Air Space

Jacob Appelbaum

The sunset on the flight from Reykjavík to Seattle is among air travel's most beautiful sights. Though Keflavík Airport is covered with clouds and rain, the people's spirits there are usually jovial.

The Iceland Air lounge has helpful staff—the welcome desk offers helpful tips on avoiding airport hassles and even provides free internet access. They'll help you read your boarding pass and even answer questions about all its confusing symbols. Should one ever be in the unfortunate position of having the dreaded 'SSSS' marked upon it, the help desk will suggest you wait until the exact boarding time before even approaching customs. They'll even apologize, as if they had any hand in the process.

And that was their recommendation to me, when I had it clearly printed on mine. It was not my lucky day.

I took the lounge employee's advice and left precisely when she suggested. My ticket was purchased by the Swedish government, which invited me to Stockholm to speak at its event on the internet and democratic change. It was upsetting that Sweden's government flew me over, and then the U.S. government—my government—used the Icelandic government to harass me on the way back. I have previously filed DHS requests for redress. Even after it promised to leave me alone, I am still subject to systemic harassment.

Outside of the lounge, the exit customs checkpoint is split into two parts. The first is an occasionally long and winding line, with a couple of officers stationed for passport stamping and various document-checking processes. They generally do not scan the passports handed to them by passengers. Their computers fully support every fancy security technology known to border control agents the world over. It is uncommon, as a light-skinned American or European passport holder, to even receive a single question when entering or exiting Iceland. After the passport is stamped, usually by request, passengers walk through a sliding glass door and into the second part of the customs checkpoint. This door is like a mantrap: it only opens when people approach it from one side. Once through, there is no turning back.

The second part of the checkpoint is another winding line that ends at a small podium. It is generally staffed by two women. The line splits in two thanks to the guidance of those little nylon barriers, familiar to anyone who has flown in the last decade. When a passenger reaches the podium, they pass their documents to whichever agent is free. The staff are quite pleasant, and they smile even when they notice a passenger that carries a mark of danger. It's the relaxed and calm Icelandic way; kind and friendly, with genuine warmth.

"You've been selected for security screening," the agent said to a passenger on the right side of the split. She handed the passenger a slip of paper marked with black text. The passenger was to follow the agent to an escalator, then escorted downstairs and out of sight. The passenger didn't question this process, and followed without comment. Three passengers in front of me passed the remaining agent without issue.

★ ★ ★

The system is not functional in the way that the security experts hoped it would be, and airports are often the worst in terms of pointless security theatrics. Millions of people the world over are constantly delayed, harassed and irradiated in the pursuit of some idea of security. Asking questions about the process is shut down by security agents, who claim they're just following orders. It is common to hear that secrecy is required for these processes, and that if one has to ask, one is not part of the privileged class that is welcome to an answer.

What would be fitting rewards for the people who design security checkpoints? The security industry has already received billions of dollars. Perhaps a Sisyphean reliving of their own work: but instead of pushing stones up hills, they must endure what millions of people now must undergo simply to move about the planet. After discussing this with other passengers, I often hear the joke that it wouldn't work unless they were also marked for extra special treatment. After discussing it with airline staff, they usually joke about a harsher punishment, but leave it unspecified.

Flight and detailed passenger information is sent to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for each passenger that flies to the U.S.; this happens even on a journey that has multiple stops in Europe. The Transportation Security Agency (TSA) is the arm of the DHS makes that makes these specific selections according to the agent who examined my boarding pass. The 'SSSS' marking on a boarding pass is part of a largely undisclosed process, with little transparency. "For security," you'll be told, if you ask. Whose security? The security of the people who can't design a transparent security system that passes a giggle test, that's who.

This culture of secrecy, endemic to most government security, is part of the reason that it's such an abysmal failure when faced with real security threats. For example, there's an interesting de-synchronization issue between the customs checkpoint and the top of the escalators. The guards at the podium are not trained as well as customs agents to spot false documents. Even if they were, they do not check against any real-time systems—handing them a different passport or simply a modified boarding pass would be a trivial task. An electronic document checking system wouldn't really change the fundamental problems with this kind of security processing.

★ ★ ★

With a forty-person line snaking behind me and only a single agent now checking documents, I felt guilty knowing other passengers were about to be delayed. I stepped forward. The agent warmly greeted me, then took my ticket and passport. She looked for the tell of how I was to be handled—is this person a dangerous terrorist? Is this person a security threat of some kind?

My security agent informed me of my unlucky pick of the random security straws, handed me the same half-sheet of paper, and instructed me that I should follow her. As I left, the man behind me—a friendly fellow American—asked what I'd done. I wanted to express my discomfort about his unfamiliarity with the process. I wanted to ask what he hadn't been doing. I felt like a jerk. It felt like blame-shifting.

Instead, I apologized for the delay and said nothing more. I already know it's not random. I already know that it is connected to a decade-long wave of authoritarianism—the same thing happened the last time I flew from Iceland to the United States and on many prior occasions. It happens to thousands of people every day—probably tens of thousands.

Unlike on one earlier occasion, however, I was not traveling with a member of Icelandic parliament. My only witnesses were strangers. I felt a pang of stress as we headed to the escalator; every passenger waited behind us, in the now-unattended line, for someone to return and to tell them they could cross an invisible barrier. It was my second time being detained in Iceland, and after more than a dozen detentions at the request of the U.S. government, I have to admit that I've been conditioned to take things in stride. Some people don't take to it as well. It's entirely understandable.

About halfway down the escalator, the agent apologised and let me know that I'd have to wait in the room until someone from the airline came to retrieve me. She also let me know that I wouldn't be allowed to shop, and another security check was now required. I knew this was going to happen and so had bought the new Bjork album, Biophilia, in anticipation of this entire security process. I highly endorse it—the new album, that is.

The two security agents, who were usually at the podium, crossed paths in opposite directions as we left. My escort let the other agent know that the line was waiting for her return. She smiled at me, then hurried up the escalator to the station.

Now, pretend for a moment that someone stuck in this process is actually a terrorist who wants to cause harm. How well is this system really going to work? It isn't going to work at all. The TSA responds to yesterday's threats today and then they tell other agencies what to do. Iceland is getting the short end of the stick here, and I'm just getting the stick.

After I confirmed my familiarity with their security process, my agent asked if I'd experienced this previously. I said that I was very acquainted with the process behind the glass doors ahead. She knocked on the door and an Icelandic man in his fifties greeted us.

After the glass door, there's a 2m-high wall not unlike a cubicle. Inside is where all of the security agents wait to search incoming passengers. A sign explains that this area is off-limits for photography. I inquired if I might photograph inside, but they said that it wasn't possible because of the rules. I also asked if I might write a review, and they said that would be fine, but only outside of the security screening area.

Two women stood behind a desk to the right. Four additional tables, two on the left and two against the far wall, took up most of the cube's remaining space. The right-most table held a machine where gloves and other objects are sampled for traces of chemicals such as as explosives. I've often wondered if these machines might also detect the cocaine rumored to be on a substantial amount of American money. I've experienced similar machines raise the alarm over black and white film in the past —always a joy.

I'm quite fond of Iceland. Even their security screening and detention areas are well done. The people running this secondary detention were hands down the friendliest of all security agents that I've ever encountered. I mean that. They're nice people, very calm, and not at all heavy-handed or rude. It's easy to see how the detainment here differs from one in Canada or the United States; perhaps the difference is that the only American in the process is the Suspected Terrorist.

Icelandic people have long memories, and this specially-locked and spacious room was filled with friendly and familiar faces. I placed my carry-on luggage on a flat metal table against the back wall and took off my overcoat. I was given a thorough, professional frisking. It's always awkward to talk about sensitive and private body piercings with a total stranger. The older agent frisking me understood my request that he not be too rough around my nipples. Luckily for me, I'd met most of these security agents previously and in a strange way, I felt like they weren't strangers at all. Is it possible to find oneself in a kind of Stockholm syndrome without constant exposure to your captors? Friendly faces and nothing to hide: what isn't to like about the process?

We discussed the TSA-approved locks on my bag; it was hilarious, in a frustrating sort of way. These locks, widely sold in stores and online, can be opened two different ways. There's a combination tumbler and a standardized lock, for which the TSA issues skeleton keys to security agents. Unfortunately, it turns our that while the TSA trusts foreign airports enough to rely on them to catch suspected terrorists, it does not trust them enough to provide them with these keys.

I asked the security agent if they had the key to the lock on my suitcase, and pointed out that I didn't. The agent was baffled by the idea of a lock whose owner did not have a key: Sir, isn't that your suitcase? Why yes, it is mine, but I don't travel with the keys, which means that security screeners have access to my belongings and I do not. The TSA, after all, reserves the right to search your luggage outside of your presence. If it were not for the approach to security embodied by the locks, I might suffer some property damage at the whim of some government agent when I'm not looking.

The Icelandic security agent explained that they just solve this problem by only searching luggage with the passenger present—no need for anything more complicated.

Thinking about the keys is a reminder to me of the futility and blindness encompassing the security process. I could fashion a set of keys from my very own lock should I be so inclined, as could anyone with some extra time or money. I find this even stranger than the all too obvious markings on my ticket. Does the TSA trust the Icelandic security process or not?

After that confusion was cleared up, my luggage was efficiently searched.

★ ★ ★

One might guess that the TSA thinks that this keeps the locks safer and limits problems caused by their poor security decisions. But that guess implies that the TSA thinks rationally about security. While there's no question that there are people involved who are rational, the institution is less than the sum of its parts. It is not a person, and as a body it is incapable of thinking in a cohesive manner. It is ruled by emotions rather than rationality. It offers little to no transparency and little to no accountability. It is a race to the bottom. But most of all, it is the embodiment of the deepest American fears about security failures.

That sting, as it is said by Tarantino, "is pride fucking with you." This is wrong and everyone knows it. Why do we persist with this nonsense? Why does America bully everyone else into following our flawed and stupid lead?

I don't believe that any meaningful statistics about this are published by the DHS. Only a few numbers are released to the press, through anonymous sources. The DHS certainly won't tell you about their tactics, though I'd be happy to tell you all about them. Their secrecy is not safe with me.

Certainly not after the number of times they've denied me a lawyer or a bathroom, or had to listen to inferences about prison rape suffered by people in my position. That class act is the face of our nation, as the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) wing of the DHS likes to say. Here, however, I was in another nation, and its face is quite different, even when executing the same useless gameplan.

★ ★ ★

I have to admit being happy to see another older gentleman I had spoken with during my last detainment in Iceland. He remembered me and we discussed how we'd met the last time. He asked how I'd been, and I was relieved to speak with him; he understood all too well the big picture behind what I was experiencing. Previously, he'd explained my situation to the aforementioned member of the Icelandic parliament. The layout of the detention room was explained to me again. He patted me on the back and was all smiles. I hope he gets a promotion.

After processing, one exits at the far left corner of the cube. There, a walkway guides travelers past twin bathrooms to the detention area—smooth sailing if a passenger makes it this far.

It is, hands down, the most welcoming detention area someone might visit, lacking any kind of nationalist propaganda. This is more than one can say about other airport detention facilities, such as Toronto Pearson's pre-clearance area. Operated by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) on Canadian soil, it's covered in flags and giant eagles. Everyone has a firearm.

I've met just a single nice person in half a dozen detainments in that airport. Those guys are also just following orders, but man, what a bunch of jerks. The small detention area in Reykjavík, by comparison, is downright relaxing. There are free bottles of water in a fridge, and usually a plate or four of cookies, snacks and condiments. There's even a nice little espresso machine, with a button that might produce an alright café latté. I've never managed to get this machine to make anything more than black coffee, but I admit that I didn't want to trouble the staff.

Frankly, I find it rather frustrating to do much other than apologize to them for how my country, the United States of America, imposes its own security politics onto an otherwise reasonable country.

I usually feel pretty depressed by the time I've collected a coffee and found a seat. On the other hand, one might see the entire process as not unlike a first-class lounge. High-priority people with some kind of Very Important Person status get to wait here. If you're in the room, you're somebody.

One of the people I met in the waiting area rationalized our mutual detention just so. I asked what he was "in for" and he laughed. It's gallows humor, but without the condemned man's relief at knowing the answer, or any information about a possible answer. He expressed concern about missing his flight and hoped that they would come to collect us soon. It was his first time.

I tried to comfort him by explaining the familiar process, only to feel horrible for rationalizing our experience in the framework of everything being OK. We were doing what we were told, we would make our flight, and we'd be fine when it was all over.

If anything, however, the process is proof of the opposite. Though we'd manage to leave the room, we could not leave the system that produced that room. In fact, the system that put us here wasn't in the process of ending at all. Quite the opposite—after boarding the plane, we'd fly towards at least two more checkpoints, more bag searches, more paperwork, and perhaps more frisking. We were headed straight into a modern surveillance state and were lucky to be getting free cookies at the halfway mark.

The friendly Icelandic security agent walked in my field of view. I asked him how his day was going, and invited him for a coffee. He declined the coffee but sat down between the two of us. Half a dozen other people, and a small child, were in the room. Each person passed the time in their own way. The agent and I had a brief chat. He asked how my Icelandic friends were, and if everything was alright with me. The angst-afflicted guy, sat closest to us, seemed dismayed at our conversation. I thanked the agent and he patted me on the back. Part of me feels entirely crushed by the kindness of people who are trapped in a machine that forces them to follow orders, even when they know better than the process. How could anyone be upset with them? They have a job, it's just part of their job, and they're doing the best that they possibly might hope to do. Part of me feels some hope that at least this process still has humans who think and feel—people who empathize and who are not overcome by the culture of fear.

When the Iceland Air representative came for us, the "first class" service continued. He called out for Seattle-bound passengers. We lined up in silence. The security agents lined the path to the door like a gauntlet, and as I exited the older gentleman reached out to shake my hand. I awkwardly fumbled my coffee and my bag around to free up a hand. He wished me good luck on my trip and with my life.

Holding up the line again, I thought.

Our little line made our way to the gate, escorted by security. At the ticket counter before the entrance to the jetway, we each handed over our boarding passes and passports. As expected, a small alarm on the computer rang out and I stole a glance at the screen. I'm not the fastest reader but I noticed that it said my name and that there was a "high priority comment" waiting for the gate agent. I asked what the comment was and if it was any trouble at all. Having never met these agents in the past, they were quite skeptical of speaking with me. The shame of the 'SSSS' marking reared its head again. They said that it was merely a way for them to know that I was already boarded; it was as if they had scanned my boarding pass a second time by mistake, the gate agent explained. As usual I was not informed about the reasons for any of this special treatment and as usual, I was not given an opportunity to correct information about myself in the system that controls my movements.

It doesn't feel good to watch someone make up utter nonsense on a whim, and yet that was the system's final manifestion. I was handed my boarding pass and passport and instructed to board the airplane.

I settled in and filled out my customs form, noting everything I'd purchased and reporting on my private life as the forms demand: where I'd been, where I would be staying, how much money I'd spent, why I had been traveling, and other questions that are no-one's business but my own. If I failed to do this perfectly, I'd be bothered more on a technicality. It is absolutely ridiculous.

My entire flight "home" was filled with stressful and negative thoughts. I wonder if I'll ever be able to land in my own country without a sense of anxiety. Will I ever have closure or clarification on more than a year of extended harassment, detainments, threats and even property seizure?

★ ★ ★

People often say to me "well, don't you know why this is happening to you?" and I reply that while we may all speculate, I have been refused official answers. The little official correspondence I received said it was probably a mistake. It took months and they assure me that things will be better someday, probably. I've been detained multiple times since that letter, both in the U.S. and abroad. The DHS won't share a copy of my files with me or my lawyers. It says that I have no right to know what is in them.

The redress letter suggests that even though nothing is wrong, I'll still be selected for "random" screenings. Consider what they tell us of safety and justice, and ask yourself: is it possible that a system full of such obvious and casual dishonesty will provide it?

Jacob Appelbaum is an independent computer security researcher and hacker. He is currently employed by the University of Washington, and is a core member of the Tor project. After working as a volunteer with WikiLeaks, he has been detained at airports more than a dozen times.

Photos: Jacob Appelbaum
Background image:
Polaroid frames: Sanami276
Layout: Rob Beschizza


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