Sunday, January 03, 2010

The Hand That Feeds Them

As this posting about the intimidation of bloggers by the Transportation Security Administration from Business Insider indicates, travel bloggers who posted new TSA directives issued after the foiled Christmas day bombing attempt have been threatened with being placed on the no-fly list, served them with subpoenas, and confiscated computers and other electronic equipment. Bloggers associated with sites like Flying with Fish and, which hardly seem politically subversive, found themselves harassed by agents who came to their homes in official vehicles.

Even those who follow the TSA blog can see the difficult position that government bloggers are in when representing federal agencies that serve as both regulators and content-creators of digital media. When "Blogger Bob" isn't posting horrible holiday poety, he's issuing mea culpas for possible improper posting of documents (followed by dozens of scathing comments about the myth of transparency) or just keeping mum and deferring to his betters.

At the most obvious level, the legal issues may seem to be about protecting the confidentially of sources in tracking down the person who disseminated the memo, but there also seem to be some interesting questions about what constitutes a secret document or one of national security significance. Furthermore, in an increasingly procedural society, what does it mean for certain procedures to be secret? If bloggers were to figure them out from observing the practices of security officers and airline personnel, would publishing those observations be a security breach?

I know from my own recent flying experiences in the days since Christmas that many of these security decisions have to do with the say of pilots rather than just TSA rules. Before boarding my United flight home to Los Angeles, I met a couple whose Tel Aviv to Newark flight had an unscheduled stop in Ireland because of the pilot's security concerns about a seemingly risky passenger. Then, literally just before taking off for LA, our own captain turned our plane back to the gate in Philadelphia to remove two passengers that he seemed to consider as objectionable presences. These decisions seem to represent a policy making body of one and reporting them says little about patterns of security vigilance, however.

(By the way, I've started to earn a few snowglobes in the airport security game for iPhone, Jetset, and would recommend the game to Virtualpolitik readers.)

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