Apr 14 2021

More support for court challenge to TSA impunity

Two months ago, the last time we checked in on Sai v. TSA (now Sai v. Pekoske) —  the landmark challenge to the TSA’s attempt to avoid ever facing a Federal trial over its checkpoint procedures —  the disabled, pro se plaintiff had been given what seemed an impossibly short deadline by the 1st Cicruit Court of Appeals to file “hypothetical” objections to whatever “orders” the TSA might have issued that adversely affected them, without knowing what those orders might be.

Since then, we are pleased to report, things have been looking up for Sai and for all those who would subject the TSA to the rule of law.

Jonathan Corbett, Esq., who has brought a series of lawsuits against the TSA on his own behalf and that of his clients, stepped in to represent Sai pro bono, and got a small extension of time.

Of necessity given the limited time and resources, the brief filed on Sai’s behalf on April 2nd greatly narrows the issues presented. But it continues to challenge the TSA’s claim that its checkpoint procedures can’t be challenged or brought to trial in U.S. District Court, but can only be “appealed” to Circuit Courts where no fact-finding can be conducted and what constitutes the “record” to be (deferentially) reviewed is defined by the TSA itself. Sai also continues to challenge the TSA’s attempt to withhold self-defined “Sensitive Security Information” from disclosure in response to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.

Further strengthening Sai’s case against TSA impunity from trial or judicial fact-finding, the Institute for Justice — which is moving forward with its own challenge to systematically lawless TSA practices — has intervened in Sai’s case against the TSA with a friend-of-the-court brief and a request to participate in oral argument before the Court of Appeals.

We fully endorse the latest arguments made by both Sai and IJ, and look forward to having them given the consideration they deserve by the 1st Circuit panel.

Apr 12 2021

Connecting the DHS to the airline industry

A Request For Information (RFI) posted on a website for Federal government contractors gives a glimpse into the degree to which the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has embedded itself into the information technology infrastructure of the airline industry.

The RFI for Services to Electronically Transmit Airline Data was posted April 5, 2021, by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP). Responses from potential vendors are due by April 19, 2021.

CBP says it is “conducting market research to gain a greater understanding of the full range of available options for services for obtaining names and related information of passengers who are arriving and departing the U.S. on commercial airlines.” Although the RFI was put out by CBP, which surveils and controls international air travel and cargo transport to and from the US, it appears to contemplate integration with the parallel systems used by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) for data-driven surveillance and control of domestic US air travel as well.

According to the RFI:

CBP is evaluating transmission options for air carriers to use in compliance with these requirements.

  • The vendor must have established connectivity with the airline community.
  • The vendor must be able to test and certify with the air carriers, the vendor, CBP and TSA as required.

For those unfamiliar with the “parallel universe” of airline IT and data communications networks, this RFI might best be conceptualized by analogy to the specifications for the equipment — revealed by whistleblower Mark Klein — that was installed in the facilities of AT&T and other telecommunications companies to provide real-time copies of message data to the National Security Agency (NSA).

While the NSA receives metadata about the movements of our messages in the form of telephone calls, email messages, Web browsing, and other Internet traffic, CBP receives metadata about the movements of our physical bodies, whenever we travel by air, in the form of, according to the RFI,  “Passenger Name Records (PNR), air cargo manifests, advance passenger information (API), passenger manifests, and other airline-related data.”

The TSA receives a similar but somewhat different dataset of all domestic airline flights in the form of Secure Flight Passenger Data (SFPD).

The RFI requests information from vendors that already have  “an available global private network primarily used by the aviation industry to enable the aviation industry to send/receive API, PNR, and other information to CBP and other entities.”

The gateways provided by these vendors would also, presumably, position these vendors to serve other governments wanting to surveil and control air travel while using common gateways to connect to airlines without having to connect to each airline separately.

As the NSA did with telecommunications companies, CBP embeds itself in vendors’ data centers and message switching hubs:

The contractor shall provide the following to permit the electronic transmission of airline data to CBP’s computer network and host systems:

Provide Ethernet Internet Protocol (IP) connections to the contractor’s private global network. CBP routers are located on vendor’s premises. Contractor provides physical space at their datacenter(s) to include ¼ communications rack to house DHS/CBP co-located equipment that connects to the contractor’s private global network.

Unlike the “black boxes” installed in AT&T and other telecommunications and Internet switching centers to send mirror copies of messages to the NSA, the CBP/DHS connection to the global airline reservation cloud is bidirectional. The role of the DHS is not limited to passive surveillance, which would require only a unidirectional data feed.  DHS exercises positive permission-based prior restraint and control of the issuance of each boarding pass, which requires reliable real-time transmission of Boarding Pass Printing Result (BPRR) permission messages from DHS to airline check-in counters and Web check-in systems worldwide.

Currently, each airline has the option of connecting directly to CBP for bi-directional  transmission of PNR and API data and receipt of BPPR messages through a virtual private network using CBP-specified protocols and vendors, or connecting to DHS through one of two vendors approved by CBP to act as intermediaries: ARINC or SITA.

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Apr 08 2021

TSA posts video showing how you can fly without ID

For years Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials and their state government collaborators have been repeating the big lie that all airline passengers must have government-issued ID credentials. That lie has been included in TSA and DHS press releases, airport signage, and Tweets from the official DHS and TSA accounts.

This public relations lie has been disclaimed, over and over, in TSA and DHS court filings and sworn testimony. But now it has been contradicted on the TSA’s official Twitter feed.

Tonight the TSA Tweeted a video showing some of the ways you can fly without “acceptable” ID or without any ID at all.

If the TSA deems your ID “unacceptable”, you can still fly if you can show two or more pieces of suitable (according to the TSA’s ecret non-rules) although “unacceptable” ID.

The TSA video also shows that even if you have no ID at all, you can fly if your answers to questions relayed by phone by the TSA’s ID Verification Call Center match the information in the (secret) file of information that has been linked to you by the commercial data aggregator Accurint (originally part of the discredited “Total Information Awareness” program but now a division of Lexis-Nexis).

No ID at all, much less “acceptable” ID,  is actually required to fly. So changes in REAL-ID Act regulations or TSA/DHS orders to airlines as to what ID is “acceptable” are irrelevant to whether you have right to fly without ID. Nothing in the REAL-ID Act negates this right.

In the screengrab above (one minute in), the video) shows a traveler filling out a copy of TSA Form 415, “Certification of Identity”. The TSA has been using versions of this form illegally since at least 2008, without ever having obtained the approval from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) required before any collection of information such as this by a Federal agency. The TSA has twice said it intends to seek approval from OMB for Form 415. But in the face of our objections, the TSA has yet to request, much less obtain, that approval. It’s unclear whether when the TSA will actually do so.

To avoid having to give public notice of its planned information collection or respond to our objections, the TSA tried to get Congress to enact a special airport exception from  the Paperwork Reduction Act (PRA). But Congress declined to do so.  It’s unclear whether and if so when the TSA will actually apply to OMB for the required approval, or what additional illegal actions it may try to take in the meantime.

All use of both Form 415 and the associated questioning of travelers continues to be in violation of the PRA. As we noted in 2008 when the TSA first started asking travelers to fill out the form later labeled Form 415, the PRA provides an absolute defense against any sanctions the TSA might try to impose for refusing to fill out this unapproved form or cooperate with the TSA’s “20 questions” game of ID verification security theater.

Travelers can and should say no. Fly without ID, and exercise your right to remain silent.

Apr 07 2021

4th Circuit panel rejects rights to travel and to due process

In one of the worst court decisions on the right to travel since Gilmore v. Gonzales,  a three-judge panel of the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals has reversed the decision of a U.S. District Court that  the U.S. government’s system of extrajudicial administrative blacklists (euphemistically and inaccurate called “watchlists” although the consequences for the people who are listed include much more then merely being “watched”) is unconstitutional.

The decision comes in a class-action lawsuit brought on behalf of blacklisted Muslim  American travelers in 2018 by the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR). It folows a disturbing trend of decisions in similar cases by courts in the 6th Circuit and the 10th Circuit.

According to Gadeir Abbas, the CAIR attorney who has led the national campaign of lawsuits (many others of which are still pending) against post-9/11 blacklists, CAIR plans to petition for “rehearing en banc” by the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals:

A three-judge panel on the Fourth Circuit reversed a historic U.S. District Court decision that declared the entirety of the watchlist unconstitutional. In doing so, the judges ignored the dire consequences experienced by American citizens placed on the watchlist and took a dim view of what the Constitution requires. We are disappointed in this decision, but we remain undeterred. The fight is not over. CAIR will now ask the entire Fourth Circuit to review the case.

The 4th Circuit panel gets off on the wrong foot by declaring that it is reviewing a challenge to a “system vital to public safety”, despite the absence of any finding by the District Court to that effect or any evidence in the record to support such a claim. In fact, watchlists/blacklists are based on anything but actual dangerousness. If an individual were actually demonstrably dangerous, the government could and should either arrest them or apply to a court for an injunction restricting their dangerous actions. But the government has never done that with any of the people it has blacklisted.

The 4th Circuit panel opinion is dismissive of almost every aspect of the right to travel or of due process. It finds that government-imposed travel delays of hours or perhaps even days aren’t sufficient interference with the right to travel to constitute a legally-cognizable infringement of the right to travel, and that denial of air transport is Constitutionally insignificant because, “Plaintiffs can travel internationally by boat.”

Despite acknowledging that the blacklists/watchlists were “created by executive order” and not by any Congressional action, and that the Terrorist Screening Center “receives around 113,000 nominations annually and around 99% are accepted,” the 4th Circuit panel finds that no judicial review of these decisions is necessary.

Relying on an outdated history of entry and exit procedures when an intercontinental journey took weeks, and a delay of hours or days would only lengthen the journey time by a small percentage, the 4th Circuit panel brushes off the detention (in many cases at gunpoint), interrogation, and search of the plaintiffs. “Delays and inconveniences at the borders are… as old as the nation itself…. The experiences alleged by plaintiffs do not rise to the level of constitutional concern…. Given the government’s broad power to control movement across the nation’s borders, the burdens experienced by plaintiffs are not infringements of  ‘liberty’ within the meaning of the Due Process Clause.”

We join CAIR in looking forward to en banc rehearing and reversal of this ill-founded decision.

 

 

Apr 05 2021

Can TSA checkpoints be used as a general law enforcement dragnet?

Airline travelers who were searched at Transportation Security Administration (TSA) checkpoint for cash and other items unrelated to any threat to aviation are entitled to their day in court, according to the first significant ruling by a Federal judge in Pittsburgh in a class action lawsuit filed a year ago.

The class action complaint in Brown v. TSA was brought by the Institute for Justice on behalf of all air travelers whose cash was seized at TSA checkpoints. It charges that searches at TSA checkpoints for “general law enforcement purposes” that aren’t limited to searches for weapons, explosives, and incendiaries that could pose a danger to aviation are (1) “ultra vires”,  that is, outside the scope of any authority granted by law to TSA checkpoint staff, and (2) unconstitutional as warrantless, unreasonable searches and seizures prohibited by the 4th Amendment.

The TSA and Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) defendants tried to get the court to dismiss the complaint on such specious grounds as that the dozens of incidents of seizures of air travelers’ cash described in the complaint were merely “isolated incidents” unlikely to be repeated, and that a Federal law that has often frustrated judicial review of TSA actions, 49 U.S.C. § 46110, denies any Federal District Court jurisdiction to even consider such a complaint.

After review of initial recommendations by a Federal Magistrate, U.S. District Judge Marilyn Horan has denied most of the government’s motions to dismiss the class action complaint, allowing the case to move forward toward a decision on the merits.

As we noted when we first reported on the filing of this lawsuit, its importance extends well beyond the specific issues of searches and seizures of cash. This is one of two key pending lawsuits (along with one filed by Sai that’s pending in the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals with friend-of-the-court briefs due to be filed by the end of this week) challenging the TSA’s attempt to expand its checkpoints from limited special-purpose administrative searches for items posing a hazard to aviation to general law enforcement checkpoints like the “4th Amendment-free zones” at international borders and points of entry.

There have been, and continue to be, strong pressures from within the Department of Homeland Security and from other law enforcement agencies to use TSA checkpoints for an even wider range of general law enforcement purposes. That would create a new airport exception to the 4th Amendment, based on treating travel as presumptively grounds for suspicion (and thus subject to search and/or seizure) rather than the exercise of a right.

We are pleased to see this case go forward as an important test of the limits to the TSA’s authority, the meaning of the 4th Amendment, and the existence of a right to travel.