TSA warning poster upsets aircraft photographers

Via the BB Submitterator, reader Keith Irwin writes,

Carlos Miller reports that there's a new TSA poster which seems to suggest that people who photograph airplanes are suspicious. The TSA blog has responded saying that 1) the poster isn't new and 2) the pictures on the poster just show general things which happen around airports and are not meant to cast photographers as terrorists. That their current group of posters includes pictures of a stewardess and a maintenance person probably backs up their story. Just in case, though, I fixed it to help us be alert of the real threat which photographers pose.
TSA publishes new posters depicting photographers as terrorists


  1. Philadelphia commuters got a surprise this morning. Bag searches.


    The new TSA administrator wants to arm TSA agents and given them police powers. Seems to be a done deal just waiting to work out details.


    BTW: Cory, I really enjoyed Little Brother!!!

    Remember: Be alert. Be vigilant. Be fearful.

      1. Sorry Xeni. Just seemed like a good place to mention enjoying his book. Figured he would read your post and comments. No disrespect intended and glad you covered the poster story. Thanks!

    1. That PATCO affair is sickening. One step closer to a police state. The icing on the cake is the part where they inform us that they’re letting us off easy…for now: “We can conduct any kind of search we want,” said McClintock. “We could ask TSA to bring wands or X-ray machines like they have in airports, though we don’t think that’s appropriate for PATCO riders at this time

  2. Hmmm, the poster with the flight attendants shows their faces and seems to be saying, “these are the potential victims” or “tell these people if you see something”. It’s not the same kind of message. I went to art school, I know how to read images. I didn’t even need 1000 words.

  3. Meanwhile (per an investigative journalist named Daniel Hopsicker), the 9/11 hijackers trained at an airport where the CIA used to receive deliveries of Osama bin Laden’s heroin…

    Yup, you just can’t be too vigilant about those scruffy, swarthy guys with telephoto lenses! Keep your eyes on the distractions, everyone!

  4. Yet don’t the FAA and equivalents clamor for amateur footage of crash events or pre-flight anomalies? (I’m thinking of the Zapruder effect, applied to the flaming Concorde, etc.)

  5. It may be just me, but I think taking photos of boring commuter jet, through a chain link fence, is suspicious. If it were an antique biplane or a stealth fighter, you could think, “sure, an enthusiast might be interested,” but as such, it defies easy explanation. Is it harmless? Yes. But I would hope airport security or the police might mosey on over there, say hi to the cameraman, and have a quick conversation to see if he or she is interacting normally, and if so, leave in peace.

    1. “taking photos of boring commuter jet”
      Yeah and I get people who ask me “why are you taking pictures of a wall” all the time.
      And I know nothing about fishing, so it looks awful suspicious to me when some guy hangs around a bridge all afternoon catching fish that I wouldn’t eat. I mean, I could understand if he was on a bass boat on a lake with clean water. But that dude on the bridge is obviously up to something.

      1. @aldasin: I know enough about fishing to know that it is an activity that I do not enjoy. However, I also know that fishing from bridges is illegal in most states. You are right to be suspicious. The man is a criminal and must be sent to Gitmo without due process.

    2. It may be boring to you, but search flickr with the term “commuter jet” and you will find plenty of interesting shots by people who think otherwise.

      Also, define a normal interaction. Many people get nervous when questioned by authority figures (especially ones known for thuggish, unnecessary actions). Many others have anything from a slightly quirky personality to a full-on disability, neither of which warrants action by anyone, yet both of which is likely to elicit action by aforementioned thuggish security or TSA.

    3. Maybe they’re doing something the government really doesn’t like: tracking tail numbers of airplanes to find out what illegal activities the CIA is up to:


      My guess is that’s why a photographer ended up on a poster. The government is okay with spying on us, but not the reverse, even when it’s within our rights to do so.

    4. You may want to check airliners.net there are plane watchers out there that track the movement of planes and combine it all there.

      This is one way how the secret CIA flights came to light as people noticed these planes appearing in odd places and via registration traced it back to the CIA.

      So yeah, I guess I can see how the TSA would like to paint plane watchers are criminals.

    5. They’re plane-spotters; like train-spotters. It’s an aquired taste.

      What possible insentive would a terrorist have to take pictures of passenger planes like that? What possible, useful intelligence could be gained from that?

      You could jump on the internet and get detailed flight time-tables, airport layouts and probably every inch of schematics for the aircraft. A photo of one taking off is worthless for anything other than a collection.

      I don’t live in the US, but the TSA seem like jacked-up cop-wannabes with too much time on their hands. This is what happens when you give morons power I guess.

  6. Also, define a normal interaction. Many people get nervous when questioned by authority figures (especially ones known for thuggish, unnecessary actions). Many others have anything from a slightly quirky personality to a full-on disability, neither of which warrants action by anyone, yet both of which is likely to elicit action by aforementioned thuggish security or TSA.

    You’re right that there are many people who will trigger ‘false positives’. I’m like that myself. Something about my anxious public manner routinely calls the attention of security personnel when I’m shopping or visiting a museum, for example. People are usually polite, but I’ve had a lot of ‘friendly’ conversations I’d rather not have had. There will be false positives and negatives. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea to pay extra attention to people who deviate from community-expected behavior, and I guess in that I respectfully disagree with you. Note, I’m not saying security should “lock ’em up and interrogate” an unusual person for hours. That’s unacceptable. So is confiscating film. However, I WOULD have security make their presence known, ask non-coercive questions, and maybe direct extra attention and resources toward monitoring the unusual person or situation.

    In this case, if the guy seems ok they leave him alone. But maybe if the photographer seems fishy during the conversation, they STILL leave him alone. Only they decide to keep an eye on him by swinging the patrol car around every so often, or parking somewhere in eyesight. No one is hurt, no one is intimidated (unless one is intimidated by all interaction with authority, which is one’s problem alone).

    (gender of photographer not intentionally assumed)

  7. Nothing new really. Translink, here in Vancouver, BC, has a similar poster for two years or so now:


    Of course as we are all aware the most important thing for any terrorist is to take closeups of cameras, as to determine what brand and model they are (and maybe even the serial number) so that they can track down the guy who build the thing in china and then figure out how to exploit his shoddy workmanship.

    The anglosphere in general seems to have gotten seriously paranoid about photography over the last few years, not in the least due to posters like these I would presume. A few months ago I was shooting a streetscene with a medium format camera and spent a good five minutes to set up the shot (tripod and all), when I was done I had TWO people yell at me that I can’t do that because it endangers people and what am I, a terrorist?”


  8. Re: “Photos of boring planes are boring” – One of the ways that the CIA’s “unconstitutional rendition” kidnappers got caught was by planespotters, hobbyists who obsessive-compulsively take pictures of airplanes arriving and leaving airports, and by the Internet communications that lets them share their observations with other planespotters. You bet they want to know if they’re being watched…

  9. Maybe it’s a failure of my imagination, but I can’t figure out what useful intel could be gained by a terrorist by photographing the outsides of planes.

    “And this, my brothers, is where the infidels keep their wings….attached to the sides of the planes!”

    “That was the last piece of the puzzle we needed for our evil plan! BWA HA HA HA HA!”

  10. Does this mean the military and civilian plane spotters are out of a job? These guys note tail numbers and note different types of aircraft as the take off and land all over the world for fun, so this will come down on them hardest….

  11. Clearly this is a pro photography campaign. The guy is obviously a community volunteer looking out for terrorists at the airport and taking photos of any suspicious activity to hand over to the authorities…

  12. Before it was fashionable to crash airliners into buildings, the aviation community had “airport watch” programs in effect. Small aircraft theft was the main concern but airport workers were also asked to report suspicious activity connected with drug smuggling. I don’t want to discourage nice people from taking pictures of airplanes. If you’ve got your hoodie up on a hot day shooting through a chainlink fence I may roll by, write your car tag down, and let the local PD know. If you’ve got a bumper sticker that reads “I brake for 747’s” and your tag is your HAM radio call sign, I probably ignore you.

    True pre-TSA story: an FAA inspector at an international airport tested his security where he regularly worked (but was not widely known by screeners) by changing his ID badge photo to a stock image of Mickey Mouse. He walked around/through security for weeks before somebody stopped him.

    1. ” If you’ve got your hoodie up on a hot day shooting through a chainlink fence I may roll by, write your car tag down, and let the local PD know. ”
      What possible threat do you perceive in this situation?

      1. Possible threats are aircraft theft, hijacking, arson, murder, and kidnapping. The threat is not just to the aircraft. Individuals using the airport can be targeted for crime.

        1. Those are threats directly correlated to wearing a hooded top in warm weather?

          WOW – I’ll be careful in future.

          I think he was pointing out that you were stereotyping some ones activities based on their appearance; an appearance that is in no way threatening.

  13. I followed the link and found that the TSA do have handy advice for aircraft owners/pilots:

    # Always lock your aircraft
    # Don’t leave keys in unattended aircraft

    I guess nobody would have thought of that before . . .

  14. Yikes! I did a double take when I saw that poster, that is pretty much what I look like every day, hoodie, camera, shooting everything and anything.

    I was just at the airport last week in fact, taking pictures, and I was somewhat concerned that someone might give me grief. I am not sure why. I would like to think that I was worried only because I can always be forbidden to take pictures on private property, and not because I was afraid to be suspected of crime…but I think it is a bit of both.

  15. As an aviator and photographer I can say that this bothers me a bit, but if you’re a regular at one or several General Aviation airports it should be no problem if you take photos (I do every time I fly and by now the whole airport know I take photos), but it wouldn’t hurt to go to the administration or to the FBO’s offices and let them know that you are interested in taking photos, most of them don’t mind (they just take your name for references, after all it’s a business) although there are a few private hangars that might be fidgety about the photos but in general, GA airports and aerodromes are really cool and down to earth communities, despite the fact that the government wants to impose their scare tactics on the lot. They have seen more and more people take to GA and it wouldn’t surprise me that some secret airline coven is pushing this under the table under the guise of safety, as almost always is the case.

  16. I would assume someone wearing a hoodie up in HOT weather (not warm weather) is making an effort to conceal their identity. Disguise + intel gathering = suspicious. Also, wouldn’t a picture taken through a chain link fence be of poor quality?

    Consider: A person wearing a baseball hat, sunglasses, and driving a blacked out van drives by your kid’s school three times in 20 minutes, slowing down as he/she passes groups of kids. You notice this while parked across the street waiting to pick up said kid. You’ve done this pick up for weeks/months. You’ve never seen this van before. Do you call the cops?

    1. If you show me some statistics about cap wearing, sunglass sporting, blacked-out-van driving felons being caught on the basis of someone calling in to report that they circled the block three times, then I’ll consider it. Otherwise, you’re just making nuisance calls to the police.

      I slow down whenever I go by a school or a group of children. It’s what you’re supposed to do.

    2. If you get close enough to the fence and you have a narrow enough lens you may be able to leave the fence out of frame. Sadly that probably looks more suspicious than taking pictures from the other side of the street as you have to be pressed right up against the links. I’m not sure if touching a private enclosure is already trespassing or if you have to actually climb over it first, though.

      And sometimes, the fence actually adds something to the photo. http://www.flickr.com/photos/cefeida/4962295599/ . You can’t assume the quality of the picture based on how it is being shot.

      As to your equation, isn’t it obvious to everyone that the more disguised you look the more attention you draw to yourself? Dark sunglasses and hats only work in cartoons. Real life villains try to look extremely ordinary.

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