TSA – Boarding passes and ID checks

Every time you fly now in the US (and other places) you have to run the gauntlet of uniformed, unionized, shelf stackers who are providing the front-line troops for the Theatrical Security Agency and their contemporaries.

You’d think they would stop folks getting to the gate without valid IDs and boarding passes wouldn’t you?

The recent discovery of a traveler managing to board a plane with someone else’s boarding pass got me wondering how simple it was to actually get past security and while you may get turned away before you board a plane it’s just another demonstration of how farcical a lot of this knee-jerk political posturing is.

It turns out back in 2006 someone launched a site to let you print fake boarding passes. Rather than do something about the problem the FBI shut his site down and subjected him to investigation, though all charges were later dropped.

In 2008 – two years later – the TSA had a self-congratulatory blog post about how they’re aware of the problems posed by photoshop and are working to introduce more secure barcodes… in some airports, for some airlines, for flyers who are using mobile check-in, rather than print-at-home boarding passes.

Now, in 2011 while I have seen evidence of these the problem seems to be that the TSO’s are not always sure what to do when presented with one and, even worse, the handheld scanners seem to be in such short supply that trying to use one (as I did recently) requires a wait while they try and get a scanner to the desk or give up and just waive you through.

So, we know the checks for the boarding passes at least to get you airside are a joke, but at least they’re checking everyone’s ID right?

Well… maybe not. In the US if you refuse to show ID or claim to have simply forgotten it then you can still get past, though you’ll be subject to more questions (though in the first example the guy was able to use a library card as ID) so in theory you could bypass that check as well.

Couple these loopholes with the TSAs less than stellar record of stopping folks getting through checkpoints without the means to harm their fellow travelers and we have a pretty sorry state of affairs.

So, what would it take to close these loopholes, or at least tighten things up to require a more sophisticated attack? At the very least every TSO station needs to have the ability to confirm – in real-time – the validity of a boarding pass. Is the passenger who’s details appear on the card match the ID, do the details match the flight manifest, does the type of boarding pass (print-at-home, airline issued) match what the system think has been issued (has the passenger even checked in for this flight) as well as supplemental information like have they checked luggage (an international passenger with just a paperback and no checked luggage for instance should warrant a little more examination), and the system has to be applied across the board for everyone passing the gate.

There seem to be a number of other loopholes – airline staff get by with just a wave of their airline credentials, as do TSA agents even when they don’t appear to be recognized by colleagues. How about a separate “staff” enterance for them to stop them being held up by regular passengers (or causing frustration by queue jumping – I know they need to get to work, but it’s frustrating having them turn up en masse and totally disrupt a lane) and what about the ground staff, both airport and airline personnel as well as the guys delivering bottles of water to the newsagent… what checks do they face before they get airside?

The TSA have an important job to do – keeping travelers safe – but they appear to be expending a lot of effort, even a decade after 9/11, on looking busy rather than actually creating a secure environment…. And it’s Tax dollars and rises in ticket prices that are funding it so the day we stop questioning it is the day we say we’re happy with the way they’re doing their job.

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