Why Is the TSA Scanning Paper?

I've been reading a bunch of anecdotal reports that the TSA is starting to scan paper separately:

A passenger going through security at Kansas City International Airport (MCI) recently was asked by security officers to remove all paper products from his bag. Everything from books to Post-It Notes, documents and more. Once the paper products were removed, the passenger had to put them in a separate bin to be scanned separately.

When the passenger inquired why he was being forced to remove the paper products from his carry-on bag, the agent told him that it was a pilot program that's being tested at MCI and will begin rolling out nationwide. KSHB Kansas City is reporting that other passengers traveling through MCI have also reported the paper-removal procedure at the airport. One person said that security dug through the suitcase for two "blocks" of Post-It Notes at the bottom.

Does anyone have any guesses as to why the TSA is doing this?

EDITED TO ADD (5/11): This article says that the TSA has stopped doing this. They blamed it on their contractor, Akai Security.

Posted on May 5, 2017 at 7:35 AM • 124 Comments

Comments

Tony PelliccioMay 5, 2017 7:46 AM

Likely some new 'credible' threat in the security theater. I go full digital when I travel, Fire Tab, computer, radios etc. Scan all you want.

Spaceman SpiffMay 5, 2017 7:50 AM

My guess is that someone sold the TSA a shit load of scanners and now they have to justify the expense.

JTMay 5, 2017 7:55 AM

I'd hypothesize that paper holds on to smell for a long time and is normally at a work table level (where one would assemble nefarious substances). Clothing does this too, but clothes are easily washed.

RonMay 5, 2017 8:02 AM

Maybe because it's easy to make paper into nitrocellulose? But the regular chemical sniffers would pick that up...

Steve FriedlMay 5, 2017 8:05 AM

Headline should be "Screening", not "Scanning"; many of us think of Scanning paper as turning into a PDF or something.

supersaurusMay 5, 2017 8:05 AM

To convince americans that driving is better than flying?

TSMay 5, 2017 8:06 AM

I'm guessing they're already confident / able to scan and copy your phone/laptop data to be accessed at a later time if you prove to be a terrorist,. but they've not been able to properly scan paper work as of yet.

It seems silly though,.
if you wanted to bring anything important into the country, you'd use an encrypted file transfer,. even before taking a plane.

blablablagingerMay 5, 2017 8:07 AM

the TSA is starting to scan paper separately

By "scan" I suppose you mean X-Ray. Or are you suggesting that the TSA is literally photographing each page of a block of sticky-notes?

SamuelMay 5, 2017 8:07 AM

To clarify—is this referring to "scanning" as in examining the paper for traces of explosive or verifying the paper is actually paper—not something else? Or is this referring to "scanning" as in recording images of the paper for subsequent storage and analysis?

I think the hypothesis that papers could pick up on chemical traces is a good one. It could also be that paper products somehow obscure other sensor readings and the goal is not to scan the paper specifically but to remove it from the other scanning process.

It is also reasonable to attribute this to typical TSA incompetence and conclude it was someone's hare-brained idea.

TSMay 5, 2017 8:10 AM

Speaking of burning agents,.

Any decent amount of paper, or even acryl / polymer clothing would burn like a mofo pretty quickly, and even faster if you were to apply 1-2 doses of the maximum allowed amount of liquid (100 ml) and had smuggled fuel on board.

Next thing you know, theyll outlaw paper and polymer clothing altogether,
everyone has to wear cotton to fly.

I'd say it's high time we come up with a beter way to travel.
What's the progress on that hyperloop tube system over in the west of the usa and china/japan?
Feasible within 10 years?

TSMay 5, 2017 8:11 AM

@blablablaginger
I am SO going to bring a few copies of Lords of the Ring on my next plane trip there.

Give them something to do.

rmdMay 5, 2017 8:17 AM

Are they pulling out individual papers or only blocks or stacks of paper? If it's just blocks/stacks of paper (blocks of post-its, etc), I would suspect they're looking for something that can be mostly obscured by putting it in between or within a block of paper products.

ThomasMay 5, 2017 8:18 AM

Scanning paper booklets / documents, i can see they'd do this because of background noise / interference with other stuff in the bag.

If you have for example a sticky note block,
and had for example a credit card sized & shaped knife,. you could easily mask it between a sticky note block.

Having them scan those individually would ensure any "oddities" would be more easily noted.

Yep they exist.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kS7X_1t0Hvw
Granted, this one is kind of bulky even,. but I don't doubt there are smaller ones available if you really look for it.

patproMay 5, 2017 8:19 AM

Because paper-cuts are really painful?

By the way, chemical screening of paper is an idea, but odds of detection are probably the same if papers are in the luggage. So it's probably not enough to justify a separate screening.

Joep LunaarMay 5, 2017 8:28 AM

Would the measure anticipate, that due to digital surveillance, people may start using paper as a means to keep information "secret" ?

Clive RobinsonMay 5, 2017 8:30 AM

@ Ron, TS,

Maybe because it's easy to make paper into nitrocellulose? But the regular chemical sniffers would pick that up...

Innstead of thinking nitrates for "explosives" how about other chemicals that when burnt would release blood/nerve agents (cyanides / organo phosphates).

Due to the closed air system on most aircraft by the time anyone realised what was happening quite a few people would be dead... Pulling down those little yellow oxygen masks would not stop you breathing in such chemical agents nor would it stop skin absorbtion.

The thing is this chemical weapons risk has been known since the last century as it was sugested as a possible way for hijackers etc to make "dead men" defenses and got serious attention after the Japanese deth cult released sarin onto the subway system.

FredMay 5, 2017 8:33 AM

My guess is that they might be looking for "paper" that is not only paper.

In the Netherlands for example public transportation tickets are small pieces of paper containing an antenna and a small chip.

TSA might be looking for things like that.

BrianDMay 5, 2017 8:42 AM

The media is the enemy of the people. The media uses paper, therefore we need to take extra precautions when people are traveling with paper because they might be the media and we need to exercise an abundance of caution.

JoeMay 5, 2017 8:43 AM

Well, the fun part is that this is as clear a violation of the 4th Amendment as there could ever possibly be:

"The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, PAPERS, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated,..."

Paper can be soaked in saltpeter or epsom salt or something (I forget what) to make like a smoke bomb. But there's really nothing the paper could do without first being ignited. And IIRC, lighters and matches and all that have been banned...

Anyway, short answer is security theater.

ScottMay 5, 2017 8:45 AM

Some years ago I had TSA agents explain that they had to re-X-ray my carryon because they couldn't see through stack of books I had in there. They ran it through on its side. I learned to spread out my books and haven't had problems since.

I can't imagine a reason for separately X-raying lesser amounts of paper.

KevinMay 5, 2017 8:51 AM

Here's a tinfoil hat theory for consideration. Ink and pencil graphite will scatter X-rays differently from paper. Perhaps they are able to "scan" a notebook or a pile of paper all in one shot. As the pile of paper passes under the X-ray, it should even be possible to use parallax to logically separate the writing on the top page from that on the bottom page.

If there are hundreds of densely hand-written pages, that is probably an insurmountable problem, but a pile of post-it notes probably only has writing on one or two pages. And the writing on those pages could be something interesting ... like a password.

Other things that could be interesting, you could probably discern Arabic from Latin script even without being able to fully decode the contents. It would also be extremely easy to spot something like a sticker, although I'm not sure how that would be useful.

As with most of what goes through a TSA scanner, though, the point is usually just to determine if a more detailed examination should be done.

ThomasMay 5, 2017 9:02 AM

@Joe,
not sold in the EU, but the USA has white tipped matchheads.
Those are so small and easily concealed - rolled into a paper, you could just step on them to ignite them.

Making fire isn't the difficult part.
Even some tin foil and a battery would do the trick.

I am actually amazed that planes lack proper anti-fire installations aside the hand-worn extinguishers located at 1-2 places in the plane.

DanielMay 5, 2017 9:08 AM

It is the next logical step in the conditioning exercise that is border security. The government already has the authority to browse your computer, see you naked, etc. so why should they not have the ability to read everything on paper you bring with you? Of course, physically taking out the post it notes and reading them appear intrusive and is also time consuming yet they can get the same data under the guise of scanning for explosive.

Come on @Bruce, what part of big data are you missing? Or have you been under the illusion that border security is actually about security?

RenMay 5, 2017 9:10 AM


Money, bonds? Counterfeit or otherwise?

The Italians seized $6 trillion in counterfeit US government bonds in 2012.

BrookeMay 5, 2017 9:13 AM

Well if someone wants to test the tinfoil hat theory, you could write a note in the middle of a notebook about some threat to a high level official, maybe include this was a test of my privacy or something on the next page. Go through TSA, see if the FBI shows up. I'm not volunteering for this but you'd know pretty quickly.

NicolaiMay 5, 2017 9:28 AM

It could be an attempt to find large blocks of banknotes, which would be clear overreach from a security screening mission into attempting to detect cash movement, but it would not be the first time the TSA's mission was extended beyond security. Illegal drugs are not an aviation security hazard, but they will try to find them from time to time.

There could also be a problem that a dense block of paper is quite dense, making it harder to see anything concealed inside the block of paper (such as a ceramic blade) with a scanner looking through luggage, other materials and the paper itself.

Overall my guess is either some exaggerated threat or mission over-reach.

AndrewMay 5, 2017 9:40 AM

Last Monday I was flying out of Boston Logan I was pulled aside for secondary screening and on opening my bag, the only thing the agent did was flip through the pages of a book I had. Seemed pretty random at the time.

Yousef SyedMay 5, 2017 9:50 AM

Just when I think they can't make passengers' lives any worse; some donkey in the agency finds a way!
I wish someone would hurry up and create an Iron Man suit for everyone, so this insanity and security theatre may be bypassed once and for all...

ScaredMay 5, 2017 9:53 AM

Maybe they've run out a places to install millimeter wave scanners, so they are going to scan your carry on with them as well? If you have your boarding pass or any other piece of paper in your pocket when you go through the body scanner it will show up (an you'll get the royal treatment).
I have no idea what value there is in scanning carry on luggage this way, except for the stockholders....

WaelMay 5, 2017 10:24 AM

Agree with @Nicolai. An attempt to curb money laundering activities.

@Yousef Syed,

some donkey in the agency finds a way!

An Arabic name, and an Arabic expression! Sweet! You fit a profile, Bubba! Ummm...Your papers, please!

@TSA: start screening ropes, too!

Slime Mold with MustardMay 5, 2017 10:34 AM

I was an airport screener circa 1974. At that time, books appeared a opaque blocks on the X-ray, and we frequently required people to pull them out. I would imagine molded (poured) explosives could appear similar. Alternately, they could be used to conceal an object if a malefactor can predict the angle the bag will sit at during the screen.

I have seen people required to show books to security since. Perhaps making it a hard and fast rule is new.

Tony PelliccioMay 5, 2017 10:41 AM

supersaurus: Indeed. I made the choice because the last time I flew was in 2007. It was from PVD to Norfolk and I'll be honest the delays and the bullshit worked my last nerve. Then since I just drive it.

Brian LangleyMay 5, 2017 10:46 AM

I have read and heard numerous accounts of people traveling to play, and vendors selling the card game Magic: the Gathering and experiences going through airport security.

Decks of ~75 cards are stored carried in small boxes about 3x3x4 inches, and the cards in protective sleeves (that still allow shuffling). Apparently the decks show up as items of concern to the screeners if they go through x-ray, so best practice is to have it out and let them know what it is ahead of time.

Vendors transporting large numbers of cards can have boxes of several thousand cards each in cardboard boxes 12-18 inches long and 4 to 24 inches wide. Again- helps speed you on your way by having them out/announced.

TRMay 5, 2017 10:53 AM

Are you sure this is the TSA? As I recall, MCI employs a private security firm for screening.

anon-jonMay 5, 2017 10:58 AM

I flew out of MCI (American Airlines) on Sunday evening, confirmed this definitely happened. They asked for books, papers, notebooks, etc.

However, I disagree with one point in the article: I didn't witness them "scanning" the documents with a scanner. They went through the Xray machine in a separate bin, much like your laptop does. Perhaps I missed something?

JG4May 5, 2017 11:05 AM


paper itself, whether nitrated or not, is very transparent to x-rays. the term of art is low-Z. the issue may be that the inks in books contain a significant amount of iron, making them relatively opaque. if the paper is nitrated, that can be detected with neutron activation (not very practical in an airport), x-ray fluorescence (aka, XRF, relatively easy) or other simple spectroscopic methods requiring the books/pads/etc. to be opened. btw, inks on currency may contain unique heavy metals or unique combinations of heavy metals to allow XRF to detect currency in x-ray scanners. to the extent that TSA are hewing to their mission in a lawful manner, they are looking for a threat model that affects safety. if it generates more LEO revenue via asset seizures, they're comfortable with that, but to pass muster in judicial review, it has to be plausible for the safety mission. with that said, I love the healthy paranoia that is evident in the foregoing comments. there is no doubt that a substantial block of paper could be a novel delivery vehicle for either shock waves or chemical agents. we might hope that aircraft now have separate air supply for the cockpit, but even if the pilots deliver a full load of bodies to the nearest airport, it would be a highly successful attack. can anyone define an ethical line where you recognize/discover/invent spectacular threat models, but if you reveal them, the knowledge will be useful by terrorists? it's a short step from this discussion to that line. were the TSA clever enough to offer a threat model hotline? the see-something, say-something hotline is a great way to collect a lot of random noise


EtienneMay 5, 2017 11:08 AM

No clue. I haven't been to a commercial airport gulag since 1993.

When I need to go somewhere, I just rent a Cessna.

eurekaMay 5, 2017 11:18 AM

@Clive Robinson,

Those masks definitely won't help at all. They mix cabin air in with the delivered oxygen. Seems like an actual concern

Chris AbbottMay 5, 2017 11:20 AM

The first thing I thought was nitrocellulose too. And this explosive ink:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NiX4VPpg7Lk

But I'm not sure you could contain it in a way as just paper in a pad or folder that would cause a significant explosion rather than just a fire.

@Clive:

I think what you're saying about a chemical is more likely. Or, is something like that going to be an excuse to look for instructions/political docs, etc? Who knows with this administration. They've been searching phones too (totally unconstitutional of course).

MattMay 5, 2017 11:22 AM

TR is correct - MCI has a contractor do security, not TSA.

From Wikipedia:

After the establishment of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), MCI was one of five airports where the TSA has experimented with using independent contractors to provide all traveler inspector services. The airport uses FirstLine Transportation Security, an independent contractor which conforms to TSA's recruiting and training standards. TSA supervises these independent contractors, but they are not federal employees.

EricMay 5, 2017 11:27 AM

I can confirm that they're doing it at MCI - not all passengers though. My wife traveled through there recently, and they pulled all the papers out of her bag. They claimed that it was possible to spoof xrays with paper, so this was why it was happening. Of course, the security line folks probably know as little as the people going through.

PeteMay 5, 2017 11:28 AM

Switched to keastering all my data about 10 yrs ago. Really want to thank the guys who invented microSD. Much more comfortable.

rMay 5, 2017 11:43 AM

@blablablaginger,

Re: the intricacies of your dismissal

You must've missed the three dimensional scanning technique reported here previously.

Previously it was used on aged manuscripts, the TSA must be listening and using it now for bulk surfing.

ab praeceptisMay 5, 2017 12:27 PM

I guess the tsa is suspecting that the evil Russians (TM) have foldable origami computers to hack the elections, the white house and kentucky fried chicken, too.

Forget it, evil Russians(TM)! The tsa is too smart for you!

EvanMay 5, 2017 12:29 PM

@Thomas: I think it's because (AFAIK) they only scan objects from two angles, so it's possible to orient a flat object (like a knife blade) so that it barely appears on their scanners. That depends on the object being precisely oriented in the packed object, and a book or a sheaf of papers could be a good way to accomplish that.

It's not a very credible countermeasure, but then, none of what TSA does is.

meatspaceavatarMay 5, 2017 12:53 PM

RFID-blocking paper has gained commercial availability lately.

I have no idea if it would have any real effect on x-rays, but then logic hasn't always played a big in role in TSA decision making.

RyanMay 5, 2017 1:13 PM

Note that security at KCI is still run by contractors (like every airport was before 9/11). So its not TSA doing it and it may not be something more generalized.

TrevMay 5, 2017 1:16 PM

Is it possible that they are scanning for laser printer yellow dots?
Trying to track the identifying dots from laser printers?
If you're looking for a courier and have a sample of their paper already then you could ID them from the dots?

Doober RMay 5, 2017 1:20 PM

TSA blamed the process on the private contractor that handles security in KCI (although other airports were allegedly doing the same thing) and says the practice has been stopped.

AndrewMay 5, 2017 1:25 PM

anon-jon: "However, I disagree with one point in the article: I didn't witness them "scanning" the documents with a scanner. They went through the Xray machine in a separate bin, much like your laptop does. Perhaps I missed something?"

In this case they are most likely looking for cavities inside books where guns or others can be hidden.

Bong-Smoking Primitive Monkey-Brained SpookMay 5, 2017 1:32 PM

With all these clever explanations, perhaps TSA is looking for what they can do with paper scanning! Free consulting. Keep'em coming :)

AlanMay 5, 2017 1:32 PM

My guess is that they want to see if the passenger is carrying written material linked to terrorism, which might include books, papers or pamphlets written in Arabic, or other suspicious material such as a book titled "How to Terrorize an Aircraft". While the TSA is telling you they want to separately run your written material through the xray machine, that is just a pretext--in fact what they want you to do is to get it out or put it into a separate clear bag so they can see what you have.

Clive RobinsonMay 5, 2017 1:37 PM

@ Chris Abbott, eureka,

I think what you're saying about a chemical is more likely.
Seems like an actual concern

As I said it once was, and may well still be.

But experience tells us that in general the TSA is reactive not proactive.

Which I suspect some passengers might be gratefull for... After all it was our host @Bruce that joked about a terrorist stuffing a bomb up "where the sun don't shine" then somebody actually did it. Much to the supprise not just of Bruce but a Prince, over whom the blood and guts of the attempt descended, a sight I'm sure he will not soon forget.

But in general the terrorists are no where as inventive as smugglers or oil rig workers with a thirst on them for some booze.

Back when I worked in the oil industry I had to go onto platforms more often than I liked. Part of the problem was back then I had a fondness for a certain well known caffinated soda that came in a can preferably just begining to freeze. I've only been on one platform where you could get it from the bond or commissary. So one hot summer I decided I'd take a large bottle with me onto a gas platform that was getting an upgrade. At the heliport I was stopped and told "sorry you can't take it"...

The guy that stopped me was quite friendly and we got chatting whilst I filled out the paper work so I could get it back on my way back. It turns out that rig workers with a thirst on them were quite inventive about how they would try to smuggle booze onto a "dry" platform. One such was jokingly refered to as a "booze bomb". Basically what they did was to drill a small hole in the bottom of the can and drain out the soda then fill it with vodka or some such and seal the hole again. But these failed either a weight or "squease test". Those with a thirst thus got a bit smarter and weighed the can prior to sealing but the can still failed the squease test because there was no preasure in the can.

Well one thirsty lad worked out that if you drilled the right size hole in the older steel based cans you could solder in a hypodermic needle without melting the syringe end fitting. Thus the correct weight of vodka was put in then using a modified "home soda maker" he preasurised the can and sealed the needle in a way it could be cut flush and polished flat to the base. Thus the can passed the squeeze test. He was getting away with it till someone squeezed to hard and the can shot out the remains of the needle and covered every one in the area with a fine mist of vodka which caused no end of problems, and apparently nearly caused a fire due to someone smoking, hence the blanket ban on soda drinks etc.

Any way being of a curious and creative mind I and a friend who worked on the more curious patents you don't get to see decided to see just how much of a problem such a can would be. Well lets just say it was a practical entry into home made Fuel Air Explosives. Though technically a Boiling Liquid Expanding Vapour Explosion (BLEVE)[1] it was defiantly quite impresive. Both of us being practical jokers as well decided that there was potential as an ink bomb. Thus the vodka got replaced with a dark mauve food colourant[2]. The can shaken vigourously then the ring pull pulled with a long piece of string. The cloud and stream of colourant was quite spectacular. However in another test we decided to see what would happen if the seal on the hypodermic needle failed... The resulting stream of purple had a very extensive range.

Any way some years later I was doing a paid security gig for an official agency part of which was a red team "MacGyver Test". Where we were chalenged to come up with a new threat weapon made of innocent household items that somebody might have around them, that not just looked innocent but would be stable unlike home made explosives belts etc. I suggested using the "booze bomb" but using one of a number of "kitchen sink" liquid chemical agents... It caused a bit of consternation for the agency concerned, I gather it was not something they had thought of though unpreasurised glass jars/bottles they had.

I've yet to see it come up in a book or movie, so keep your eyes open.

[1] https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boiling_liquid_expanding_vapor_explosion

[2] Cochineal, back then still madr with crushed "scale insects" https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cochineal

anonymouscowardMay 5, 2017 1:57 PM

I would bet someone designed a shielding that can be placed around an object, inside a carved out stack of paper such that it did nt apear anything was inside the paper. Someone sold the TSA a set of scanners that could detect that shielding inside the paper.

Just an idea.

Cegfault McIrishMay 5, 2017 2:09 PM

I also think "scan" is not the best word to use - I interpreted that as "creating digital photocopies of".

I'll second what others have said - paper is a good shield, holds onto chemicals, is easy to hide things in (remember the "gun in a book" trick? well what about "plastic knife in a book?").

But the most likely is testing for chemicals. Clothes wash easily, but if you wash your hands (and trace amounts of chem remains), then pick up a book, or have the book sitting near the clothes that get washed, the book can contain trace amounts of chemicals on it.

Washing paper is not fun nor easy.

JesseMay 5, 2017 2:12 PM

I've been pulled for secondary screening, sometimes from the Pre lines, when traveling with stacks of documents or large boxes of business cards.

When I've asked why, the screeners have told me that on their current-generation X-Ray scanners, big bricks of paper are indistinguishable from big bricks of C4.

This, of course, doesn't explain why they'd want to see single sheets of paper. And may have been bullshit.

Cegfault McIrishMay 5, 2017 2:13 PM

P.S. One of the biggest problems the TSA has is practical application of any testing or security threat. For example, we may know that a certain chemical is used by bomb makers, but if the TSA can't scan for that chemical, then what are they to do? We can all find ways of "sneaking" things through the TSA because they are limited by (a) existing machinery, and (b) agent intelligence/training [or lack thereof].

So on that end, if there is some type of threat, chemical, or resource that is detectable in any amount via X-Ray, then it's easy to instruct agents "tell passengers to separate paper and scan it individually". What's not easy is getting new/better machines, increasing agent retention, or training people reliably.

joseph motherMay 5, 2017 2:17 PM

Does hand writing x-ray? Are they attempting to capture hand-written messages for downstream analysis?

unclejed613May 5, 2017 2:19 PM

My initial thought was flash paper (nitrocellulose), but that would set off the nitrate sniffer. I guess magicians need to start driving instead of flying between gigs.

BobbyMay 5, 2017 2:21 PM

It's about the money, as always.

Every slightly credible search method the TSA employs adds "hazard" to searches, which increases average salaries of TSA agents because of a hazard modifier to their pay. So everything that causes a separate search also causes their pay to rise. Since they haven't had a pay raise in a really long time, this is just one way of making it happen.

Matt BMay 5, 2017 2:24 PM

1) Carry copies of scientific journals the TSA hasn't paid to access. Bonus points for being about global warming. Or copyrighted Sheetmusic.
2) Complain to the appropriate authorities about unauthorized copying taking place.
3) Profit.

Ellis Boyd ReddingMay 5, 2017 2:28 PM

Paper shanks or the like, which can also be hidden in hollowed out stacks of paper. Your readers don't appear to spend much time in prisons.

JardaMay 5, 2017 2:42 PM

@Tony Pelliccio: Going digital is hardly the solution as it seems you might be forced to reveal passwords to your devices an accounts. That is actually worse than scanning the paper, because they put it all in a bin and send through a scanner, not through an optical scanner which would create an image of each page. On the other hand they might hoove the contents of your phone, computer and any other device, including mp3 player.

So the solution for travelling across US border is taking a computer with OS freshly installed on a disk which was overwriten with zeroes just before. You zero the disk again before you go back, at home you restore from image. Data, which you migh need during your stay can lay on an ssh server out of USA, with a really solid password, running on a non standard port.

WillMay 5, 2017 3:05 PM

Could they be making a scan of the paper contents or checking for circuits? bunnie's Chibitronics has been making commercially available sticker circuits for years and I'm sure it's something bad actors are looking into.

Matt RoberdsMay 5, 2017 5:02 PM

The Kansas City Star ran an article on 3 May 2017 that says they have stopped screening paper products separately at MCI: http://www.kansascity.com/news/local/article148384019.html (you may need to deny cookies from kansascity.com to read it).

From that article, TSA is blaming the new procedure on their contractor, Akal Security:

---
The additional screening procedures were implemented by the contractor, which it is allowed to do if it follows TSA guidelines, a TSA spokesman said Wednesday evening.

Akal Security Inc., based in Española, N.M., is contracted to provide security at KCI through the TSA’s Screening Partnership Program. The company took over security at KCI in 2015 under a five-year, $108 million contract.

The TSA, however, asked the contractor to stop the additional screening Tuesday because it was affecting operations, the TSA spokesman said.

It’s believed the contractor started the added screening procedures over the weekend.

The TSA also has no plans to roll out the additional screening nationwide, the spokesman said.
---

The article also mentions that passengers started writing about the new screening on Twitter pretty soon after it was implemented. TSA at first used the "we can't tell you why because security" excuse.

TatütataMay 5, 2017 8:14 PM

I heard stories first hand from people who flew from the Carribean and South America to Canada transiting through US airports. They would find after arrival that their luggage had been searched. Only commercial documents of various value where missing, but more valuable items would be left, so this wouldn't have been petty theft at the originating airports.

This was more than twenty years ago!

Peter Mark ManciniMay 5, 2017 9:07 PM

They are probably looking for something that looks like paper but isn't such as printed circuits on paper. Circuits on Paper Substrate. Perhaps you can construct an amplified circuit running on a cellphone battery that can prevent the crew from radioing that the craft is currently being hijacked? Can such a low amount of current be used for this or to disable navigation? Could it be used for terminal guidance as a beacon for a weapon to be used against the aircraft?

recenttravelerMay 5, 2017 10:55 PM

REAL REASON: It's the thick glossy covers on books and magazines. When you have a bunch of books at a certain thickness, stacked together, it messes with the image quality of their machines. FYI.

DaveMay 5, 2017 11:00 PM

>Well if someone wants to test the tinfoil hat theory, you could write a
>note in the middle of a notebook about some threat to a high level official

You could write "The President is a clown", and see if the Secret Service arrests you for revealing state secrets.

WaelMay 5, 2017 11:09 PM

@recenttraveler,

It's the thick glossy covers on books and magazines...

And it took them only 15 years to find that out? I'll tell you another one ...

JLMay 5, 2017 11:40 PM

Another possibility:

http://www.wbur.org/news/2016/09/13/read-a-book-without-opening-it

This Device Can Read The Pages Of A Book Without Opening It
============================================================:
The device works by directing ultrashort bursts of terahertz radiation at stacks of paper. Some of it is absorbed by the paper, and the remainder is reflected back. The signals that bounce back are then analyzed with computer algorithms that can discern individual letters.
============================================================:

David DillardMay 6, 2017 7:30 AM

My guess is that they have "scanners" that also do sniffing and are looking for explosive residue that might have gotten on the paper.

me againMay 6, 2017 9:00 AM

@Matt Roberds

I clicked your link above and LittleSnitch threw up a strange message.

Could be a coincidence ...

JG4May 6, 2017 9:30 AM

there must be many interesting compounds embedded in books that have been exposed to the atmosphere in a house or building for a long time. paper is extremely porous and has a high affinity for water vapor and any polar organic compounds like alcohols. it likely would take a very long time for them to diffuse to the middle of a closed book (e.g., sitting on a bookshelf), but could be rapidly analyzed by opening the book and feeding the vapor into a mass spectrometer or other sensitive analytical instrument. an interesting overlap of the TSA security mission with the information gathering mission that piggybacks for a free ride

I forgot to mention yesterday that some glossy paper has a mineral coating. I've seen books that are much denser than normal, where the pages are very shiny and very smooth, as if all of the pores in the paper are filled in with something like a very fine clay. National Geographic springs to mind. the Z of calcium, silicon and aluminum are significantly higher than carbon, oxygen and hydrogen that is the vast majority of actual wood/paper fibers. some books and magazines will be much more opaque than others.

I applaud the healthy paranoia on display here. as Ben Franklin said, "A republic, if you can keep it." Now that it's become an oligarchy, the only question is where you can find a medium-size country run by honest and competent people. perhaps in another star system.

MattMay 6, 2017 9:37 AM

An interesting question. Somewhat moot, as anything done by airport security in United States airports is done badly enough to fail pretty much every test. It's a machine that manufactures nothing but delays.

Fortunately, my four round trips last year was a record for me, one I never intend to beat.

Loren PechtelMay 6, 2017 10:33 AM

This isn't actually new.

Too many books in checked baggage has caused them to inspect the bag for quite some time now, and once in a while even with carry-on bags. When he was checking my books a screener explained that they can't tell the difference between a block of paper and a block of plastic explosives so they have to eyeball it.

It certainly does sound like they've ramped it up, though. Since I switched to e-books I carry very little paper and nobody's had a look.

Matt RoberdsMay 6, 2017 1:06 PM

@me again

LittleSnitch is probably working as designed. :) kansascity.com has several advertising and tracking devices on it. My ad-blocker reports it is blocking things from the following sites

adnxs.com crwdcntrl.net amazon-adsystem.com connect.facebook.net launch.newsinc.com s0.2mdn.net chartbeat.com chartbeat.com crwdcntrl.net googletagservices.com optimizely.com syndication.twitter.com ece-logger.nandomedia.com mcclatchy.dynatracesaas.com nmkansascity.112.2o7.net tags.mdotlabs.com

and there may be more things that are blocked on another layer.

JG4May 6, 2017 7:30 PM


there must be many interesting compounds embedded in books that have been exposed to the atmosphere in a house or building for a long time. paper is extremely porous and has a high affinity for water vapor and any polar organic compounds like alcohols. it likely would take a very long time for them to diffuse to the middle of a closed book (e.g., sitting on a bookshelf), but could be rapidly analyzed by opening the book and feeding the vapor into a mass spectrometer or other sensitive analytical instrument. an interesting overlap of the TSA security mission with the information gathering mission that piggybacks for a free ride

I forgot to mention yesterday that some glossy paper has a mineral coating. I've seen books that are much denser than normal, where the pages are very shiny and very smooth, as if all of the pores in the paper are filled in with something like a very fine clay. National Geographic springs to mind. the Z of calcium, silicon and aluminum are significantly higher than carbon, oxygen and hydrogen that is the vast majority of actual wood/paper fibers. some books and magazines will be much more opaque than others.

I applaud the healthy paranoia on display here. as Ben Franklin said, "A republic, if you can keep it." Now that it's become an oligarchy, the only question is where you can find a medium-size country run by honest and competent people. perhaps in another star system.

65535May 6, 2017 9:07 PM

@ Spaceman Spiff

“My guess is that someone sold the TSA a sh*t load of scanners and now they have to justify the expense.”

That could be. But, its still it is both a waste of scarce resources, taxpayer’s money, and hassle time for travelers.

@ Andrew

“[It is] Just an invasion of privacy and maybe an attempt to steal some company secrets. Hard to believe that terrorist instructions are carried in plain text.

That is an interesting thought. A private “security” company probably would not be above stealing and selling lucrative trade secrets.

@ MeX

“no need to "scan" the books in the old fashioned way. They probably do this :-)
https://phys.org/news/2016-09-digitally-unwrapped-scroll-reveals-earliest.html

Hum. Technology is advancing.

@ Joe

“Well, the fun part is that this is as clear a violation of the 4th Amendment as there could ever possibly be: "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, PAPERS, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated,..."’

Noted. You put that together with MeX and others who show how to scan closed book or bulk paper stacks things begin to become clear. This could be another huge Fourth Amendment violation by the Government and subcontractors.

I really don’t like the idea of mixing wild “Nitrocellulose” and other “oxidizer-paper” explosive "theories" to search USA person documents for a fishing expedition.

With clever fear stories of “nitrocellulose” or so on style of stories the Government could easily search Attorney’s documents’ and other sensitive business documents for gain under the name of "National Security".
There are probably hundreds of ways of inventing paper fear stories and hundreds of was of parallel construction loop hole. This doesn’t include miniature cameras hidden at proper points that can take a thousand frames per second to record documents.

I do not like the trend. I thick it should stop – as poster Matt Roberds has said it has stopped [if true]. The subcontractor could have just changed the method of paper searches and re-branded the system.

@ Etienne
“…I haven't been to a commercial airport gulag since 1993. When I need to go somewhere, I just rent a Cessna.”

That is a great way to beat the TSA cattle lines. Is your method fairly cost effective? How do we go about renting a Cessna without a pilot’s license?

Bruce HMay 7, 2017 9:35 AM

I think they're just looking for an excuse to say "papers, please".

Markus OttelaMay 7, 2017 5:01 PM

Nobody has yet suggested it so I'm going to propose they're looking for pre-shared keys.

itsaMay 7, 2017 7:12 PM

Of course they're looking for onetime pads! Maybe people are physically carrying encrypted messages now as it is well understood that electronic communications are all collected and analysed.

Clive RobinsonMay 8, 2017 2:08 AM

@ Markus Ottela, itsa,

Nobody has yet suggested it so I'm going to propose they're looking for pre-shared keys.

And how do they know when they have found one?

A typical One Time Pad (OTP) or Code book, tend to be obvious. But the reason that is true is two fold,

1, Ease of Use.
2, Efficiency.

Back a century or so ago we had "book ciphers" where the text in a book was used as we would an OTP.

The problem is that there was a trick where by you could unzip such a construct because the words in the booktext and plaintext overlapped each other. Thus you could guess an opening word or phrase in the plaintext, and that would give up a word or two of the booktext. Thus you would end up with one or two charecters of the next word in the booktext, enabling you to guess that word which in turn would give the first letter or two of the next plaintext word.

The point was that the words were in effect an alphabet where the members were of unequal sizes, thus the overlapp weakness at one level. At a higher level the word guessing was not done in issolation but in the knowledge that both the booktext and plaintext should be independent but self coherent.

Thus various people looked at how to reduce this problem. One was to simply use different books or parts of books and multiply apply them to the plaintext in various ways. It was found that simply using four booktexts encrypting each one to encrypt the previous, you would end up with a result that at the time was considered to have sufficiently flat statistics for it to be considered as an OTP for use with the plain text.

The point being even if you have the source documents it does not give you the final booktext. To get that you would have to either now or guess the method of producing it or brute force it out which is a resource intensive attack.

Whilst I would not suggest just four booktexts simply encrypting each other would be sufficient as "the method is known" a cautious person could come up with a different method more appropriate to modern times.

itsaMay 8, 2017 3:22 AM

@Clive Robinson

"And how do they know when they have found one?"

They don't and that's why they are probably scanned to be analysed through their vast computing arrays. If they detect random data with high entropy they could reasonably guess it's an OTP and be used for cracking intercepted encrypted communications.

Book ciphers are a bad idea as it is not truly random data. A good OTP data stream must come from a good PRNG or random source.

First of all I acknowledge that the best way to store an OTP is digitally encrypted but if you're an agent going on a short assignment (say few days to weeks) then it makes sense to take a small physical OTP that you can always keep with you and destroy at any moment. Before you leave you would use an air-gapped machine to generate a random sequence and print it on post-it size pad. You would carry that with you in your pocket even when sleeping. To receive and send messages you would access a Internet connected computer at public spaces like libraries or cafes and log into a pre-arranged email account with a time-based 2FA (TOTP) that only requires an off-line smartphone app. Keep in mind such an agent would be high risk and already potentially be a target of surveillance and any electronic device he/she takes would probably be under constant attack and surveillance. So you would have data connections disabled. All the coding and decoding would be done manually by hand and destroy the message along with the OTP page. The agent may simply take a photo of the coded email on his/her smart phone from the public computer screen, go to a secure location and decipher it. And vice versa, he could manually code a message, copy it to a note on the smart phone and then copy into the email at a library. The messages back and forth would be relatively brief instructions and updates and hence feasible to do this way. If in danger, you simply destroy the OTP. The only electronic device you carry would not have anything of use.

TMMay 8, 2017 4:44 AM

Contrary to what has been suggested, matches are not banned on flights. Up to four books of matches are allowed (or has this been changed?)

Clive RobinsonMay 8, 2017 5:57 AM

@ itsa,

Book ciphers are a bad idea as it is not truly random data. A good OTP data stream must come from a good PRNG or random source.

Book ciphers in their original form as I indicated are an idea that went back over a hundred years. Further I also pointed out that at various points in time people have looked at how to improve them.

There is three things you need to consider,

1, Reduce to an alphabet the same size as that in the plaintext and importantly fixed in width.

2, Reduce any statistics to a suitably low value.

3, Apply a mixing function to shuffle the result to reduce statistics further.

All three of these can be done by pencil and paper methods that have been around for some time.

One way is to apply a mixing function with two books. An overly simple idea would be to arrange a start point in both books. Then using the ten most common letters (remembered with "eat on irish lid) only from the first book count along in the second book and write down the letters to form a base string.

To flatten the statistics of the base string use the conversion process from base28 to base10 used in the Nihilist cipher system to make a base keystream

Likewise flatten the statistics of the plaintext. Add the flattened plaintext to the base key stream along with an additive mod 10.

Then using the Nihilist process in reverse convert the base10 ciphertext to base28 ciphertext.

It's a simple process that makes a near flat statistics ciphertext that by the last process converts it back to what statisticaly looks like --but is most definitely not-- a simple substitution cipher.

The only question is how you would make the additive value, of which there are quite a number, that again can be easily done by hand. In a way you could view it as a stream cipher with super encryption. To see how to knock out a few annoyances such as base28 to base26 conversion have a look at how the UK and later NATO Rocket super encipherment system worked.

dragonfrogMay 8, 2017 4:42 PM

My guess is that it's more about 'getting the paper out of the way of the other stuff in the bag' than about 'scanning the paper'.

They don't care so much about your stack of paperbacks - they're just sick of having to open bags up because a stack of paperbacks and a stack of blocks of plastic explosive look a lot alike from the side.

Wendy M. GrossmanMay 8, 2017 5:51 PM

I remember once sometime in the last couple of years - not sure if in the US or at Heathrow, I think maybe the latter - being told a big block of paper was interfering with screening and having it taken out and the bag rescanned. I like to travel with copies of magazines I subscribe to so I can catch up and I can toss or give away the magazines when I'm done with them. Especially so I have something to read if I have to wait online that doesn't involve getting out a phone - inside security and while waiting for immigration it's not really wise to have your phone out lest they think you're photographing stuff.

wg

Patriot COMSECMay 8, 2017 6:46 PM

There is something going on between the U.S. and Russian intelligence agencies, but we just don't know what it is.

Let's look at some data points...

tombMay 9, 2017 8:54 AM

I remember reading a chapter on from a book on explosives manufacturing techniques from the 1980s that mentioned the chemist/author used to impregnate toilet paper strips with home-made nitroglycerin and knock it with a hammer for detonation in the bathroom to mimic gunfire as a prank and method for disrupting business operations.

Hopping MadMay 9, 2017 10:01 AM

@tomb

I remember reading a chapter on from a book on explosives manufacturing techniques from the 1980s that mentioned the chemist/author used to impregnate toilet paper strips with home-made nitroglycerin and knock it with a hammer for detonation in the bathroom to mimic gunfire as a prank and method for disrupting business operations.

So why is the TSA scanning paperwork? I'm calling censorship, and that is not something I do lightly.

The last time I was at the local library in my hometown, (Vancouver, WA, USA — let's not be shy about it,) they were holding an online dating class taught by the young women who seemed to be doing quite well riding the local transit system. Quite a number of older gentlemen were sitting down receiving instruction in said "online dating." I don't think that the administration of that library or the tax auditors of Clark County, Washington are at all interested in freedom of speech or freedom of the press.

WilliamMay 9, 2017 10:23 AM

@TS,
Forget the Lord of the Rings, bring a couple of phonebooks/dictionaries ;)

Tim BradshawMay 9, 2017 4:51 PM

Paper looks like some kind of explosive to the scanner they use: separate it, check it is paper and not whatever it looks like to the scanner, and scan the rest: anything that now looks like a block of exploseve is more likely to be one. Scan the paper as well, because books might have hollows with bad things in. No, they are notvreading the text: be serious,

ChrisMay 9, 2017 5:19 PM

Chemical sumpstances that could be used to hide, explosives or drugs

Texts that are in the group of: religious, terrorist, whoknows etc...

That the paper itselfe could be used as a hidden area that infact the scanner cant see?
sounds both plausable and inplausable

Why dont you ask them, i cant see that its impossible to find the truth via right channels
then if you believe the answer or not thats another issue isnt it?
//Chris

ChrisMay 9, 2017 5:23 PM

had to add one more thing that i forgot, and also sorry for the wrong spellings, english is not my native lingo, anyhow money or stocks in paper form.
//Chris

ChrisMay 9, 2017 5:27 PM

Heh, actually i am not done yet, and this might be the real threatfactor, they look for people that bring with them documentation of who they are, what they have worked with, their cv etc, so infact they suspect that you are not going back you want to stay and look for a job.
//Chris

ChrisMay 9, 2017 5:29 PM

Then in case of highly intresting airports such as Brussels International, the actual documents that the politicans have with them are of high intrest too
//Chris

ChrisMay 9, 2017 5:33 PM

Basically going through the paper trash, has and is still very valuable
//Chris

ChrisMay 9, 2017 5:42 PM

Ok this is the last one:
They are not intrested in anything they just collect statistics/metadata of what kindof
paper trails flow between countries, so it can be determined later if its important or not
//Chris

Hopping MadMay 9, 2017 5:43 PM

@William
Forget the Lord of the Rings, bring a couple of phonebooks/dictionaries ;)

Especially with respect to dictionaries. With the NSA linguists, we don't even have dictionary definitions of ordinary words anymore. Just like the British were offended when the American colonists declared independence and named their new law-making body "Congress." By that time the meaning of the word had taken on the use and connotation of "sexual congress," i.e. "sexual intercourse."

Likewise in Swedish:

... in Congress assembled ...

... i Samlag församlade ...

No wonder the British king found that offensive.

And the "collection" or "search and seizure" which per NSA-speak doesn't take place until the data, already sought and seized, are reviewed by law enforcement officers at one of those so-called "fusion centers," which are not even acknowledged to exist, which necessitates the practice of "parallel construction" to arrive at the same data through another route of "probable cause," which is alleged in bad faith, because it never would have come to the attention of law enforcement officers in the first place, were it not for the initial de facto collection which took place without a warrant and whereby the data were identified as suspicious by some "automated" process.

Whatever happened to the inviolable wall between local law enforcement and foreign intelligence surveillance? DAs cannot even prosecute a murder anymore, or bring a case that will stand up in court, what with all the FISA interference. But because of the overwhelming political motive to ban guns, they have made it practically impossible to prosecute a murder unless the defendant is caught in flagrante delicto with such an obvious weapon as a gun or a knife.

  1. Bona fide probable cause has been lost.
  2. Reasonable doubt begins to sneak in, and believe you me, jurors pick up on that really fast.
  3. Then you take the evidence to some expensive DNA lab, which has come into disrepute with a load of double-talk regarding the number of X chromosomes versus biological sex versus the sex on the birth certificate of the person of interest.
  4. An expert starts talking odds and probability, and the numbers aren't adding up.
  5. A hair was vacuumed up at the scene matching someone's DNA, and now you have a barbershop murder mystery.
  6. Or a fingerprint was found, but whose fingerprint and how it got there remain in question.
  7. Or a drop of blood. Have you ever donated blood before?
  8. Or the scene was not secured, because the NSA troupe had to cut the tape and sneak in there for some reason, and they can't say what they did there because it's classified.

This "NSA" business is beginning to sum up to obstruction of justice and destruction of evidence.

Groucho MarxMay 10, 2017 9:53 PM

I flew from 2000 to 2016 on business, carrying a laptop, cell phone, tools, clothing, etc. for doing support on machine tool equipment. TSA got paranoid about binary explosives mixed on site and banned liquids in quantities greater than 100ml (volume, not weight). The science behind TSA threats is either lacking or they rely on Hollywood for their latest threat analysis. Not a good idea. Failing red team tests (last I heard US airport-wise they failed at a 80-95% rate) does little to instill confidence in people. Read where Japanese airport security discovers many TSA inspection failures and they do it without robbing people of their dignity (something TSA does on a daily basis). All in all this is another failed issue. Cut something out of a book to hide something and the variations in density will show up on the xray machine (which TSA self certifies on). Tried to file an OSHA complaint on TSA and was told by an OSHA department head that the xray machines in your veterinarian's office have considerably more oversight, licensing and testing than do the xray machines at airports since TSA does all inspection and certification on those machines. Standing next to one of those and wondering just how bad it is. FWIW cancer clusters in Boston Logan TSO luggage inspectors. Dying for a job.

Robert SchlichtMay 12, 2017 9:13 AM

I live in Kansas City and I have to say that I really dislike Akai. They open and search pretty much every single checked bag, whether or not they have any suspicion, and they reserve the right to break all of your locks to do it without compensating you. It's actually a bit ironic, because MCI is one of the few airports in the country that allows people to walk directly up to the gate before going through security, and TSA agents there are usually quite friendly.

R. JoryMay 16, 2017 8:24 PM

I traveled out of KC airport May 1 2017 and was hit by this flying Southwest (terminal B). I went through the secondary screening entry at gate 32-33, not the other primary screening entry for Southwest. Often my SW Air ticket is TSA PRE, but this time I was not randomly selected for PRE, so I went through conventional screening. This seemed to be security theater; though at the time I chalked it up to May Day and my destination being the radical enclave of Portland OR, you know, where they rioted on May Day. Ooooh. It makes me more mad that MCI was the SOLE airport selected for this farce; glad it later has been cancelled.

The instructions shouted to us: remove, separate, and spread out all papers from your carry-on items. Magazines, folders, catalogs, sales literature, books all need to be separated out into a bin separate from your other items, and spread out if the material is thick. I had nothing matching this description, but I watched the person ahead of me splay out a bunch of file folders in a bin.

My best guess is that this was not a new or different x-ray conveyor-belt scanner: it all looked like the same equipment I see monthly here. People were asked to remove their papers put them in the same stream as shows, belts, carry-on bags: there was no separate "sniffer" or machine as some have suggested in other comments.

I wonder if dense packs of paper can mask some other threat if there is a new threat item that can be concealed in a thick stack of paper: maybe a book can obscure a plastic weapon of some sort: a nylon cake-cutting serrated knife? Maybe a paper knife? Who knows?

First thing through my mind was my lawyer friend, carrying his briefcase ten inches thick with massive folders for clients. He would have had to remove all the contents, place folders into multiple bins, with stacks of paper no more than about a quarter inch thick, say. And his client data is thus visible to snoopy assembly-line operators in the theater: this would be a most unwelcome intrusion and possibly invasion of privacy, like having someone rifle through your most intimate correspondence.

Philip GreerJuly 13, 2017 3:45 PM

This past week I was called out at airport security in China (at two different airports, one in Guilin and one in Beijing). Security personnel indicated that their scanners were interpreting a deck of souvenir playing cards as "densely packed powder".

Clive RobinsonJuly 14, 2017 2:15 PM

@ Philip Greer,

scanners were interpreting a deck of souvenir playing cards as "densely packed powder".

Yup that would sound likely.

The problem is how does the scanner tell the difference between very small/fine fibres and say a course powder when both have been compressed? The former into cards the latter into say pills or casings to smuggle small but highly valuable chemicals like ephedrine...

Scanners have only a certain resolution, often much worse than that of the human eye. Thus you would expect both false positives and negatives, which probably means they have adjusted to minimise false negatives, as the fall out with false positives is small.

Leave a comment

Allowed HTML: <a href="URL"> • <em> <cite> <i> • <strong> <b> • <sub> <sup> • <ul> <ol> <li> • <blockquote> <pre>

Photo of Bruce Schneier by Per Ervland.

Schneier on Security is a personal website. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of IBM Resilient.