Daily Archives: January 5, 2013

The TSA Wants To Be Everywhere In 2013 — Here’s Why We Shouldn’t Let It

tsa

We could one day soon find ourselves answering to someone in a paramilitary blue uniform whenever we set foot outside our door.

huffingtonpost.com | Jan 2, 2013

by Christopher Elliott

When the Minnesota Vikings faced off against the Green Bay Packers last weekend in Minneapolis, the big story wasn’t that the Vikings defeated the Pack to secure a wildcard berth.

It was, strangely, the TSA.

That’s right, the agency assigned to protect America’s transportation systems was patrolling the Metrodome. Nathan Hansen, a North St. Paul, Minn., attorney, snapped a few photos of the agents before the game, and broadcast them on Twitter.

“I don’t think any federal law enforcement agency needs anything to do with a football game,” he told me yesterday.

Turns out the TSA goes to NFL games and political conventions and all kinds of places that have little or nothing to do with air travel. It even has a special division called VIPR — an unfortunate acronym for Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response team — that conducts these searches.

Few people know that $105 million of their taxpayer dollars are going to fund 37 VIPR teams in 2012, whose purpose is to “augment” the security of any mode of transportation. They don’t realize that these VIPR teams can show up virtually anytime, anywhere and without warning, subjecting you to a search of your vehicle or person.

That’s not a fringe observation, by the way. Even the most mainstream news outlets have reported on the problems of these random checkpoints. And it’s being observed by mainstream news personalities, not just consumer advocates with a long list of grievances from their constituents.

But almost no one noticed when the Department of Homeland Security signaled its intent to broaden the scope of its off-airport searches even more in 2013. Buried deep in the Federal Register in late November was a notice that could dramatically shift the focus of transportation security. It involves the government’s efforts to “establish the current state of security gaps and implemented countermeasures throughout the highway mode of transportation” through the Highway Baseline Assessment for Security Enhancement (BASE) program.

As far as I can tell, TSA is just asking questions at this point. “Data and results collected through the Highway BASE program will inform TSA’s policy and program initiatives and allow TSA to provide focused resources and tools to enhance the overall security posture within the surface transportation community,” it says in the filing.

But they wouldn’t be wasting our money asking such questions unless they planned to aggressively expand VIPR at some point in the near future. And that means TSA agents at NFL games, in subways and at the port won’t be the exception anymore — they will be the rule.

Still, some will argue, what’s wrong with that? After all, VIPR teams were formed in response to the 2004 Madrid train bombings, and shouldn’t we play it safe?

VIPR may be limited to a few men and women in uniform with dogs, patrolling a sold-out stadium or convention center for now. But it’s not hard to imagine the next step, to a permanent presence with full-body scans and pat-downs. It’s a scene straight out of a dystopian novel and a direct affront to the Fourth Amendment values we take for granted in the United States.

On another level, there’s this: The TSA was created mainly to safeguard our airports from another 9/11 attack. Being scanned or interrogated by an airport screener at a ballgame makes about as much sense as getting pulled over for speeding by a National Guardsman rattling down the Interstate in an Abrams tank. You would pull over for him, sure — but you would also have a lot of questions.

If VIPR teams are somehow more effective than the highway patrol or the local police at stopping terrorists — and I’m open to that possibility — then the Department of Homeland Security should show us that evidence. In the absence of that, we’re left to assume that the VIPR agents have the requisite 120 hours of training required of other agents, and that they are little more than warm bodies that will deter petty criminals from running cigarettes across a state line.

As we start 2013, the TSA is asking the wrong questions. Instead of being a solution in search of a problem, it should be trying to slim down, get smarter about the way it screens airline passengers and leave the rest to the well-trained professionals they will never be able to replace.

If we don’t say something about the TSA’s uncontrollable spread into almost every aspect of the American travel experience, we could one day soon find ourselves answering to someone in a paramilitary blue uniform whenever we set foot outside our door.

That’s not the America you want to live in, is it?

TSA agents having fun viewing travelers’ naked bodies

child porn body scanner

TSA Agents Are Laughing At Your Naked Body

TSA guarantees that agents who see a naked image will never see the passenger in the flesh.

care2.com | Jan 2, 2013

by Piper Hoffman

Remember when the airports started installing those radiation machines that are supposed to be more effective than metal detectors? People protested partly because they didn’t want security agents looking at images of them naked.

Apparently they were right to be worried.

A writer claiming to be a former TSA screener has described a bawdy, sophomoric atmosphere in the rooms where TSA agents view the images from the “backscatter x-ray full body scanners.” These rooms, called IO (image operator) rooms, have no surveillance cameras or recording devices so there will be no pictures of the bodies on the screens and no information about the machines’ operation will leak out to the bad guys. People must give notice and wait before entering the room so that they don’t see a passenger clothed, then walk into the IO room and see them naked: TSA guarantees that agents who see a naked image will never see the passenger in the flesh.

This is a perfect set-up for agents who want to act like asses and suffer no consequences. The former screener describes their behavior like this: “Personally, in the I.O. room, I witnessed light sexual play among officers…and a whole lot of officers laughing and clowning in regard to some of your nude images, dear passengers.”

In another post, the same writer describes TSA screeners as a group: “Thousands of kids fresh out of high school with minimal training [with] the power to put people into radiation machines and view their nude images; the descendants of entire generations of boys let down by empty comic-book promises of x-ray spec vision finally scoring.”

When you put it like that, it’s no wonder that things get nasty in the IO room.

Interestingly, TSA has started removing the backscatter machines from large airports, allegedly because they are too slow. An agent must look at an image of every individual who passes through one of these machines. TSA is replacing them with machines that alert agents to potential threats, so agents can skip the images that the machine doesn’t flag.

As far as the atmosphere in the IO rooms, the new “millimeter wave scanners” will render only “cartoon-like” images of people rather than accurate naked images, leaving dirty-minded agents with little to mock. On the other hand, they have a high false-positive rate — up to 54% in German airports – often caused by sweat or folds in clothing. In contrast, the backscatter machines have less than a 5% rate of false positives.

The old backscatter machines aren’t going away. Those removed from large airports will be installed in smaller airports, presumably because there is less risk of long lines and serious delays from slow machines where there are fewer passengers going through security.

If you do run into a backscatter machine, you can always request a pat-down instead. At least it’s out in the open where no one can laugh. On the other hand, it is a full-body feel-up. If you prize your physical privacy, your best bet is not to fly.

TSA denies using drones to watch football fans

drone
North St. Paul attorney Nathan M. Hansen took photographs of the drone and the TSA agents and posted them to his twitter feed.

MYFOXNY | Jan 2, 2013

By LUKE FUNK

NEW YORK – The TSA issued a statement on Wednesday denying it uses drones.

A drone was spotted outside the Metrodome in Minneapolis during Sunday’s Vikings game versus the Green Bay Packers.

TSA agents were also on duty outside of the stadium.  A special division called VIPR (Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response) was there to conduct searches.

North St. Paul attorney Nathan M. Hansen took photographs of the drone and the TSA agents and posted them to his twitter feed.  Several blogs picked up the report, causing the TSA to respond.

TSA’s official blogger Bob Burns posted a message saying the agency does not use drones but did not respond to questions about the TSA employees outside of the stadium.

Full statement from the TSA:

“After a drone was spotted at a Vikings game, rumors have been “flying” around that it was a TSA drone. I just wanted to take this quick opportunity to say that TSA does not use drones. I have been accused of “droning” on and on before, but other than that, we’re drone free.”

Homeland Security Quietly Runs “Loan-a-Drone” Program for Local Law Enforcement

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allgov.com | Jan 4, 2013

by Noel Brinkerhoff

Government watchdog groups are concerned that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has been loaning out sophisticated, expensive drones to local law enforcement, and in the process turning the military’s hottest new weapon on Americans.

In one of the first known instances of domestic drone use, in 2011 DHS loaned one of its unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to police in North Dakota in order to spy on a farmer, Thomas Brossart, who had refused to give back some cows that had wandered onto his property. The Brossart case was the first known drone-aided arrest.

The Washington Guardian reports that since then, DHS and Customs and Border Protection (CPB) have deployed drones several other times to help local law enforcement and other federal agencies.

Op-ed: Protect privacy as Seattle Police drones take off

Use of spy drones by police worries Americans

Homeland Security increasingly lending drones to local police

The problem with the loan-a-drone program, according to critics, is that it is being operated on an ad-hoc basis with no established regulations for how and when to use them, or how to protect Americans’ privacy, or how to make sure taxpayers are reimbursed for the loaners.

After all, CPB’s drones can cost between $15 million and $34 million each to purchase, not to mention their hourly operational costs.

Between loan-a-drone and DHS giving out $4 million in grants to help police buy their own drones, good government groups are concerned that homeland security is subsidizing the militarization of local police forces.

“Drones are a powerful surveillance tool that can be used to gather extensive data about you and your activities,” Jennifer Lynch, a lawyer for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which studies privacy issues, told the Washington Guardian. “The public needs to know more about how and why these Predator drones are being used to watch U.S. citizens.”

Military Must Prep Now for ‘Mutant’ Future, Researchers Warn

lockheed
Lockheed Martin tests its Human Universal Load Carrier exoskeleton. Photo: Lockheed Martin

Wired | Dec 31, 2012

By David Axe

The U.S. military is already using, or fast developing, a wide range of technologies meant to give troops what California Polytechnic State University researcher Patrick Lin calls “mutant powers.” Greater strength and endurance. Superior cognition. Better teamwork. Fearlessness.

But the risk, ethics and policy issues arising out of these so-called “military human enhancements” — including drugs, special nutrition, electroshock, gene therapy and robotic implants and prostheses — are poorly understood, Lin and his colleagues Maxwell Mehlman and Keith Abney posit in a new report for The Greenwall Foundation (.pdf), scheduled for wide release tomorrow. In other words, we better think long and hard before we unleash our army of super soldiers.

If we don’t, we could find ourselves in big trouble down the road. Among the nightmare scenarios: Botched enhancements could harm the very soldiers they’re meant to help and spawn pricey lawsuits. Tweaked troopers could run afoul of international law, potentially sparking a diplomatic crisis every time the U.S. deploys troops overseas. And poorly planned enhancements could provoke disproportionate responses by America’s enemies, resulting in a potentially devastating arms race.

“With military enhancements and other technologies, the genie’s already out of the bottle: the benefits are too irresistible, and the military-industrial complex still has too much momentum,” Lin says in an e-mail. “The best we can do now is to help develop policies in advance to prepare for these new technologies, not post hoc or after the fact (as we’re seeing with drones and cyberweapons).”

Case in point: On April 18, 2002, a pair of Air Force F-16 fighter pilots returning from a 10-hour mission over Afghanistan saw flashes on the ground 18,000 feet below them. Thinking he and his wingman were under fire by insurgents, Maj. Harry Schmidt dropped a 500-pound laser-guided bomb.

There were no insurgents — just Canadian troops on a live-fire exercise, four of whom were killed in the blast. The Air Force ultimately dropped criminal charges against Schmidt and wingman Maj. William Umbach but did strip them of their wings. In a letter of reprimand, Air Force Lt. Gen. Bruce Carlson accused Schmidt of “willful misconduct” and “gross poor judgment.”

Schmidt countered, saying he was jittery from taking the stimulant Dexedrine, an amphetamine that the Air Force routinely prescribes for pilots flying long missions. “I don’t know what the effect was supposed to be,” Schmidt told Chicago magazine. “All I know is something [was] happening to my body and brain.”

The Food and Drug Administration warns that Dexedrine can cause “new or worse aggressive behavior or hostility.” (.pdf) But the Air Force still blamed the pilots.

The Canadian “friendly fire” tragedy underscores the gap between the technology and policy of military human enhancement. Authorities in the bombing case could have benefited from clearer guidelines for determining whether the drugs, rather than the pilots, were to blame for the accidental deaths. “Are there ethical, legal, psycho-social or operational limits on the extent to which a warfighter may be enhanced?” Lin, Mehlman and Abney ask in their report.

Now imagine a future battlefield teeming with amphetamine-fueled pilots, a cyborg infantry and commanders whose brains have been shocked into achieving otherwise impossible levels of tactical cunning.

These enhancements and others have tremendous combat potential, the researchers state. “Somewhere in between robotics and biomedical research, we might arrive at the perfect future warfighter: one that is part machine and part human, striking a formidable balance between technology and our frailties.”

In this possible mutant future, what enhancements should be regulated by international law, or banned outright? If an implant malfunctions or a drug causes unexpected side effects, who’s responsible? And if one side deploys a terrifying cyborg army, could that spark a devastating arms race as nations scramble to out-enhance each other? “Does the possibility that military enhancements will simply lead to a continuing arms race mean that it is unethical to even begin to research or employ them?” Lin, Mehlman and Abney wonder.

The report authors also question whether the military shouldn’t get give potential enhancement subjects the right to opt out, even though the subjects are otherwise subject to military training, rules and discipline. “Should warfighters be required to give their informed consent to being enhanced, and if so, what should that process be?” the researchers ask.

The ethical concerns certainly have precedent. In a series of experiments in the 1970s aimed at developing hallucinogenic weapons, the Pentagon gave soldiers LSD — apparently without the subjects fully understanding the consequences of using the drug. During the Cold War U.S. troops were also exposed to nerve gas, psychochemicals and other toxic substances on an experimental basis and without their consent.

Moreover, it’s theoretically possible that future biological enhancements could be subject to existing international laws and treaties, potentially limiting the enhancements — or prohibiting them outright. But the application of existing laws and treaties is unclear, at best. ”Could enhanced warfighters be considered to be ‘weapons’ in themselves and therefore subject to regulation under the Laws of Armed Conflict?” the researchers write. “Or could an enhanced warfighter count as a ‘biological agent’ under the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention?”

Lin, Mehlman and Abney aren’t sure. To be safe, they propose the military consider several rules when planning an enhancement. Is there a legitimate military purpose? Is it necessary? Do the benefits outweigh the risks? Can subjects’ dignity be maintained and the cost to them minimized? Is there full, informed consent, transparency and are the costs of the enhancement fairly distributed? Finally, are systems in place to hold accountable those overseeing the enhancement?

Whether following these guidelines or others, the Pentagon should start figuring out a framework for military human enhancement now, Lin and his colleagues advise. “In comic books and science fiction, we can suspend disbelief about the details associated with fantastical technologies and abilities, as represented by human enhancements,” they warn. “But in the real world — as life imitates art, and ‘mutant powers’ really are changing the world — the details matter and will require real investigations.”

Down to -50C: Russians freeze to death, coldest winter in decades

31 below

RT | Dec 19, 2012

Russia is enduring its harshest winter in over 70 years, with temperatures plunging as low as -50 degrees Celsius. Dozens of people have already died, and almost 150 have been hospitalized.

­The country has not witnessed such a long cold spell since 1938, meteorologists said, with temperatures 10 to 15 degrees lower than the seasonal norm all over Russia.

Across the country, 45 people have died due to the cold, and 266 have been taken to hospitals. In total, 542 people were injured due to the freezing temperatures, RIA Novosti reported.

The Moscow region saw temperatures of -17 to -18 degrees Celsius on Wednesday, and the record cold temperatures are expected to linger for at least three more days. Thermometers in Siberia touched -50 degrees Celsius, which is also abnormal for December.

The Emergency Ministry has issued warnings in 15 regions, which have been put on high alert over possible disruptions of communication and power.

Across the country, heat pipelines have broken down due to the cold. In southeastern Russia’s Samara, the cold has broken down many heat pipelines, leaving hundreds of homes without heating, including an orphanage and a rest house. Many schools and kindergartens have been closed for almost a week.

The cold spell, along with snowfalls, has disrupted flights all over the country, and led to huge traffic jams. In the southern city of Rostov-on-Don some highways were closed due to snowfalls over the past two days, triggering a traffic collapse.

More cold in the capital

Over the weekend, meteorologists predict temperatures will plunge even lower in the Moscow region, hitting -25. The Russian capital is also expected to be swept with snow, RIA Novosti reported.

Temperatures have been 7 degrees lower than the norm for five days already, which is considered an anomaly, according to the Meteonovosti.ru website. The cold spell in the Moscow region is expected to continue for at least three more days.

Due to the high humidity, these freezing temperatures will feel even colder than they actually are, meteorologists explained.

Vicious cold snap across Russia and eastern Europe claims nearly 200 lives

timesofmalta.com | Dec 22, 2012

RIA Novosti / Yakov Andreev

RIA Novosti / Yakov Andreev

A vicious cold snap across Russia and eastern Europe has claimed nearly 200 lives, officials figures showed yesterday, as forecasters warned it would last until Christmas Eve.

In Russia, the cold has killed two people in the past 24 hours, the Ria-Novosti agency reported, citing medical sources, bringing the total number of deaths over the past week to 56.

The freeze had also left 371 people in hospital. Thermometers have been stuck below minus 20 degrees Celsius in Moscow – and below minus 50 degrees in some parts of Siberia – for a week.

Russian weather forecasters said temperature in the Khabarovsk region in eastern Russia had dropped to minus 43 Celsius, while Krasnoyarsk in Siberia reported minus 47. This “abnormal” frost would last till Monday because of a persistent anticyclone, they added.

In Russia’s European region, meanwhile, the mercury is expected to fall to minus 31 degrees Celsius on Christmas Eve before rising rapidly afterwards.

Other European countries hit hard by the extreme temperatures were counting the toll as temperatures gradually started to return to normal.

Authorities in Ukraine, which has been battling heavy snowfall for weeks, said 83 people had died of cold, with 57 of the victims found on the street.

The homeless are traditionally the hardest-hit by the region’s bitter winters.

Another 526 cold victims were reportedly receiving hospital treatment in Ukraine.

Overnight temperatures in Ukraine reached an average minus 15 degrees Celsius, which is common at this time of year.

Ukrainian authorities said 93 villages – mainly on the Crimean peninsula in the south of the country – were still hit by a power outage.

Boiling Water Freezes Instantly In Siberia’s -41°C Weather

boil

businessinsider.com| Dec 20, 2012

A pot of boiling water thrown from a balcony instantly turns into frozen droplets in Siberia’s minus 41C weather.

A Novosibirsk resident demonstrated the depths of the cold in his city by pouring a pot of boiling water into the air from one of the top floors of his apartment building, and watched it instantly turn into a cloud of frozen droplets.

The unidentified man showed a temperature reading of minus 41 degrees Celsius on his mobile phone before launching the water out the window.

The footage has emerged as severe frost affects large parts of Russia. In the far eastern regions of the country temperatures have fallen to minus 50 degrees Celsius, with minus 20 degrees Celsius recorded in central parts.

Meteorologists say that for some regions such low temperatures have not been recorded for more than half a century.

Boiling water freezes instantly in Siberia

Brrrrrrrr! Last year coldest in three decades for Anchorage

summer alaska
Grilling in a cold Alaskan summer. Loren Holmes photo

alaskadispatch.com | Jan 3, 2013

by Ben Anderson

With a record snowfall this spring, an unusually chilly summer, rain and windstorms in the fall, and a subtropical cyclone just before the New Year, Anchorage residents knew something was up with the weather last year. On Thursday, the National Weather Service confirmed those suspicions, reporting that 2012 was the coldest in 30 years for Alaska’s largest city –and one of the wettest ever.

The average temperature for for 2012 hovered barely above freezing, at 34.4 degrees. The city saw its fourth-coldest January and its seventh-coldest July. It added up to Anchorage’s 23rd coldest year since records have been kept, but it was enough to make 2012 the most frigid year since 1982.

Of course, even Anchorage’s dismal weather didn’t compare to other parts of the state. The coldest temperature in the city came on Jan. 28, a nippy -15 degrees. The next day, the Interior city of Fairbanks saw the mercury dip to its low of -51 degrees.

As if the chill wasn’t bad enough, last year was Anchorage’s second-wettest year ever, too. A total of 21.48 inches of rain fell, plenty damp but well short of the 1989 record of 27.75 inches.

A good portion of that rain was stuffed into the fall, when a significant weather system dumped rain across Southcentral, causing flooding in the Mat-Su Valley. The effects weren’t quite as strong in Anchorage, although streams swelled and some briefly crested their banks in the deluge.

“A large portion of the year’s rainfall occurred in September, when 6.49 inches of rain fell,” the National Weather Service reported in its year-end round up. “This makes September the third-wettest September on record.”

Oh yeah, and then there was that snowfall record that the city broke back in April, after 134.5 inches fell during the winter of 2011-2012, breaking the previous record of 132.6 inches in 1954-1955.

Surprisingly, the Arctic looks to be the only region of Alaska basking in unseasonable warmth, with Barrow seeing above-average temps. Joining the northernmost U.S. state in battling the cold is Russia, where a cold snap in December left dozens frozen to death.

December in Anchorage was below the norm, too, with the city was 4.4 degrees cooler than usual, according to the December weather roundup.