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Thu, Jun 12, 2003

TSA Isn't At Fault, Again

It's That Lousy Software They Bought

If it sounds like a duck, it must be a doberman. The TSA's attempts to automate security have met with varied success: some attempts have failed; some have failed miserably.

One of the latest in a long line of unbroken stupid moves that the expensive, yet bumbling police force has had blow up in its face, is its flagging system, designed to tag names of "terrorists" by the sounds of their names. Qadaffi, Khadafi, Gudafi -- they are spelled so differently, yet sound nearly the same -- the TSA bought some software that's supposed to reduce even further its employees' need to think, and is supposed to identify similar-sounding names.

The problem is, it's not very good. A San Francisco Chronicle article by Alan Gathright ran last Sunday, and notes, "...the U.S. government and the airline industry are relying on software so outdated that it can't distinguish between the last name of terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden and punk rocker Johnny Rotten Lydon." Laden, Rotten; Laden, Lydon -- they all sound kinda alike.

The problem is, the software tags a lot of "suspects" who shouldn't be wasting your tax money getting humiliated in the search rooms. People don't like the intrusion in the first place; they're doubly-insulted when an obviously stupid mistake is being used to justify the delay and inconvenience. Osama doesn't look anything like Johnny, and would no doubt be offended the the thought that he would be suspected of being a punker.

The TSA says it's only trying to do its job, and it's the software's fault. The TSA, of course, bought the software...

To be fair, part of the trouble isn't the TSA's. The Orwellian-named "Patriot Act" says that all Americans are to be treated as equally-capable of being terrorists, regardless of the demographics of known terrorists. Thus, the Act itself has forced a lot of stupid waste into the system, in the name of avoiding the appearance of profiling -- which is probably the best way to narrow the search.

Time spent strip-searching your grandmother, of course, can't be spent searching the swarthy young sweaty guy, carrying a taped-up cardboard box, who wasn't "randomly chosen" for a search. Oh, well.

The TSA has noted, though, that if a particular "suspect" is so repeatedly detained that it's becoming a nuisance, that person can be put on a special "fly" list, and taken off the "no-fly" list. How many have received that distinction has not been made public.

Next Spring, when CAPPS II (computer-assisted-passenger-profiling-system) comes fully on-line (so far, only Delta and Song are using it, to help the TSA gather performance data), our credit reports will tell the TSA if we're terrorists or not, despite the fact that better than 10% of credit reports are invalid on one or more critical data points.

TSA spokeswoman Heather Rosenker told the Chronicle's reporter, "We acknowledge that security threats change and TSA needs to have -- on behalf of everyone who flies -- the best possible system in place that gives equal measure to privacy and security." She admitted, "What is currently being operated by the airlines does not reach that goal." [Pity, the "best possible system" ignores the Fourth Amendment.]

Even if the sortware worked, and the long-and-getting-longer list of "suspects" were miraculously correct, we probably wouldn't see a change in results. The Chronicle revealed, "Nationally, the FBI cannot cite a [single] terrorist who's been captured because of the no-fly list." Apparently, it's the appearance of security that matters to Congress, and the ability to spy on the locals, that matters to the rest of government.

One of the writers of legislation that continues to let the TSA romp on regular people, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR, above), told the paper, "What this debate is really going to be all about is: How does government come up with a strategy that allows us to fight terrorism ferociously without gutting our civil liberties?" For starters, try, "effectively," rather than "ferociously," Senator...

FMI: www.fbi.gov; www.tsa.gov

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