Merry Christmas from the TSA

Cupcakes deemed security threat:

Rebecca Hains says she was going through security at the airport in Las Vegas when a TSA agent pulled her aside and said the cupcake frosting was “gel-like” enough to constitute a security risk.

The TSA has officially jumped the shark.

EDITED TO ADD (1/12): The TSA claims that the cupcake they confiscated was in a jar. So this is a less obviously stupid story than I previously thought.

EDITED TO ADD (1/13): The cupcake lady says that the TSA is lying.

Posted on December 25, 2011 at 10:28 AM75 Comments


bcs December 25, 2011 10:38 AM

I wonder if you would get in trouble for bringing cupcakes with ipecac frosting or if anyone would even notice?

Hans December 25, 2011 11:22 AM

Surely the brave TSA guy took it on himself to properly “destroy” the dangerous Cupcake. Bon Appetit.

Bruce Schneier December 25, 2011 11:23 AM

“I wonder if they would stop a ‘loaded’ baked potato…”

They stopped a purse with a picture of a gun on it, so probably.

Bruce Schneier December 25, 2011 11:25 AM

“We got shouted at for a travel size container of hummus this summer. Terrorist food, don’t you know.”

Don’t try to bring knitting needles on board. You might knit an afghan.

Steve December 25, 2011 12:17 PM

We had a small child’s toilet (used but clean) we were bringing on a vacation test positive after a swab of the box it was in and testing in the bomb-vapor-detector, or whatever that machine is. There was a little paperwork to fill out before they let us go on. We were told trace compounds in feces can produce a false positive for explosives.

billswift December 25, 2011 1:46 PM

We were told trace compounds in feces can produce a false positive for explosives.

As I understand it, it is nitrates in urine (urea and its decay products), and it is really hard to clean out of plastics.

Eric H December 25, 2011 1:46 PM

This reminds me: a colleague coming straight from a job back home was carrying a torque wrench in his carry-on. TSA stopped him: with a straight face, the agent claimed that his tool was too big and they could not let him board with it. Apparently, you cannot have a tool longer than 7″. They escorted him back to the desk so he could check it.

Personally, I would have wanted “Your tool is too large” in writing. Also, I think this is very wise of TSA and airport security: you don’t want people checking bolts and nuts willy-nilly. The terrorism applications are obvious.

Dang Rich December 25, 2011 2:01 PM

For the past decade I worked for a contract security company doing work under Homeland Security. Many of my co-workers were ex law enforcement . They used to remark often about the political correctness rules now in effect. What used to be called good police work is now called discrimination.
The country has gone mad.

RachaelL December 25, 2011 2:08 PM

When we flew Friday, we discovered via cheery signs and announcments from TSA workers that children under 12 no longer have to remove their shoes.

Leaving aside the ridiculous of the shoe removal, this leaves the TSA in the position of arguing that a terrorist wouldn’t be willing to put the explosives in children’s shows but would be willing to put some in their own and blow those same children up.

Yiu might argue that children have too small of shoes to be useful, but the same organization believes delicate chemistry can be done in the airplane lavatory, so surely a terrorist could just combine kid-shoe-bombs!

I just hope this is the first step in getting rid of the shoe requirement.

John Galt III December 25, 2011 2:21 PM

I’ve often wondered when passing through security how many people have died from athlete’s foot from all of the mold spores that are transferred between socks by way of the floor. Speaking of which, they should change gloves before they fondle you so that you don’t get some else’s crotch crickets. I always forget to tell them to do it, which is fairly often, because I don’t like having my skin burned with x-rays.

Lucky December 25, 2011 2:43 PM

I’m not sure if these guys are idiots or geniuses. Air travel used to be reserved for people with good manners, well-behaved children, and a reasonably-sized expense account. The fact that they’ve turned most air travel into a flying greyhound bus service hasn’t changed the relative cost of decent service to the 1% who were flying forty years ago.
Imagine what would happen if we didn’t tag and harass these sheep a little before they were allowed to travel! They’d probably think it was a human right.

me December 25, 2011 3:45 PM

LOL Aww…cute little cupcake 🙂

But two things bother me about this story:
1) where, specifically, did she obtain the willpower and intestinal fortitude to resist eating BOTH cupcakes much earlier?

2) could it be the cupcake was SO tasty looking that even a TSA employee doesn’t have the will to resist it?

3) prediction: cupcakes will become even cooler than before within the hipsterati culture

George December 25, 2011 4:03 PM

The TSA in Boston let two cupcakes through without incident. The passenger ate one of the cupcakes without exploding. But the TSA in Las Vegas, following the same secret TSA procedures, deemed the frosting a “gel.” After carefully explaining to the passenger the various options for dispositioning the prohibited item (as TSA rules mandate), the screener and passenger mutually determined that voluntary abandonment would be the best approach. The TSA officer presumably disposed of the prohibited cupcake according to approved procedures, and particularly enjoyed the delicious frosting.

This is clearly an example of the TSA’s Security Strategy of Unpredictability at work, protecting aviation by continually keeping terrorists off guard! I can’t understand why anyone would want to disparage the excellent work the TSA does.

X December 25, 2011 4:18 PM

@George: You know… A number of those TSA folks seem somewhat obese. And hungry! Why do I think my turkey sub is going to get classified as a “liquid”.

@John Galt III: Do what I do. Put a plastic freezer bag over each foot and attach with a rubber band. Looks silly. That’s kind of the point. Silly response to silly inquisition. But I’ve got a good idea of the sort of things people walk through, like say “doggy dirt”, and I don’t care to have poop ground into my socks or the inside of my shoes.

Your concern about VD transmission is far more intriguing. Man, wouldn’t you love to be part of that lawsuit. The settlement could put your kids through college!

Dirk Praet December 25, 2011 6:35 PM

Yet another story that painfully illustrates how leaving security up to morons is just a really bad idea. My best guess is that this particular screener got reprimanded a couple of days earlier for failing to stop a red team armed with uzi’s and wanted revenge for having his free donuts-privileges revoked.

thoth December 25, 2011 7:47 PM

TSA is getting totally absurd. This is what happens if you allow such agencies to control security with such irrational minds.

Vik December 25, 2011 8:33 PM

Sorry for being cynical but the last couple of paragraphs read like an ad for the cake company. Any way to verify that there actually was a cupcake, and that it was confiscated, or might this just be some viral marketing? Even so, TSA has jumped the shark if it is little more than a marketing vehicle.

Shawn December 25, 2011 9:15 PM

Another point on the graph: I live in Japan and my mother paid me a visit in November. She thought she’s bring me a treat for the holidays by packing 2 cans of pumpkin so I could make pies with them.

She accidentally packed one can in her carry-on and because of the “gel-like” consistency of the contents of the can, she was not allowed to bring it with her. The remaining can in her suitcase posed no security threat.

flo December 25, 2011 11:20 PM

Last year we had cheese confiscated at Zurich Airport (Switzerland). It was posing a threat….madness is truly global.

David December 26, 2011 12:06 AM

@Dom De Vito “Anyone else having a problem imagining the Taliban baking?”

Yeah, that’s usually reserved for another terrorist group.

GregW December 26, 2011 12:27 AM

Dude, I have to get some cupcakes to try this next time I fly a plane.

To witness something so stupid in person would be a real treat… and a good story for years!

I say we all bring gel-like cupcakes on planes on each trip we take in the future — an anti-boycott of sorts!

Kind of like the old-school practice of putting NSA keywords in your .sig file, but tastier!

Figureitout December 26, 2011 1:34 AM

Going off what others have mentioned, someone should collect samples and test for bacteria/virus levels around checkpoints.

And having spoken with a TSA agent about her job (she rummages through people’s checked bags and finds “all sorts of stuff”) and getting a sense of her intelligence level…umm yeah I DO NOT feel secure at all flying…

Dave December 26, 2011 4:43 AM


Don’t try to bring knitting needles on board. You might knit an afghan.

Where I come from an afghan is a type of chocolate biscuit. I would imagine knitting one of those could be quite challenging. Mind you since they have soft chocolate icing, they’re probably at least as dangerous as cupcakes.

Dave December 26, 2011 4:52 AM

Last year we had cheese confiscated at Zurich Airport (Switzerland)
It was posing a threat…

I’ll say it was! In France you can get thrown off the bus/train for bringing epoisses with you, and there you were carrying it onto a plane…

Dan Smith December 26, 2011 6:22 AM

The real point here is that the possible vectors of attack are huge, with unknowns and unknown unknowns. Anyone who really wants to bring a plane down, and is mostly competent, can do so.

As has been pointed out many times before, TSA’s policy is at the same time both woefully lacking and at the same time laughably intense.

If there is any consistent point to any of it, it is that “TSA shall never let itself be politically blamed for allowing a prior-used method of attack bring down a plane.”

TSA’s methods are the equivalent of not only searching for lost car keys where the light is good, but not necessarily where they were lost, but shining floodlamps at places where people have lost them in the past, not where they might be now.

Petréa Mitchell December 26, 2011 9:55 AM

This headline about “security theater” is currently the most popular item on Yahoo! News. Congratulations, Bruce.

Also, that article has the TSA’s definition for “gel-like substance”:

“The TSA supervisor, Robert Epps, was using really bad logic – he said it counted as a gel-like substance because it was conforming to the shape of its container.”

MikeA December 26, 2011 11:51 AM

This episode may have been a PR stunt, but the TSA was at least suspicious of cupcakes something like 4 years ago when my daughter barely escaped with one intact, after much wheedling and appeals to “it’s for my mother’s birthday”. Perhaps they have just tightened the screws ever so slightly since then.

In any case, I seriously doubt they (line-workers or bosses) are stupid. If the goal was to improve the security of the flying public, what they do is at best pointless. But if the goal is to inure people to intrusive police powers, they’re doing brilliant work.

George December 26, 2011 12:58 PM

@MikeA: Conditioning people to accept arbitrary and increasingly intrusive police power, and to willingly sacrifice privacy and liberty for the illusion of security, is only a side effect of TSA procedures. Former Deputy FBI Director John Pistole must surely consider that highly beneficial, given his agency’s culture of disdain and contempt for civil liberties and privacy.

But the real goal of the TSA is nothing more or less than the goal of any bureaucracy: To continually expand its size, authority, and funding. What is unique about the TSA, however, is that it enjoys an exemption from the transparency and oversight requirements that apply to federal agencies, meant specifically to act as a check on that bureaucratic goal. Add secrecy and the complete lack of accountability for effectiveness and competence, and you have opportunities for expansion that ordinary bureaucrats can only dream about.

Actually, the entire DHS “bureaucracy of bureaucracies” enjoys this unique situation. The TSA is only the visible tip of the giant DHS iceberg otherwise submerged in an ocean of secrecy. Unfortunately, there’s no reason to believe that the hidden majority of the DHS is any different from the tragicomedy of incompetence and waste that’s visible at airports.

Jason T. Miller December 26, 2011 1:04 PM

@flo, @Dave: I presume cheese is ordinarily confiscated for (ostensibly) agricultural and public health reasons rather than to counter terrorism, though I’d frankly be surprised to find a body of customs regulations of any sort, anywhere, free from absurdities and uninfluenced by “non-public interests.”

EH December 26, 2011 3:01 PM

What’s to stop any prospective TSA agent from taking the job for the free stuff they get to steal?

Saso December 26, 2011 4:22 PM

I have to know: did they examine the cupcakes by eating them? Or did they just move them to the TSA break room for further inspection?

Paul December 26, 2011 6:08 PM

“We were told trace compounds in feces can produce a false positive for explosives.”
So Mom was right all along, wear clean underwear, you can get busted for dingle-berries.

Tom December 26, 2011 7:36 PM

I wonder if a gel like frosting could be made of a common chocolate laxative and then see what happens to the confiscated item when the TSA goon eats it.

Mark December 27, 2011 4:41 AM


Going off what others have mentioned, someone should collect samples and test for bacteria/virus levels around checkpoints.

Just don’t transfer the samples any culture medium where the TSA can see you 🙂

Anonymous Coward December 27, 2011 8:25 AM

This makes me think we should all prepare Ex-LAx cupcakes and bring them into the security line. Sure TSA, I don’t mind if you ‘confiscate’ them. Enjoy!

tor December 27, 2011 10:25 AM

I fly through LAS fairly often, and have seen the announcements about gels. They’ve never mentioned cupcakes, but they have pointed out several times that PIE is a gel. It seems to die down, and then reappear near Thanksgiving and Christmas. Outside of the holidays, I don’t remember seeing the announcements about gels. For a while, they had a sign up that said, ‘if it smears, it is a gel.’ With stuff smeared on it.

X December 27, 2011 12:00 PM

“If it smears it’s a gel?”

Does this mean they are going to confiscate my son’s dirty diapers?

Hmm. That smell could get interesting in a few hours… In fact, there’s a whole class of materials that could develop interesting odors over time. Perhaps best done in the summer heat…

Vek December 27, 2011 4:00 PM

Actually, I happen to know the woman this happened to. The incident may have become a PR stunt, but she did not intend that when she took off from Boston.

Ken December 27, 2011 9:16 PM

What Vek said — she wrote up a rather humorous description of the incident that Cory Doctorow posted at, and all the rest has been news media getting wind of it and calling her for interviews. I know her as well, and don’t believe she’d arrange it as a stunt.

Figureitout December 27, 2011 9:54 PM

@ Mark

Yeah, I mean if I were collecting lab samples I wouldn’t hide what I was doing at all…I would have plenty of people with cameras to document what I was doing…

In fact I would ask for a pair of gloves they were using to feel people up cough I mean keeping the American people secure sorry

socrates December 28, 2011 1:57 AM

With regards to the purse/handgun. Would an embroidered “ce n’est pas un handgun” clarify it for the TSA?

Larry December 28, 2011 10:07 AM

Obviously the poor TSA agent was just hungry. I think I am now inspired to write a short story about a prison break where the explosives were smuggled in via cupcake and the other bits inside larger cakes and pies.

Harry December 28, 2011 12:10 PM

@Bruce: Don’t try to bring knitting needles on board. You might knit an afghan.”

I call my linen/blanket closet “Afghanistan.” (And the pile of empty boxes in the garage is “Packistan,” in case you were wondering.)

A printed-out copy of TSA regs on knitting needles (allowed) and short scissors (also allowed) now resides permanently in my knitting bag. Every well-dressed knitter knows to carry this with him these days.

nonegiven December 28, 2011 1:31 PM

Bring muffins, instead, or sprinkle cupcakes with powdered sugar in lieu of frosting. Oh wait, that would be a white powder.

jacob December 28, 2011 1:59 PM


Don’t try to bring knitting needles on board. You might knit an afghan.

Ironically, the most peaceful of blankets…titus

my wife has knitting needles connected together. It kinds of looks like a garrote. My first thought, no way is this getting through. They let it pass. unpredictable indeed. The shark is jumped and turned into sushi. Can’t bring wasabi, it’s a liquid…..

David December 29, 2011 2:06 AM

So now pies and cakes are allowed, but I can’t bring a regular tube of toothpaste through?! Think of the dental repercussions! I’m actually annoyed that the cupcake was allowed through Boston. If they don’t go after every liquid or gel, then we don’t get reductio ad absurd and kill the whole rule. No more saline, no more prescripion liquids, no pies unless they are in contines marked 3 oz or less. If you cannot enforce that rule, then drop the whole damned thing.

David December 29, 2011 2:08 AM

That’s supposed to be containers, not “contines”. I can’t even type that word now without autocorrect stepping in.

jacob December 29, 2011 8:08 AM

“So now pies and cakes are allowed, but I can’t bring a regular tube of toothpaste through?! Think of the dental repercussions! ….If they don’t go after every liquid or gel, then we don’t get reductio ad absurd and kill the whole rule. No more saline, no more prescripion liquids, no pies unless they are in contines marked 3 oz or less. If you cannot enforce that rule, then drop the whole damned thing.”

I firmly believe in ridicule, sarcasm, and laughter in dealing with these people. Nothing like daylight to make ’em run. Bring a tube of lube, and say it was just in case they changed the procedures again….Just saying. Make ’em confiscate it…Label it TSA use only…

notallairports December 29, 2011 8:48 AM

I fly with my family between DCA and a somewhat smaller airport in the southern US several times a year. The experiences between airports could not be more different, but are always consistent. At DCA, milk bottles and related supplies and accessories are thoroughly inspected each and every time. At the other airport, we leave them packed in our carry-on bags next to sandwiches, sushi (with sauces in containers), and various local grocery store items. Depending on the season, we also carry a box filled with several pounds of cooked shellfish packed with several of those artificial ice packs. Sure, we still have to take off our shoes and remove our laptops from their bags (although I can’t say that I’ve actually tried skipping these), but it is always an efficient process nevertheless.

The ironic thing is that I actually feel safer as a passenger on these flights going to DC than on the ones leaving. Not that I feel unsafe leaving DCA and I can’t say for certain that DCA’s more rigorous screening is responsible for my marginal increase in anxiety, but I think it to be so.

Adam December 31, 2011 4:11 PM

I asked more than one airport security
person if I could take:

(i) custard tarts
(ii) Jaffa cakes
(iii) cheesecake

in carry-on luggage and got no terribly
clear answer. The people I asked
seemed to think the questions were silly
but it seems to me that the orangey
bit in a Jaffa cake is a gel. Should
I put Jaffa cakes in my transparent
bag for toiletries?

Yes, I was to some extent making
fun of the situation but I didn’t
want to have my Jaffa cakes etc.
taken off me.

OldFish January 2, 2012 4:04 AM

Nothing but eyewash, classic misdirection: look here, worry, we’re spending a shitload of money while you’re busy being annnoyed and scared.

CD January 4, 2012 3:12 PM

Around 2002, the guy in front of me in the security line was stopped with a dozen Krispy Kreme doughnuts. After deploying the weary joke about confiscating them, one of the agents hesitated… and asked a peer if they really did have to seize the confections.

Over about 10 minutes, two or three TSA agents debated whether they had to confiscate all the doughnuts, or only the cream/jelly-filled doughnuts (because they contained liquid). Though likely less than 3 ounces apiece, they were not labeled as such, and may not have been a valid receptacle. Eventually, I’m not kidding, they called over a supervisor who ruled that the doughnuts could not be allowed past the security checkpoint.

As soon as he was out of earshot, the agent turned to the guy and said, “Just take the damn doughnuts.”

Chucklepuss January 12, 2012 7:47 PM

@Petréa Mitchell:
Also, that article has the TSA’s definition for “gel-like substance”:
“The TSA supervisor, Robert Epps, was using really bad logic – he said it counted as a gel-like substance because it was conforming to the shape of its container.”

Thanks for that tip. From now on when I fly I’ll wear boxers not briefs. Wouldn’t want to make me put my junk in the trash.

Alex W January 12, 2012 8:10 PM

Why don’t reports about their annual spending gather so much public attention and outrage?

snarf January 15, 2012 7:26 PM

Funny thing is, two years ago we took a domestic flight inside Israel, having been to Jordan before with the visa in the passport etc. They routinely interviewed everyone in the group for 20-30 minutes including cross-checking with answers of other members. They swabbed everything, and I mean everything, took the camera out of the casing, opened everything and swabbed inside. If there is ONE place where security is (justifiable) taken seriously, this is it.

When we asked whether we should throw away our water bottles the agent first didn’t seem to understand, then got a big grin, and told us that no, that really wasn’t necessary. We never had to take off the shoes.

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