Jun 08 2020

TSA to take mug shots of domestic air travelers

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has officially although quietly announced that, as it has planned for years, its deployment of mug-shot machines at airport checkpoints will move from pilot projects to the new normal for domestic air travelers.

According to a Privacy Impact Assessment (PIA) released last week, the TSA plans to integrate facial recognition into the Secure Flight profiling, scoring, and control system used by the TSA and other linked agencies to decide who is, and who is not, “allowed” to pass through TSA checkpoints to exercise their right to travel by airline common carrier.

Cameras to photograph would-be travelers’ faces will be added to each of the stations at airport checkpoints where TSA employees and contractors currently scan would-be passengers’ travel documents (boarding passes and, if they present ID, ID documents).

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May 11 2020

Will courts finally make the TSA comply with FOIA?

The tenor of questioning by the judge in a Federal court hearing last week raises hope that the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) might soon be ordered to correct some of its longest standing and most systemic violations of the Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA).

It’s no exaggeration to say that, from its creation in November 2001, the TSA has acted with complete contempt for the FOIA law and the requirements that law imposes on the TSA and all other Federal agencies. Time after time, TSA failure to comply with FOIA has delayed, complicated, or completely frustrated our research and reporting on TSA policies and procedures, and has deprived the public of the opportunity for informed scrutiny and comment on what the TSA is doing, why, and with what effects on our rights.

One chronic problem is the way the TSA responds to FOIA requests for digital records.

Provisions of the FOIA statute that went into effect as part of the Electronic FOIA Amendments Act of 1996 —  years before the TSA came into existence — require that:

5 USC § 552(a)(3)(B)  — In making any record available to a person under this paragraph, an agency shall provide the record in any form or format requested by the person if the record is readily reproducible by the agency in that form or format. Each agency shall make reasonable efforts to maintain its records in forms or formats that are reproducible for purposes of this section.

When it set up its FOIA office and procured software for responding to FOIA requests, the TSA completely ignored this provision of FOIA. In a display of either gross incompetence or gross bad faith, the TSA and its parent the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) appear to have entirely omitted this legal requirement for production of records in any form and format in which they are readily reproducible from their procurement specifications and criteria for evaluation of proposals. Instead, the DHS and TSA standardized on the use of cloud-based FOIAXpress software that is designed to munge all records by converting them to rasterized images embedded in PDF files, regardless of the original file format.

There’s lots of other software that was, and is, capable of redacting files in native formats. But it’s impossible for any Federal agency to fulfill its FOIA obligations with respect to the form and format of production of records by using FOIAXpress. FOIAXpress should have been summarily eliminated from consideration for any Federal agency contracts as not capable of satisfying the EFOIA requirements. No Federal agency should ever have used it.

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Dec 05 2019

DHS postpones plan for mug shots of innocent US citizen travelers

Press releases issued today by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Sen. Edward Markey suggest that CBP and its parent agency, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), have cancelled or postponed, at least for now, their plans to require mug shots of all US citizens leaving, or returning to, the US.

But rather than admit that it has partially backed down or postponed some of its most offensive and intrusive plans in the face of public and Congressional outrage, CBP has sent reporters a statement alleging that our report breaking the story and others that followed contained “incorrect claims” about CBP plans:

We stand by our story.

Until this Monday, when we called attention to the official DHS/CBP notice, the officially-approved and officially-stated intent of the DHS and CBP was to propose rules requiring U.S. citizens on international flights to be photographed.

If “there are no current plans” for mandating mug shots of US citizens, that’s becuuse DHS and CBP plans changed this week in response to public and Congressional outrage and the likelihood that pursuing these plans now would derail DHS and CBP hopes for approval of its current facial recognition programs by airport authorities such as the Seattle Port Commission, which will consider the issue next Tuesday (and which had been misleadingly told by the CBP official responsible for the planned rulemaking that facial recognition would not be mandatory for US citizens).

The official DHS/CBP notice of planned rulemaking meant what it said. It was issued through a formal process of agency review. It wasn’t  a typo, a mistake, or issued by a “rogue” employee.

We vigorously contest the CBP assertion that our story contained any “incorrect claim”.

Such DHS and CBP allegations, in response to truthful reporting, only further discredit the DHS and CBP, and lower whatever little credibility they may have had.

Was this a trial balloon to find out whether the DHS had finally reached the limits of our willingness to be treated like criminals whenever we fly? And if so, has the DHS partially backed off, at least for now? Maybe.

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Oct 22 2019

9th Circuit upholds “no-fly” procedures & criteria

A 3-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld the government’s procedures and criteria for issuing “no-fly” orders against a complaint that the criteria (which are essentially “pre-crime” criteria based on predictions of future bad actions) are too vague to provide fair notice of what actions might lead to a “no-fly” order, and that the procedures do not provide the degree of procedural due process (notice of the accusations, an opportunity to see the evidence and cross-examine witnesses, etc.) required by the Constitution.

While the 9th Circuit panel left open the possibility of a challenge to the substantive grounds for a specific no-fly order, it upheld the government’s effort, in mid-litigation, to change the procedures for no-fly orders to keep challenges to no-fly orders out of U.S. District Courts and preclude any trial or adversarial or judicial fact-finding in such cases.

The 9th Circuit panel found that no-fly orders issued by the TSA under the current revised procedures are excluded from the jurisdiction of U.S. District Courts. TSA no-fly orders can be “reviewed” by a Circuit Court of Appeals only on the basis of a self-serving “administrative record” created by the TSA, and on the basis of a deferential standard that presumes the validity of the TSA’s fact-finding. The 9th Circuit panel did not address the Constitutionality of the applicable jurisdiction-stripping law, 49 U.S.C. § 46110, which is currently being challenged in the 1st Circuit in Sai v. Pekoske (originally Sai v. Neffenger).

The decision announced yesterday in Kashem v. Barr may be the worst appellate court decision against freedom of travel since the 2006 decision by the 9th Circuit Court in Gilmore v. Gonzales.

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Oct 02 2019

Do I need ID to ride a train?

We’ve been trying for years to find out what the real story is with respect to ID requirements for travel by train, especially on Amtrak.

Amtrak and Greyhound ID policies and practices are of paramount importance to the mobility of undocumented people and people who, whether or not they are eligible for or have chosen to obtain government-issued ID credentials, don’t want to show their papers to government agents as a condition of exercising their right to freedom of movement.

Amtrak and Greyhound policies and practices will become even more important if the government and/or airlines further restrict air travel by people who don’t have, or don’t show, ID credentials that comply with the REAL-ID Act.

The latest responses to our requests for Federal and state public records reveal more about passenger railroad policies and practices, but still don’t give a clear answer.

What we can say at this point, based on the records disclosed to us to date, is that:

  1. There are substantial discrepancies and contradictions between what the TSA has told Amtrak to do, what Amtrak tells its own staff about what is required, what Amtrak tells travelers about what is required and the basis for those requirements, and what Amtrak staff actually do. Those variations make it impossible to determine unambiguously what “the rules” are for Amtrak travel, or what is “required”.
  2. Some of Amtrak’s claims, including its claim that passengers are required by the TSA to have and to show ID to travel by Amtrak, are blatant lies.
  3. TSA Security Directive RAILPAX-04-02, cited by Amtrak in its employee manual as the basis for demanding that passengers show ID, requires Amtrak to “request” (not demand) that passengers show ID, but does not purport to require passengers to respond to such requests and does not prescribe any sanctions on passengers for failure, refusal, or inabiity to show ID.
  4. Amtrak has instructed its staff that “If the customer responds they are 18 or older and do not have valid identification, … the Amtrak police must be notified by the quickest available means away from the customer,” but also that, “Failure to possess the proper photo identification is not, by itself, sufficient reason to have the customer removed from the train.” Amtrak has not yet responded to our FOIA request for Amtrak Police policies and staff directives for what to do in such cases.
  5. Although Amtrak is unquestionably an instrumentality of the Federal government, and transportation by Amtrak is unquestionably a Federal government activity, the list of ID credentials deemed acceptable by Amtrak does not correspond to the list of forms of ID deemed by the DHS to be acceptable for “Federal purposes” pursuant to the REAL-ID Act of 2005.  Amtrak says it accepts several forms of ID that do not comply with the REAL-ID Act. None of Amtrak’s ID policies, procedures, or staff directives disclosed to date mention the REAL-ID Act or when or how it might be implemented by Amtrak, although records of such policies or of discussions related to them would be responsive to soem of our pending FOIA requests.

Where does this leave undocumented long-distance travelers, including those who turn to Amtrak as a government-operated common carrier of last resort?

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Sep 04 2019

US government blacklisting system is unconstitutional

In an opinion issued late today in Alexandria, VA, US District Court Judge Anthony Trenga has upheld the complaint by 23 victims of US government blacklisting that the system pursuant to which the government has designated them as “suspected terrorists” on the basis of secret algorithms applied to secret datasets, without notice or an opportunity to contest any allegedly “derogatory”  information, does not provide those who are stigmatized, and whose stigmatized status is broadcast to tens of thousands of law enforcement and other government agencies and private entities around the world, with the procedural due process required by the US Constitution.

This decision is one of the most fundamental victories for the rule of law since 9/11.

According to today’s opinion, it is undisputed that the DHS and FBI define anyone who has been arrested or charged with an offense related to terrorism as a “known” terrorist, even if they have been acquitted of that charge.  In other words, the DHS and FBI think that what is “known” is what they believe, not what judges or juries have found the facts to be. That presumption that by definition their secret judgements are more reliable than judicial fact-finding pretty much sums up why this decision is correct, why it is so important, and why it should be upheld if, as seems a near certainty, the government appeals.

None of the plaintiffs have even been arrested, much less convicted, for any criminal offense, terrorist or otherwise. The plaintiffs include, among others, several infants whom the government has apparently blacklisted as “suspected terrorists”. But even though the government will neither confirm nor deny that anyone is or is not, or has or has not been, included in the “Terrorist Screening Database” (TSDB), the court found that the plaintiffs have demonstrated sufficient basis for their belief that they have been blacklisted.

The government calls this database and decsion-making system a “watchlist”, but it is really a blacklist intended and used to determine adverse consequences for individuals.

The “No-Fly List” is only a subset of the TSDB, and not being allowed to fly is only a subset of the consequences of blacklisting detailed in the plaintiffs’ submissions to the court and the government’s admissions during discovery and depositions. The TSDB is used as the basis for a plethora of decisions, as the plaintiffs have experienced, from whether to have them arrested at gunpoint when they try to cross land borders  to whether to interrogate them for hours about their religious beliefs, seize their electronic devices for copying and forensic analysis of the data stored on them, deny them public or private-sector jobs, or close their bank accounts and deny them other fincial services.

The government’s use of secret criteria, secret datasets, and guilt by association as the basis for secret decisions — communicated to tens of thousands of other decision-makers, but not to those who have been blacklisted —  resembles the worst of McCarthyism, just with “terrorist sympathizer” or (literal) “fellow traveler” substituted for “Communist  sympathizer” or (ideological) “fellow traveler”.

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Aug 30 2019

3rd Circuit finds TSA checkpoint staff conduct “searches” and can be sued for misconduct

By a vote of 9 to 4, the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals has found that TSA checkpoint staff are “officers or employees” of the Federal government who “execute searches… for violations of Federal law”, and therefore that the US government is subject to private lawsuits for damages for  certain intentional torts by TSA “screeners” including “assault, battery, false imprisonment, false arrest, [and] malicious prosecution.”

The decision by the judges of the 3rd Circuit following rehearing en banc in the case of Pellegrino v. TSA reverses an earlier decision by a three-judge panel that would have given impunity to checkpoint staff for even the most egregious violations of travelers rights.

The language of the Federal Tort Claims Act and its applicability to TSA checkpoint staff are clear. The TSA’s strained attempt to exempt checkpoint staff from FTCA lawsuits should never have gotten this far.

But the TSA’s highest priority, ahead of protection of transportation safety or security, has always been the protection of itself and its  activities against judicial review.

Any lawsuit against the TSA or anyone associated with it is regarded by the agency as an existential threat to its assertion of unlimited discretion to define, by its own secret internal procedures, which people, possessions, and activities are and aren’t allowed at TSA checkpoints — as if the conduct to date of the TSA and its minions had earned the  agency the entitlement to expect and demand that travelers defer to its good judgement and self-restraint. The TSA doesn’t want to have to respond to allegations of misconduct by its employees, contractors, or law enforcement or industry “partners”. Nor does it want to have to explain or defend its actions in court. It wants all such cases dismissed out of hand.

In order to intimidate travelers into submission to its unlawful orders with a show of purported authority, while keeping itself above the law, the TSA’s takes a two-faced position that was its comeuppance in the en banc decision in Pellegrino v. TSA.

TSA checkpoint employees wear blue police-type uniforms and badges that identify them as Transportation Security “Officers”, while even the rent-a-cop contractors who staff TSA checkpoints at SFO and some other airports wear similar uniforms and badges prominently emblazoned with “TSA” insignia. They present themselves to travelers as though they were police, and they claim police-type (or even greater) powers to demand obedience to their orders and to search travelers and their personal property.

But the TSA always refers to these searches by the euphemism of “screening”, to avoid the obvious implication that as “searches” they are subject to the 4th Amendment to the US Constitution. In court, the TSA claims that these aren’t the “searches” meant by the provision of the FCTA which refers to officers or employees who “execute searches”.

In some cases, the TSA claims the right to search documents, papers, currency, and electronic data, which can’t possibly pose a direct threat to aviation safety or security, notwithstanding special statutory protection for many such items, “if criminal activity  is suspected” and even if the suspected crimes are unrelated to aviation safety or security.

But when its actions are challenged, the TSA claims that its searches are not conducted for general law enforcement purposes and thus are exempt from the FCTA provisions intended to hold those who conduct such searches legally accountable for torts (violations of civil rights) against individuals.

The 3rd Circuit judges took due note of these self-contradictory TSA claims, and of the consequences that would follow from accepting them as a basis for TSA impunity:

Consequences of Our Ruling

Before concluding, we note the implications of the choice before us. If TSOs [Transportation Security Officers] are not “investigative or law enforcement officers” under the proviso, then plaintiffs like Pellegrino are left with no avenue for redress. We have already held (and correctly so) that TSOs are not susceptible to an implied right of action under Bivens for alleged constitutional violations, see Vanderklok, 868 F.3d at 209, so a Tort Claims Act action is the only remaining route to recovery. Without recourse under that Act, plaintiffs like Pellegrino will have no remedy when TSOs assault them, wrongfully detain them, or even fabricate criminal charges against them.

We look forward to seeing at least some TSA checkpoint staff found liable for damages for these sorts of actions in the wake of the 3rd Circuit’s en banc decision in Pellegrino v. TSA.

Aug 05 2019

Questions about the REAL-ID Act

Fragmentary and jumbled records related to the REAL-ID Act of 2005 released by the US Department of Homeland Security in response to one of our Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) requests don’t reveal much about DHS policy, but do provide a glimpse of DHS practices and plans.

The DHS has been threatening to harass, interfere with, or bar access to facilities or passage through checkpoints (including, but not limited to, those at airports) to people who don’t have, don’t carry, or don’t show ID; show ID that the DHS doesn’t deem compliant with the REAL-ID Act; or show ID issued by states or territories that the DHS deems insufficiently compliant with the REAl_ID Act.

These threats to deny equal rights to residents of noncompliant states and territories have been central to the DHS campaign to extort compliance from state and territorial officials reluctant to upload their residents’ data to an outsourced, privately-held national ID database.

But what sort of enforcement problem, at what scale, is this likely to pose for the DHS and those collaborators carrying out its REAL-ID directives? How many people will be affected, at what sorts of facilities and locations, in what circumstances?  Inquiring minds want to know, including opponents of the REAL-ID Act like ourselves, but also including officials at DHS headquarters trying to devise a workable REAL-ID enforcement plan.

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Jul 25 2019

Can you “opt out” of TSA groping or virtual strip-searches?

Two recent decisions — one an administrative decision by the TSA,  and the other a judicial decision by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals —  have dealt with, but failed to resolve, the question of whether, in the face of unpredictable demands for more intrusive searches, an airline passenger can “opt out” if they decide they would rather abandon their attempt to board a flight than submit to whatever search TSA or contractor checkpoint staff demand.

The TSA has withdrawn its proposed administrative fine against Jonathan Cobb, a passenger who, when selected for a pat-down (manual groping of his body, including his genitals, by which he had previously been traumatized), chose to abandon his attempt to fly and left the airport. That’s good, but sets no legally binding precedent.

Meanwhile, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals has dismissed a petition filed by Jonathan Corbett seeking judicial review of the TSA’s policy of requiring selected passengers to submit to imaging of their bodies by virtual strip-search machines. That’s bad, but at least the decision was based solely on whether Mr. Corbett could expect to be selected for this sort of search, and left undecided whether these searches are Constitutional.

These decisions leave the law unclear in practice — even if the Constitution seems clear — as to whether or when an airline passenger can opt out of which sorts of searches.

How far can the TSA and its contractors legally go? How can tell if they are going too far? And when, if ever, can you “opt out” or say no to an escalated search?

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Mar 13 2019

US government blacklisting system is unconstitutional, victims say

The Terrorist Screening Database (TSDB) “fails to provide constitutionally sufficient procedural due process,” according to a motion for summary judgement filed this week in a lawsuit brought by people who have been placed on the TSDB blacklist.

We’ve been following this case, Elhady v. Kable, since it was filed in 2016. Discovery and depositions taken in the case, as well as leaks by whistleblowers while the case has been pending, have revealed an unprecedented level of detail about the operation of the blacklisting system, the inter-agency “Watchlisting Advisory Council” which overseas the blacklist, and the dissemination of blacklist information.

The TSDB is described euphemistically by the US government as a “watchlist”, but in reality it’s a blacklist. Individuals — including infants and children as well as adults, and US citizens and residents as well as non-residents — are subjected to adverse government and private action by having the government place them on the TSDB blacklist and disseminate this stigmatizing designation — with the intent that the designation will be used against listed individuals — to Federal, state, and local government agencies and  private entities.

The government has refused to disclose the criteria for TSDB listings, but has conceded that being listed does not require suspicion of having committed or intending to commit any crime. Listings are determined through a secret, extrajudicial administrative process, without those being blacklisted being notified or having any opportunity, before or after the fact, to know whether or why they are being blacklisted, what the basis  is for their blacklisting, or what the evidence against them is.

The case has survived multiple attempts by the government to have it dismissed on jurisdictional and procedural grounds and to avoid discovery and depositions.  Now the plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgement that the TSDB is unconstitutional is scheduled for oral argument on April 4, 2019, before US District Court Judge Anthony Trenga in Alexandria, VA.