TSA Expands Jurisdiction To Sidewalks: Where Is The Left?

“Sir? Please step over here. You need to be x-rayed.”

“What? Get outta my way. Who are you?” said the man.

“Sir, please step over to the machine. You have been selected for random scanning,” said the TSA agent.

The man did not understand or chose not to and began to walk on. Two other armed agents moved to block the man’s way.

“Are we going to have trouble with you, sir? You have been selected for random scanning,” repeated the agent.

“What are you talking about? I’m just walking down the sidewalk in front of my apartment. We’re nowhere near an airport, nor even a train station. You can’t just grab innocent people off the sidewalk and bombard them with x-rays,” said the man, increasingly bewildered.

“Sir, we are agents of the Transportation Security Administration. The law says we have to protect you in all areas of transportation. Sidewalks are public modes of transportation. We have orders to randomly scan pedestrians. It’s for your protection, sir,” said the agent, bored with offering the same explanation he had issued a hundred times before. “Besides, if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to worry about. Do you have your papers with you?”

“What if I refuse?” asked the man.

“You wouldn’t want to do that, sir,” advised the agent, as the other two agents moved in…

Paranoid fantasy? Not hardly. According to documents retrieved by Freedom (!) of Information Act requests, the Department of Homeland Security, as reported in Forbes, “has been planning pilot programs to deploy mobile scanning units that can be set up at public events and in train stations, along with mobile x-ray vans capable of scanning pedestrians on city streets.”

Read that again. The TSA wants to conduct “covert inspection of moving subjects” on sidewalks.

One project allocated to Northeastern University and Siemens would mount backscatter x-ray scanners and video cameras on roving vans, along with other cameras on buildings and utility poles, to monitor groups of pedestrians, assess what they carried, and even track their eye movements. In another program, the researchers were asked to develop a system of long range x-ray scanning to determine what metal objects an individual might have on his or her body at distances up to thirty feet.

Anything for money, eh?, Northeastern?

The Department of Homeland Security, and it sub-agency the TSA, are bureaucracies. Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy states

that in any bureaucratic organization there will be two kinds of people: those who work to further the actual goals of the organization, and those who work for the organization itself. Examples in education would be teachers who work and sacrifice to teach children, vs. union representative who work to protect any teacher including the most incompetent. The Iron Law states that in all cases, the second type of person will always gain control of the organization, and will always write the rules under which the organization functions.

The unbreakable grasp of Pournelle’s Law guaranteed something like this would happen. Bureaucracies grow. That is what they do. They grow fastest when they have failed at their original mission and thus seek to justify their existence. If they can turn up nothing but new mothers smuggling breast milk through airport security lines, then they will search for publicity opportunities elsewhere. Sidewalks are public modes of transportation. And surely evildoers use sidewalks!

Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety. — Ben “Goddamit” Franklin


Where is the left on this? Where are perpetually outraged progressives who would be hoping mad if a non-racially pleasing Republican president signed off on this? Can you, my lefty friends, truly be pleased with this situation? We have nowhere heard from old Ben Franklin as we used to when there was as little as a hint police department budgets would increase. With Mr Obama in office, dead silence.

Why is a statistician opining on this? Because the matter is entirely statistical. All these scans (see the Decision Calculator link on the left sidebar) will produce a flood of “false positives”, i.e. innocent people falsely identified as suspicious. And sophisticated, intent terrorists will in all probability never be seen until too late. These guaranteed errors cost society more than just money.

And let’s never forget the leading cause of premature death in the twentieth century was not terrorists, but governments.


  1. Mike B

    Will be interesting to see what, if anything, the civil libertarians have to say about this. Given that it is being implemented by a leftist administration, probably not much.

    One thing you gotta admire about these leftists when they’re running the Executive Branch: they don’t mess around with seeking congressional authority with things like the Patriot Act. They just go do as they please, be it with the EPA or the TSA.

    A lot of people were somewhat miffed when the real “bad guys” in the “X-Files” were revealed to be FEMA agents. It was actually quite prescient.

  2. Noblesse Oblige

    “let’s never forget the leading cause of premature death in the twentieth century was not terrorists, but governments.”

    Socialist governments. And that includes Naziism “Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei” whose approach to socialism differed from the communists mainly in that it was based on race, not class.

  3. Tim

    Either we think “Terrorist” are extremely incompetent, or we are just proving the incompetence of our Thespian Department of Homeland Security.

    Check points only act as a means of corralling people. As far as I know, any terrorist is free to approach a security check point, loaded to the teeth with explosives, and kill 25 – 50 people in an airport.

    The only so-called terrorist I’ve seen or heard about getting close enough to a crowd to kill anyone have been misguided teenagers that were aided by the FBI.

  4. Briggs


    “Student files lawsuit over FBI’s GPS tracking”
    At least there is the element of comedy to this story:

    Yasir Afifi, 20, says a mechanic doing an oil change on his car in October discovered the device stuck with magnets between his right rear wheel and exhaust. They weren’t sure what it was, but Afifi had the mechanic remove it and a friend posted photos of it online to see whether anyone could identify it. Two days later, Afifi says, agents wearing bullet-proof vests pulled him over as he drove away from his apartment in San Jose, Calif., and demanded their property back.

  5. Doug M

    An addition to Pournelle’s law.

    If a buraucratic agency fails in its primary mission, buraucrats demand more money. “We failed because we don’t have the necessary resources.”
    If it succeeds, the buraucrats demand more money. “Look at all of the good work we are doing.”

  6. Ray

    Back in the good old days the police in major cities used to stop “suspicious looking” people and frisk them. Stop and frisk was ruled illegal by the courts. How is the TSA action any different from stop and frisk?

  7. JJD

    Canada is a nice place without much hysterical government craziness. You don’t have to pass through a scanner at the border. Bring your own thermal underwear and snowshoes. — JJD

  8. Ari


    Northeastern and Northwestern are different universities.

  9. Briggs


    Damn typos!


    From the FOIA documents:


    In Department of Homeland Security grant awarded, it says (p. 5 of the grant):

    “Design goals are as follows:

    * Covert inspection of moving suspects…”

    Only to show that the idea of a van driving around surreptitiously x-raying people was certainly in the grant.

    I do not meant to suggest that tyranny is just around the corner, but it is on the map.

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