Your papers please: TSA bans ID-less flight

Passengers refusing to show ID will no longer be able to fly, but those who say they have lost or forgotten their proof of identity will be able to fly.

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
4 min read

In a major change of policy, the Transportation Security Administration has announced that passengers refusing to show ID will no longer be able to fly. The policy change, announced on Thursday afternoon, will go into force on June 21, and will only affect passengers who refuse to produce ID. Passengers who claim to have lost or forgotten their proof of identity will still be able to fly.

As long as TSA has existed, passengers have been able to fly without showing ID to government agents. Doing so would result in a secondary search (a pat down and hand search of your carry-on bag), but passengers were still permitted to board their flights. In some cases, taking advantage of this right to refuse ID came with fringe benefits--being bumped to the front of the checkpoint queue.

For a few years after September 11, 2001, TSA's policies when it came to flying without ID were somewhat fuzzy. The agency, like many other parts of the Bush Administration, has hidden behind the shroud of classification--in TSA's case, labeling everything Sensitive Security Information.

Seeking to clarify the rules, activist John Gilmore took the U.S. government to court in 2004. Gilmore chose to take a particularly hard line, by refusing to show ID to TSA and also by refusing to undergo the more thorough "secondary screening" search. He eventually lost his case before the 9th Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals.

While the judges were not willing to let Gilmore avoid the secondary screening search, they did at least recognize the right to travel without showing ID--providing that passengers are willing to be subject to a pat down and a bit of probing:
"The identification policy requires that airline passengers either present identification or be subjected to a more extensive search. The more extensive search is similar to searches that we have determined were reasonable and consistent with a full recognition of appellants constitutional right to travel."

Since then, in at least two letters to citizens, TSA has re-affirmed this right. In March 2008, a TSA official wrote that:

"If a traveler is unwilling or unable to produce a valid form of ID, the traveler is required to undergo additional screening at the checkpoint to gain access to the secured area of the airport."

A change in policy

In a press release issued on Thursday with little fanfare, TSA announced a major change in its rules.

"Beginning Saturday, June 21, 2008 passengers that willfully refuse to provide identification at security checkpoint will be denied access to the secure area of airports. This change will apply exclusively to individuals that simply refuse to provide any identification or assist transportation security officers in ascertaining their identity."

This new procedure will not affect passengers that may have misplaced, lost or otherwise do not have ID but are cooperative with officers. Cooperative passengers without ID may be subjected to additional screening protocols, including enhanced physical screening, enhanced carry-on and/or checked baggage screening, interviews with behavior detection or law enforcement officers and other measures."

To clarify: Passengers who refuse to show ID, citing a constitutional right to fly without ID will be refused passage beyond the checkpoints. Passengers who say they have left their ID at home, will be searched, and then permitted to board their flights.

While TSA's announcement stated that the goal of the change was to "increase safety," this blogger disagrees. The change of rules seems to be a pretty obvious case of security theater. Real terrorists do not refuse to show ID. They claim to have lost their ID, or they use a fake.

TSA's new rules only protect us from a non-existent breed of terrorists who are unable to lie.

Fixing flaws vs. security theater

In a research paper published in 2007, I outlined a number of glaring loopholes allowing the total circumvention of the much criticized no-fly lists. The two main flaws were that passengers can modify boarding passes, and that they can refuse to show ID.

In December 2007, TSA began testing out a secure, authenticated, tamper-proof boarding pass scheme. It has since been rolled out to a number of major airports around the country.

With hundreds of millions of dollars having already been spent on the various no-fly lists, it is at least interesting to see that someone at TSA is now spending time on fixing the loopholes in the system. The most glaring of this has long been the fact that passengers can refuse to show (or claim to have forgotten) their ID. Simply put, without being able to know who is walking through a checkpoint, there is no way to know that the "bad guys" have been caught by the no-fly list.

TSA's new rule, while perhaps motivated by a desire to beef up security, is significantly flawed. Terrorists will lie, and claim to have lost their ID--while law-abiding citizens wishing to assert their rights will be hassled, and refused flight.

Of course, all of this is premised on the idea that the no-fly list is actually a useful safety tool--something that I, and a number of other prominent security experts, strongly disagree with. Simply put, terrorists do not pre-register their intent.

As Bruce Schneier has noted before, the no-fly list is a collection of hundreds of thousands of people who are too dangerous to fly, but not guilty enough to be charged with a crime.

These are interesting times, indeed.

Thanks to Gary @ View from the Wing for spotting TSA's announcement.

Disclosure: I am supposed to be on a hiatus, but this topic was too important to leave alone. I am currently an intern at the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California. These opinions are my own, and do not reflect anyone that pays me.