Skip to the front of the airport security line

Attempts to assert your right to fly sans ID can be frustrating, due to TSA and airport officials not knowing their own rules. With any luck, this should no longer be the case.

Chris Soghoian
Christopher Soghoian delves into the areas of security, privacy, technology policy and cyber-law. He is a student fellow at Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet and Society , and is a PhD candidate at Indiana University's School of Informatics. His academic work and contact information can be found by visiting www.dubfire.net/chris/.
Chris Soghoian
3 min read

Attempts to assert your right to fly without ID can often be very frustrating, due to Transportation Security Administration and airport officials not knowing their own rules.

With any luck, this should no longer be an issue because the TSA has, at last, clarified things.

Passengers with tickets for domestic flights are under no obligation to present ID to TSA. Passengers may be required to show ID to airline employees, but that is a contractual matter between the airlines and their passengers. U.S. government employees cannot, however, require you to show ID in order to pass through the security checkpoints.

Poster at Burning Man '06 Christopher Soghoian

I have personally flown over a dozen times without showing a single form of ID. A number of others have documented similar success stories. Unfortunately, some TSA employees are not aware of their own rules, and at times, have forced passengers to produce ID. Blogger Jake Appelbaum has documented one such experience. Something similar happened to me earlier this year when TSA agents brought over an airport police officer who then compelled me to produce an ID.

The 9th Circuit Federal Court of Appeals clarified a passenger's right to travel without showing ID in its ruling in Gilmore v. Gonzales. Expecting that a TSA screening agent be able to parse a court opinion is often a losing battle. It is for that reason that I've spent the last few months sending letters back and forth to TSA, via my senator, which at least guarantees a reply. Eventually, I was able to get something from TSA in writing that confirms passengers are able to legally fly without showing ID. For those of you who'd like to give it a shot, print out this letter and take it with you. It should (hopefully) reduce any push-back you get from TSA agents.

For those of you who don't get a kick out of asserting your rights, you may wonder why you would ever want to do this. After all, those passengers who decline to provide ID to TSA will instead be forced to go through an invasive "secondary screening" process--a five-minute-or-so procedure in which passengers are patted down, poked, prodded and have their carry-on bag thoroughly searched by hand.

There is a little known, but extremely useful side effect of refusing to show ID: In many airports, you get bumped to the front of the security line. As illogical as it may seem, you can often get through security faster by refusing or "forgetting" your ID at home than if you followed the normal security process.

So, the next time you fly, use my letter and repeat after me: "I hereby assert my right to fly without showing an identification document to any government official." With any luck, you should get through without any problems, and more than likely, you'll get bumped to the front of the queue. If you get any push-back at all, remember the magic words, "I'd like to speak to a supervisor please."

For further reading on the subject: I have a research paper documenting (and fixing) security flaws in the boarding pass system and no-fly lists that'll be published at the IDMAN workshop in October. A pre-print copy of the paper is available online: Insecure Flight: Broken Boarding Passes and Ineffective Terrorist Watch Lists. Researchers from MIT analyzed the benefits of racial profiling in airport security back in 2002. I highly recommend their paper, Carnival Booth: An Algorithm for Defeating the Computer-Assisted Passenger Screening System. Bruce Schneier has been talking about airport security flaws for years, and most recently published a must-read interview with TSA chief Kip Hawley.

Letter from TSA Christopher Soghoian

Click to see a full-size copy (pdf).