame also reports being stopped at airports.) In documents released last October 2004, Transportation Security Administration officials admit to massive problems with "false positives" resulting from similar sounding names. More than 2000 passengers have filed complaints with the TSA regarding the no-fly lists. The agency plans to introduce a new program in August 2005 (called "Secure Flight") that it claims will reduce the number of false positives but may provoke other privacy concerns (see "Are You Registered to Travel?").
According to published reports, some travelers have solved the problem by changing how their names are spelled on their airline reservations —adding or subtracting a middle initial, for example. You can also request the TSA remove you from the No-Fly list by filling out and returning a Passenger Identity Verification Form listing your SSN, date of birth, and a detailed physical description. You'll also need to submit notarized copies of three forms of ID—such as a birth certificate, driver's license, military ID, passport, visa, or voter registration card. If approved, the TSA says it will contact the airlines and help streamline your check-in process. To obtain this form, call the TSA's Office of the Ombudsman at (877) 266-2837, email them at TSAemail@example.com, or send a letter to:
While you're at it, fill out the ACLU's detailed No Fly/Watchlist Complaint Form (http://www.aclu.org/Feedback/Feedback.cfm?R=40). The ACLU provides a similar complaint form for people who believe they were singled out by security because of racial profiling (http://www.aclu.org/airlineprofiling/). This won't make traveling any easier in the short term , but it could ultimately help make passing through airport security less of a hassle.
My Bag Has Been Flagged
I just returned from a trip, opened my suitcase, and found a calling card from the Travel Security Administration announcing that my bag had been opened and inspected by hand (see Figure 5-3). (Fortunately, I left my AK-47 at home). Was I just inches away from being thrown into a cell at Guantanamo Bay?
In the post 9/11 era there's nothing you can do to stop the Feds from riffling your bags. But you can avoid trouble by not packing certain problematic items. Before you fly, check the TSA's list of permitted and prohibited items (at http://www.tsa.gov/interweb/assetlibrary/Permitted_Prohibited_8_23_2004.pdf); you may be surprised by what you can bring. For example, nearly all forms of weaponry are allowed in checked baggage (so that AK-47 would have been fine, provided you declared it to the TSA officials at check-in, and packed it inside a locked case, separate from your ammo). But flammable materials and most other hazardous chemicals are verboten. The rules for carry-on luggage are much fussier; essentially anything more lethal than a corkscrew will get removed. You could also be liable for criminal penalties and civil fines of up to ,000, depending on the item. (For a select list of prohibited items, see Table 5-2.)
Whether an item can go on board is ultimately up to the screener—so even if an item is on the permitted list, the screener may still determine it can't go on the plane. If you have questions about what you can and can't bring with you, contact the TSA at (866) 289-9673, or email them at TSAfirstname.lastname@example.org.
annoyances 5-3. ATSA calling card the author found in his suitcase.
Table 5-2. What you can pack—and where.
Your Life Is an Open Bag
Once the TSA screeners have my bag open, what's to keep them from snooping around for—or even stealing—other stuff?
Not much. Over the past year there have been several news reports of TSA and private screeners being arrested for stealing valuables from passenger bags. The TSA has processed more than 25,000 claims for damaged or missing goods since February 2002, with an average payout of 0. (If your valuables have disappeared from your bags while traveling, you can file a claim with the TSA by downloading a complaint form at http://www.tsa.gov/public/display?theme=174.)
What's more interesting is what happens when the TSA discovers something in your bags that shouldn't be there. For example, if they find flammable materials—including any alcoholic beverage more than 140 proof—it will be handed over to the airlines for disposal.
If screeners find anything illegal—like, say, a controlled substance—the agency will notify your airline as well as the appropriate law enforcement agency, in which case you might find an unwelcome escort waiting for you after your plane touches down. If you're carrying more than ,000 in cash, agents (the honest ones, anyway) are likely to contact your good friends at the IRS. What happens if they find a copy of, say, The Anarchist's Cookbook or other politically sensitive materials? A spokesperson for the TSA declined to comment.
But the fix is simple: to avoid theft, pack small, expensive items like jewelry or electronics in your carry-on—the TSA won't compensate you if they disappear from your checked baggage. (You can find a list of other valuables not covered at http://www.tsa.gov/public/interapp/travel_tip/travel_tip_0038.xml.) If the items are too big or too numerous for your carry on, conceal them inside clothing. Be sure to make a list of all your valuables and check your bags before you leave the airport. Most important: leave wads of cash—and your stash—at home.
On my last trip through airport security, the guards stopped me and gave me such a thorough pat down that I felt like a criminal. How can I keep this from happening again?
Ever since two female Chechen terrorists allegedly brought down two Russian airliners with explosives hidden in their clothing, airline passengers are being subjected to more invasive physical searches. The TSA estimates that 15 percent of airline travelers—or nearly 2 million passengers—get patted down every week.
This has angered some women who feel they've been unfairly singled out for searches—like the 54-year old Michigan woman forced to pull down her pants in Detroit Metro airport in December 2004 so screeners could examine her artificial leg for explosives.
Unfortunately there's no way to refuse a pat-down and expect to get on a plane, but it helps to know the rules airport screeners must follow:
You may be able to reduce your chances of getting frisked by avoiding bulky or loose clothing that could be used to conceal a bomb, as well as underwire bras or fashion accessories that could trip airport metal detectors.
According to published reports, the TSA has received around 300 complaints about overly aggressive (or excessively friendly) pat downs . If you feel you've been treated unfairly, you can submit a complaint to the TSA's Office of Civil Rights detailing the nature of the incident, the date and time it happened , the name of the airport, your flight info , and the name of the screener if you have it. Send your letter to:
For more information, call the TSA's Office of Civil Rights at (877) 336-4872 or send email to TellTSA@dhs.gov.
The EZ Way to Track Your Movements
I bought a pass that lets me drive right through the toll booths on the turnpike without stopping. It saves me a huge amount of time each morning. But does this mean the highway authority can track my movements? Can this come back to bite me in, say, divorce court ?
You bet. Systems like EZ Pass, which is used on toll roads from Maine to Virginia, I-PASS (Illinois), or FasTrak (Northern California) rely on RFID transponders that attach to your car's windshield and emit a unique ID when read by a scanner (see "All RFID, All the Time"). Every time you drive though a booth , the scanner reads the signal coming off your transponder , identifies your vehicle, and deducts the toll from your prepaid account. Such automated payment systems can provide a reliable record of your movements (or, at least, your car's movements), which is why electronic toll data has become increasingly popular with law enforcement agencies and civil attorneys .
The New York Thruway system reported it received more than 250 subpoenas for EZ Pass records in 2003—roughly double the number of the previous year. It provided the data in roughly half of those cases. Electronic toll information has been used in a murder investigation in Maryland and custody cases in Illinois. It's been used to nab New York City cops who tried to claim overtime pay when they'd already driven home, and to investigate Cook County judges. Anyone who claims to be in one place when they're really in another can get nailed by electronic toll records.
But transit authority officials aren't the only ones who can get at this data. Enterprising students at Texas A&M rigged scanners that collected transponder information to calculate average traffic speeds for Houston drivers. The use was benign (they created a web site that allowed drivers to gauge traffic conditions), but it proved how easily someone can scan your toll pass. A handful of airport parking lots and two McDonald's drive-thru restaurants now accept payments using EZ Pass. This data is also vulnerable to hackers: in October 2000, a security hole in the New Jersey EZ Pass web site exposed the names and account information of thousands of drivers.
The solution is simple but inconvenient: skip the EZ Pass and wait in line to pay cash at the toll booth. Alternately, you can buy a bag such as the mCloak ( to , http://www.mobilecloak.com), which blocks wireless transmissions for such RFID cards and devices, preventing a scanner from reading your card when you don't want your movements to be tracked. Cloaks can also be used for other wireless gizmos, including WiFi Handhelds or cell phones with built-in GPS transponders. Note: some transit authorities, such as FasTrak, provide RF-blocking Mylar bags for free.
We Know Where You Drove Last Summer
I've just bought a car with one of those new GPS-based directional systems inside. Can someone use this to follow my movements?
It depends on what kind of system you have and what you've been up to. Sophisticated telematics systems can keep you from getting lost and help you out of a jam. But they often do so at the expense of your privacy.
There are two major telematics manufacturers: ATX Technologies, which makes systems for Mercedes Benz, BMW, and Rolls Royce, among others; and OnStar, which is available in many GM cars. Both services go well beyond simple navigation. Using a cellular phone connection, you can communicate directly with service operators to dispatch a tow truck or an ambulance if you've been in a wreck. Impact sensors can automatically alert the service when you've been in a collision, and it can use the system's GPS transponder to locate your car virtually anywhere on the globe. They also tap directly into your car's computer controls—so someone thousands of miles away can open or lock your car doors, turn the engine on or off, and even control heating and air conditioning. If you've locked your keys in your car and it is 20 degrees outside, that's a godsend.
In 2001, FBI investigators in Las Vegas did just that. For more than a month, agents eavesdropped on suspects in their car using its telematics system, before the unnamed telematics company asked a court to intervene. Ultimately, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the eavesdropping was illegal—not because of privacy violations, but because tying up the cellular line interfered with subscribers' ability to access their contractually guaranteed emergency road service. The Federal decision only affects states in the 9th District, which includes California, Hawaii, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington.
OnStar and ATX say the systems they sell today notify passengers when a call is initiated, making it hard to eavesdrop without their knowledge. ATX spokesperson Gary Wallace says the type of notification varies by automaker, and older systems may not have this feature.
Dan Kahn, road test editor for Edmunds.com, a research site for car buyers , recommends drivers concerned about their privacy avoid subscription services like OnStar or ATX and install after-market navigational systems instead. They won't help locate your car if it's stolen, but they can keep you from getting lost—without being tracked.
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Computer Privacy Annoyances
Authors: Tynan D.
Published year: 2005