Sunday, February 1, 2009

My, what a big laptop you have!

My first at-length encounter with the TSA’s behavior detection officers occurred at Logan Airport on our outbound flight last month. It was a surreal experience.

When Lisa and I are going through security, we have one of us go through the metal detector before our belongings go through the x-ray machine, and the other one waits until our belongings have cleared the x-ray machine. This is what numerous television programs have advised is the best way to prevent thefts at security, which is a far too common problem at airports. And apparently being careful with our laptop and cameras, or my exhaustion from not having slept much the two previous nights, or simple boredom on the part of the BDO, made the BDO identify me as a subject.

So I’m standing at the conveyor, trying to watch a line of 8-10 bins of our belongings before they enter the x-ray machine, when this TSA officer walks over and starts asking me about my laptop as if he’s never seen one before. He starts touching it, then fondling it, then opens it up, all the while carefully watching me rather than the supposed object of his interest. This is not remotely normal behavior on his part, but it doesn’t seem prudent to point that out or object. More worrisome is that this is a severe distraction from my job, which is to watch all of our bins until they enter the x-ray machine (and go far enough in that they won’t be backed out). I’m pretty sure the guy isn’t playing “distract the mark,” since he’s wearing a TSA uniform, but I’m very aware that I’m being played. And worst, I can’t figure out what he will consider a normal response, since I’m quite sure he’s not well trained. Should I (1) play along as if I have nothing to hide, since I have nothing to hide? Should I (2) ask him to come talk to me on the other side since I’m busy trying to keep an eye on our belongings? Should I (3) object in some way to his grabbing my laptop since I care about my laptop? Should I (4) avoid at all costs giving him any reason to accuse me of being non-compliant with his non-requests? I go with (1) and (4), even though I know I’m risking seeming overly passive if his training is better than I think it is.

At one point, he asks me how my laptop works. Where should I begin? The user input/output experience of keyboard and screen? The various layers of software that we label as operating system and applications? Logic gates? A description of the components soldered onto the logic board? I know that Logan Airport truly hates geeks (cf. Star Simpson), so I don’t want to suggest that I know more than whatever he thinks I should. And he’s still barely glancing at my laptop.

Eventually he stops staring at me, puts my laptop back, and leaves me alone to go through the real security that believes 10 3-ounce bottles of liquids is safer than a single 16-ounce bottle. But you can’t challenge someone’s faith, whether he believes that harmful liquids are rendered safe by being placed in a series of smaller containers or whether he believes that he can divine your thoughts by seeing how you respond to the brightly-colored half of a distraction theft team.

Or maybe he was just hitting on me.


Laura A said...

How very weird. Do you think he might have been asking whether you like the laptop when he asked how it worked? Meaning whether it worked well and you were pleased with it?

I have had security people comment on my Mac Book Air, but they were either admiring the shininess of it or were challenging the person monitoring the X-ray to tell them whether it did or didn't have the solid state hard drive. (Spotting the type of hard drive seems to be a popular Mac Book Air game.)

Michael said...

I tried telling him that it worked fine, and that I liked it, in the hopes that would satisfy him. The encounter didn't follow any normal conversational pattern.

The scanner images have gotten really good, but electronics have gotten ever more varied. The laptop was the only item they wanted removed from the backpack, though. They didn't seem to mind keeping the rest of the backpack filled with 2 different cameras, 2 different iPods, a Garmin, 7 chargers, and about 20 cables of various types. And, as I discovered to my chagrin when I unpacked the backpack later, a full bottle of water. Whoops.