TSA random secondary screening is trivial to dodge

An anonymous reader of Dave Farber's Interesting People list has discovered a glaring flaw in the TSA's protocol for secondary screening:

today at newark airport i used a paperless electronic boarding pass on my cell phone (as i usually do). i got through the id check, stripped down to my skivvies (almost), and as i was about to walk through the magnetometer (they still have those at united newark), they were yelling out that they were checking boarding passes, take them along through the mag.

i said, it's on my phone, you really want i should take my phone through the mag?

they said "no, only take your paper boarding passes".

huh? sure enough, if you said you used a mobile boarding pass, they believed you (anddidn't even look at it (of course, only another scanner could really verify its authenticity.)

so after a bit of conversation, i found out that they were checking the paper boardingpasses to check for the dreaded four esses, meaning "secondary screening". if you are randomly selected for secondary screening at checkin, they currently won't issue you an electronic boarding pass, you have to do a manual check-in.

so now they have created a situation where someone selected for secondary screening can get through the id check with their paper boarding pass showing the SSSS, and then, when they reach the mag where the screening would occur, simply lie, saying they are using an electronic boarding pass to avoid secondary screening.

the latest in TSA improved stupidity equips people to avoid a secondary search

(Image: ssss.JPG, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from jcortell's photostream)


    1. The fraternally colloquial, in-group reference for a number of Mexican associates.

      e.g. “…i (sic) found out that they were checking the paper boarding passes to check for the dreaded four esses (of the apocalypse).”

  1. Please, don’t talk about “random” screening – it’s so not random, it’s not even funny how they keep pretending it is. The first three times I flew from UK to the US, alone, with a non-UK passport, I was “randomly” selected each time. After that, nothing. 

    Back to TFA, I don’t think that’s a big deal – they can just check the pass before the scan.
    What is *really* silly is that electronic passes will clearly never have any SSSS, just to make them even less random. Which means I know what pass I want next time I’m in the US :)

    1. I wish the lottery were as “random” as TSA secondary screening.  I’d be too filthy rich to be bothered with conventional air travel.  Which is to say, getting SSSS on my boarding pass isn’t random at all, it’s every damned time I fly.

  2. Pfft. My story is simpler. Simply get out of line. Once I was flagged for security at SFO, and was told to get walk through this area that was between the normal line and the wall. Once I got the end, a velvet rope stopped me, and next to me was the rest of the people without a velvet rope and a sign saying “wait here for the next machine.” After waiting about 10 minutes with no  one helping me, I cut into the front of the other line and had to wait another 20 minutes to get through the entire search process. Meanwhile, some other passenger shows up at the and the TSA dude gets him, puts him through the puffer machine, and his bags through a dedicated x-ray machine. He’s done in 5 minutes.

    The joke was one me, because if I stayed in the security line, I could have gotten through the line faster. 

    This isn’t an unusual occurance, and I remember reading that volunteering for extra security is aone way to get through the checkpoint faster.

  3. This method won’t work if you actually have a “SSSS” on a boarding pass.  The document checker is suppossed to call for another officer to escort a passenger to the back once they see the “SSSS”.  The second check you described was most likely TSA doing “secondary screening” in order to make the rest of the sheep in line with you feel more secure.

    1. I think you may be missing the point here.  As I read it, the boarding pass is checked for all passengers in one place, but the decision on whether to do an extended search in another place – at which spot a simple affirmation that the boarding pass is on a phone is enough to evade searching.

      This is somewhat similar to the revelation some time ago that a check of ID vs name on boarding pass was done in one place, and a check of no-fly list vs name on boarding pass in another place – but at no time was the no-fly list checked against the passenger’s ID.  So anyone on the no-fly list could just print two boarding passes: one with the correct name for validation against ID, and another with a false name for validation against the no-fly list.

      1. When you are preselected for additional screening 4 large S are printed on your boarding pass.  When you first hand over your boarding pass the 4 S’s are one of the primary things the travel document checker is looking for.  The second check mentioned above is just to added security in case the first person missed the SSSS.

        That being said you could always do what you mentioned in your second paragraph and get through no problem.

    1. but can’t you just print your boarding pass yourself? (and possibly change the screening code)

  4. They’ll probably change procedures sooner or later.

    Gee, if the point was to avoid going through rapiscan, why not just fault the machine?  

    TSA’s usual procedure if the machine is faulty is do an alternative screen.  Usuaully with a huge line, they might even just skip the screening process and let some people through.

      1. Are acts of congress no longer capitalized? Oh well, they were in 1917, when I was your age.

  5. Let’s say you try this and do get asked to see your electronic boarding pass. Can you say strip search/no fly list/felony charges?

    1. Drain the battery before you travel.

      Oh rats, I could have sworn it had almost a day’s worth of power left.  This is most inconvenient, I’m sorry.

  6. So are the “four esses” related to the mysterious “derogatory security profile”? 

    I feel as though I should be typing this question on an unregistered samizdat typewriter.

  7. I wonder if anyone simply just told a screener, “You know, you really don’t have to do this.”

    I mean, not in a belligerent manner, but gently. Just open their minds to the fact that one always has a choice, no matter the consequences.

    1.  And I suspect that if your average screener had the capacity to question anything at all, that they would have not been hired in the first place (or be able to stay at the job for any significant amount of time).  TSA isn’t exactly looking for “free thinkers”…

  8. This was written and it’s being talked about as if the TSA’s main purpose is actually the security of airline passengers.

        1.  I’d love to see a challenge to this idea, like the locksmith challenges you hear about, except for confidence tricksters.

          Penn Jillette vs. TSA loud-speaker. That’d be a hoot.

          Of course, you couldn’t advertise ahead of time.

      1.  The drug war.  The nude-o-scopes are less effective against the “real” threat but more effective against drug mules.

      2.  The TSA conducts security theater performances.  It does that quite well.

        The TSA was thrown together in one tearing hurry, it’s main function was to make it look like the govt. was doing something about terror in the skies.  Looked at as an exercise in  hominid psychology it works beautifully.  Looked at as an attempt at actual security it fails miserably.

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