Jun 04 2009

Are there any rules at airport checkpoints?

We had a chance to ask some questions (starting at 55:00 of the video, although the entire panel is worth watching) of the TSA’s Chief Privacy Officer, Peter Pietra, when he showed up at the Computers, Freedom, and Privacy conference to talk about the SPOT program, under which roving teams of TSA agents watch people in airports for a (secret, of course) checklist of “suspicious” behavior, question some of those people, and finger some of them for more intrusive search or further questioning when they reach the “screening” checkpoints.

Petra claimed that, “There isn’t any search or seizure … until the checkpoint”, even if you decline to respond to questions from the SPOT teams or other TSA agents.  But, “At the checkpoint, it’s a different story … There’s a ‘special circumstances’ exception that would permit at least a reasonable search.”

But what does the TSA consider “reasonable”? In particular, once we get to the checkpoint, are we required to answer questions from the TSA?

“I don’t know,” Petra said.

If we decline to answer questions at a TSA checkpoint, does the TSA claim the authority to detain us, prevent us from traveling, or impose administrative sanctions?  Or is the maximum penalty for declining to answer TSA questions having to submit to a pat-down search and hand search of our carry-on baggage (“secondary screening”)?

“Once you get to the checkpoint, you have to ‘cooperate’ with screening.”

What does “cooperate” mean? Are there any guidelines that tell us what we are required to do to consitutute “cooperation” with screening at a checkpoint?

“I don’t know,” Petra again answered.

We asked Petra to try to find out, but we won’t hold our breath waiting for an answer.