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The Little-Known TSA Loophole

TSA Screening At Airport
TSA Screening At Airport

This is one of those, “who knew?” tales…. And not technically about the “border” but about the virtual borders we cross so frequently as we move through airport security lines.

My brother flew across country last week to a reunion with the family for my father’s 80th birthday. He was flying to Seattle on a very early morning flight from Burlington, Vt., with a very early wake-up call for him and his driver/wife Freddie.

After waking at 3:45 in the morning, leaving at 4 and arriving at the pre-dawn airport around 5 a.m., he approached the security line only to realize he’d forgotten his ID. No driver’s license, no picture ID at all. Isn’t that everyone’s nightmare in this current security climate, when we KNOW what we need, and have a constant nag of anxiety that we’ve forgotten what we know?

So…no ID. In fact nothing at all in his wallet proving who he was. He first called his already supremely annoyed wife, on her way home, and told her she’d have to get the license and come back. That didn’t go over well. Then he tried to book a later flight. That’s where the “who knew?” came in: the airline said, “no worries, this happens all the time, go talk to TSA.”

After a brief interview with one of the local blue-shirted TSA’ers, my brother was escorted into a small office where the TSA official phoned the “federal government.” At least that’s how my brother described it. They asked him a series of personal questions: What’s your wife’s name? (Actually, Sarah, nicknamed Freddie); how long have you owned your house? Do you have your own business? Answering correctly, he proved he was indeed the person he claimed to be, the person who purchased the plane ticket and clutched the sweaty boarding pass. He boarded the plane and flew west.

So it all had a happy ending, and it turns out we CAN amazingly fly without ID. In fact, as Transport Security Administration spokesperson Nico Melendez explained, “This happens frequently enough, and it happens everywhere.” People forget their wallets; they lose their purses.

“People need to understand that is not a hard and fast rule that you have to have your ID because things happen,” said Melendez.

It seemed to me a surprising bureaucratic flexibility in this era of shoe bombs and plastic baggies of toiletries, but Melendez described the standard protocol: “The TSA officials on the ground call the National Operations Center in Washington, where people there access publically available databases and ask a series of questions based on the information they see on that person.”

Remember the 2004 tsunami in southeast Asia? Melendez said that literally thousands of Americans needed to fly home after that disaster and many had had all of their belongings, including wallets and IDs, swept away. That’s when the TSA came up with this system, a system even outlined on their website.

It's good to know, but still somewhat chilling. It was my first personal exposure to what privacy experts have been warning about for years: much of our personal data is extraordinarily easy to find.

I’ve never really feared the intrusions on privacy that all this internet activity brings with it. I can delete the spam and ignore the targeted Internet ads. But the knowledge that somewhere, in some office in Washington D.C., there’s an electronic file that can identify me, my family and my financial circumstances to the TSA or to any government agency was both disturbing and, in a strange way, a relief. I may never sweat bullets again about misplacing my ID before a flight!

As a karmic coda to these TSA revelations, another event that weekend underlined our state of electronic transparency. I lost my purse. In the midst of socializing and shopping and talking and laughing way too much, my wallet with all my credit cards and driver’s license disappeared. I eventually tracked it down the old-fashioned way by going back to all my shopping sites and finding the wallet at the local grocery store.

Disaster averted, but then, strangely, I found out that someone from the grocery store had already called my home to report the wallet missing. And she had sent an email to me, explaining where to find the wallet.

There was nothing in my wallet with my phone number or email address. I responded to the Good Samaritan asking, how did you find me? Turns out, she had gone onto this website and, for 95 cents, retrieved my most pertinent contact information.

Once again, happy ending, but – I wonder - will I ever be able to get lost again?