What are the rules concerning airline passenger identification by TSA?
Although TSA refuses to publish all the rules they require passengers to follow at airport checkpoints, from what we can distill from TSA press releases, heavily-redacted information obtained via FOIA
requests, TSA blog posts, and other information they publish on the Web, it's relatively clear
that your boarding pass is all the documentation that's ever required for domestic flights. It seems
that passengers are not required to present documentation of their identities to TSA staff, and that doing so is not a condition of crossing the TSA checkpoint, but rather is an option which allows passengers to cross the checkpoint with a less-thorough search of their belongings and fewer questions to answer.
TSA doesn't publish the rules they require us to follow, but the Freedom of Information Act should allow us to see those rules, right?
TSA's FOIA officer, Kevin J. Janet, doesn't seem to think so.
In June, 2009, I placed a FOIA request for TSA's Screening Management Standard Operating Procedures Manual, which upon their request, I clarified to mean, "a written description of procedures [TSA's] staff use at airport checkpoints when searching and interrogating people who are stopped by [their] staff at those checkpoints." I wanted to know how our federal airport security guards are instructed to do their jobs of ensuring compliance with the rules passengers are required to follow in order to avoid having their movement restricted. Nearly 13 months later, after much stalling and repeated reports that my request was undergoing various review processes, my request was denied in full
TSA refuses to let us read the rules they require us to follow. So what do we know about their I.D. policies?
According to a 2008 press release from TSA
, TSA's airport passenger identification policy changed on June 21, 2008, but "showing I.D." was seemingly not required before and is seemingly not required now.
Prior to June 21, 2008
Before June 21, 2008, the situation seemed to be: In order to proceed to the "secure area" of an airport after being stopped at a TSA barricade, each passenger must submit to a pat-down and search for metallic objects using a hand-held metal detector, along with a hand-searching of any carry-on baggage, unless
he presents documentation of his identity (i.e., unless he "shows I.D."), in which case he must submit only to a search for metallic objects on his person via walk-through metal detector and search of any carry-on baggage using an X-ray machine.
In other words: back then, showing I.D. simply got you a less-thorough search than you'd otherwise receive.
Beginning June 21, 2008, the situation seems to be: Each passenger still has the option of showing I.D. and participating in the less-thorough searches (walk-through metal detector and X-raying of carry-ons), but the alternative now involves not only being thoroughly searched for dangerous items, but also identifying oneself verbally and participating in an interrogation intended to verify one's identity (via phone call from Homeland Security headquarters). Chillingly, it seems from the aforementioned TSA press release
that this alternative also requires that someone be "cooperative with officers". What that cooperation entails is not defined.
Initial reports from TSA indicated that while people who claimed that their government-issued I.D. card was misplaced or stolen would be allowed to take the alternate route through the checkpoint (with the questioning), those who willfully refused to show their papers would be barred from proceeding. It's unclear whether or not this is still the case, or if it was ever the case, as TSA's initial press release seems, based on information received from TSA via Freedom of Information Act request, to have been inaccurate
Summary of present situation and how to exploit it
In short, best we can tell, complying with TSA's "papers, please!" request is not necessary in order to fly domestically, it's simply a way to avoid the hassle of a thorough search for dangerous items, the hassle of providing convincing information in support of your claim to be who you say you are, and having to cooperate with TSA airport staff in any manner they see fit.
This is a great system for people who wish to do harm in airports or on airplanes, since getting a falsified identification document (i.e., a "fake I.D.") is relatively simple, and presentation of one almost guarantees that TSA staff will look at someone with less scrutiny, making it easier for him to take weapons, explosives, or incendiaries past the security checkpoint. Even if TSA could detect such fraud with perfect accuracy, using the Carnival Booth Algorithm
, terrorists can probe an identity-based security system like TSA's by sending a number of people on harmless trips through the system, noting who is flagged for extra searches and who isn't. Then they can send those who aren't flagged -- people who almost certainly will get through security with a less-thorough search -- on terrorist missions.
Why does TSA want to identify us? What's wrong with them doing so?
This isn't about your safety. It's about control -- a few people's control over the rest of us.
The primary reason that TSA wants to know who you are is their desire to restrict people's movement based on Homeland Security blacklists. As did every government that has imposed totalitarian rules, TSA repeatedly tells us that their freedom-restricting policies are about safety, security, and rooting out subversives. Of course, this policy is really about extra-judicial punishment, allowing our executive branch of government to sidestep our judicial branch and punish someone for any reason or no reason at all. That's not the way things are supposed to work in the United States. It's ripe for abuse, and it's an infringement on our freedom.
For more on showing I.D. in the general sense, please see the Identity Project's "What's Wrong With Showing I.D.?" page