Laptops and TSA inspections: Everybody's got a story

Readers recount their own tales of dealing with airport security

Trudy Walsh’s article on the travails of getting a laptop PC through airport security – and how using a butterfly-style laptop case could help – struck a nerve with some of our readers. Actually, it struck several nerves, some dealing with laptops and cases and some dealing with the Transportation Security Administration’s inspections themselves.

A couple of readers noted that their agencies require them to hand-carry their laptops when traveling, so Walsh’s personal solution of checking her 10-pound laptop with her baggage wouldn’t work for them.

“Most government agencies’ Rules of Behavior specify that you do not place your laptop in check baggage,” commented one reader. “You’re responsible for it.”

Frank C also cited concerns over baggage handling. “I've traveled both domestically and internationally and will not pack my laptop in checked luggage simply based upon the fact that it may not be in your luggage when you pick it up at your destination,” he wrote. “I had employees and peers relate incidents where they choose not to check a laptop and it simply disappeared. Maybe it was the make and model but most travelers tend not to sanitize their laptops when traveling. I would rather bear the inconvenience and know that my laptop is safe.”

So maybe having an old, 10-pound laptop is a defense against theft while traveling – extra weight equals better portability!

Federal employees have another complicating factor. “You think you have it bad. Try multiplying your problem times two,” wrote Tony. “Since fed employees are not allowed to utilize government equipment for personal use, I take my own laptop with me when I travel. Yes, I almost always get additional screening. I learn to arrive at the airport an hour before my flight.”

Walsh recounted how colleague Will Winton switched from a traditional briefcase —whose top half blocked TSA’s X-ray machines – to an X-ray friendly Solo CheckFast laptop bag from eBags.com, which can be placed butterfly style on the TSA conveyor belt.

“I recently switched from a briefcase to a backpack with a laptop pocket inside,” wrote Tony in Albany, N.Y. “Much better. I can leave the top of the backpack open when approaching the security checkpoint, nothing falls out. A quick reach inside gets the laptop out for screening and the backpack holds everything else. Coming out the other side, the backpack slings over one shoulder leaving hands free for shoes, etc.”

“From my experience (and some background in physics), the main problem with X-rays, [which] really triggers extra scrutiny, is the battery itself,” wrote CS guy in Chicago. “The lithium is generally a questionable element. Cadmium does not help also. If you have an extra battery for your laptop, DO NOT forget to take it out and put it with the laptop. Leaving it in your handbag or carry-on (or checked in luggage even) is an invitation for more security checks. It is not the laptop. And for profiling: have your iPhone in your ears, and Vogue or Newsweek in your hand and you are good to go... profiling is just silly, it is subjective.”

The right case helps, but apparently not always. “I have a bag that is supposed to be able to go right through security ‘butterfly style’,” wrote another reader. “It works at the major airports, but at Manchester, N.H., I had to take it out of the bag as usual, so this does not work at ALL airports.”

And then there is the inspection experience itself.

“I travel about 65 working days a year. Each trip’s pleasure includes a fun-filled trip through the TSA accommodations,” wrote Karl Norco of California. “I consider this my value-added part of the experience. Other than finding, and confiscating less than three ounces of toothpaste in a family size container, my experience with the TSA has been useless. That is unless you consider the bag they ruined when I forgot to take my laptop from my carry-on bag one trip. Now that experience was unique. With all the travel I do, I don’t really feel any safer with the TSA doing what it does. After watching what they do with my shoes, on the belt or in a container, I believe they’d be hard pressed to stop any misguided person from passing all sorts of things through their checkpoints.”

Others raised the question of who is searched. “I think the real issue is the ‘random’ searches they pull, where someone wins the lottery and gets pulled aside for extra checks before getting onto the airplane,” wrote Sarah. “It's stupid and does no good whatsoever. They are so afraid of profiling that I've seen them let six tough-looking Arab guys go though and then grab an 88+ year old white grandmother who could not even really hear them, and had no idea what was going on, to search. People in line got so angry, calling the TSA guys names and telling them to lay off, that they eventually just relented and let her go. What did that help? I'm sorry, but sometimes profiling works. Who is more likely to be a terrorist in that situation? If you play the numbers enough, odds are you will get a hit sometime, but not if you play them stupidly.”

Derek in Colorado, while noting that he’d never had a problem with his laptop – “It's the spare batteries, data cables, charger, etc. that seem to call out attention” – echoed the concern about profiling. “I agree with Sarah,” he wrote, “politically correct sensitivity to ‘profiling’ is stupid and counterproductive.”

And finally, there are always the people who manage to avoid trouble. “I've never had a problem with my laptop at airport security,” wrote Allen George. “I simply take it out of its travel bag and set it onto its own tray, then run that through the scanner ahead of the bag itself. Nothing bad has ever happened. I think that is what you are supposed to do, anyway.”

“I'm with Allen,” wrote Alan Arlington. “I remove the laptop from my laptop bag and set it in its own tray, perhaps with my BlackBerry beside it. The only issue I've had (since 9/11) was when an inspector noticed the laptop I was carrying had the PCMCIA doors removed, and was disturbed at the gaping cavity. Further inspection – partially – allayed his concerns.”

About the Author

Kevin McCaney is editor of Defense Systems. Follow him on Twitter: @KevinMcCaney.

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Reader comments

Mon, May 17, 2010

Old people also need to be scrutinized - possibly even more than normal. Just think about how easy it would be to convince a somewhat senile octogenarian that she dropped something that you wanted carried onto a plane. Perhaps something you didn't care to follow onto the plane...

Fri, May 14, 2010 mnm

On a recent flight I carried my iPad but had my big laptop in checked luggage. Because of a medical condition, I may have to take pills at any moment. Water may not always be convenient, so I carry a bottle of water with me. Most TSA agents accept my explanation and allow me to keep my water. On my most recent trip I was told that I could carry (opaque) orange juice, but not water. The agent insisted on taking my water and told me to buy (overpriced) water on the other side of the checkpoint. I asked if I could dump out the water and carry the empty bottle through the checkpoint, and then fill it from a water fountain. She said that there could still be some dangerous explosive residue in the bottle after pouring out the water. She would not explain how she could insure the innocence of an orange-colored fluid. I sure feel much safer now.

Fri, May 14, 2010 oracle2world

This is one area where being inconsistent, changing, and less than logical greatly enhances security through the unpredictable. And stuff that goes missing in the baggage? Shows that the baggage is really getting inspected. And I bet a WHOLE lot of stuff no one reports as "missing" ... wasn't exactly legal to transport in the first place.

Thu, May 13, 2010

TSA also worked diligently to ensure that the private Registered Traveler programs would fail. Whether this was due to a desire to prevent a contrast of their performance to a competitor with a desire to ensure a better customer experience or simply trying to preserve their monopoly that was issued by kneejerk legislative fiat, we'll never know.

Thu, May 13, 2010

The "cost" is only worthwhile if the countermeasures in question are driven by a relevant and updated threat model and selected from the range of tools and processes actually likely to mitigate the threat in question. The shoe carnival going on at airports and many of the other processes in use by TSA seem almost satirically tuned to create the appearance of security, without drawing from the lessons of professionals who have addressed airline security with far higher sustained degrees of risk. Many security professionals refer to the TSA's screening as "Security theatre" and for good reason. Uninformed members of the general public derive some comfort that the USG is "doing something." Too bad it's not as much about mitigating threats. There's a real cost to doing things effectively, but TSA has not been willing to enter in a genuine public dialogue about that. There are places with real airline security - Israel is a real example. To emulate them would involve some measures that I'd consider onerous (such as checking bags the day before a flight), and yet, I'd probably resent it less, as I know that it would actually be time spent improving the security posture. The use of behavior detection officers (BDO) is a relatively non-invasive tool, if and only if they are trained effectively. Profiling according to a real threat model would probably go farther than anything else to accomplish what I suspect we all want. Instead, what we get is harassment of anglo (for the lack of a better term) students carrying Arabic language flashcards. If we really want innovation, the USG should get out of the airline security business and allow the airlines to compete with measures that they deem appropriate, cost-effective and competitive. People flew for decades with no weapons screening and the world didn't end. When a majority of states liberalized their weapons carry laws, mass carnage was predicted. Given the utter failure of such a situation to appear, I'd probably feel safer on an airline where people with concealed carry permits could fly with personal sidearms than the expensive, dilatory and condescending screening in which we find ourselves today.

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