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Lurkily

I used to screen baggage for TSA in the US. Ask me anything.

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I've been told this interests some people, so here's an AMA. I screened luggage, not people, and in my role, only what would go under the plane, not what the passenger could access, so we didn't care much about knives and such. 

What I won't do is divulge specifications of equipment, procedures, or anything that would qualify as "Sensitive Security Information".  But I can go into the generalities of how things functioned and what we worried about. 

Also keep in mind, my information is about two years out of date. 

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Interesting, thank you for this opportunity.

Hmm, questions.... Was there ever a case in which you could not screen the luggage? For example because it was somehow a shielded container and you had to force open it?

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Keep in mind, I'm also willing to engage political questions - I know our agency is a controversial one - as long as things stay civil.

4 hours ago, Markus said:

For example because it was somehow a shielded container and you had to force open it?

Oh, all the time. The scanners we used are basically CT scanners; they use x-ray, and there's a lot they can't penetrate.  Sometimes an object is just made of metal, and indistinct, other times, such as with film, they put things in shielded containers. (film bags are sometimes lead lined specifically to get through x-ray safely.) 

In that case, you just have to open it and see. If you can't say it's safe, it doesn't fly. And sometimes people lock it up. At our airport, you brought checked luggage to us, so we often had a passenger there to unlock it. But when we didn't, we still had some options. 

TSA locks have keys that allow us to open the lock. We also, some of us, kept common keys with us; masterlock and brinks sold replacement keys for some locks, and they're sometimes (not always) interchangeable. More common in cheap luggage locks. I personally got and learned to use a lockpick kit. 

Sometimes, though, we just had to use bolt cutters. We'd page them, try our keys, it would resist our picks, we couldn't split the zipper if it was a metal zipper... we just cut the lock off. Locks integrated into clasps we sometimes had to open with a crowbar. 

The worst were the big pelican cases. Tough ABS plastic, four eyelets big enough for heavy duty locks, and our cutters aren't made for hardened steel lock hasps, we didn't have the tools to cut the plastic eyelets. More than one like that just didn't make it to the destination. 

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5 hours ago, A Nicheling said:

How do you screen dog containers if it had a dog inside it?

Actually a pretty common occurrence.  Dogs, cats, even a falcon once.  In short, the same way we do luggage, we just have to take the dog out first.  For this, at our airport, we required the passenger to be present and to handle the dog for us.  Not all dogs are friendly to strangers, as you can imagine, and it's impossible to guess which are which.

Without going into our exact procedure, we tested specific parts of the case where trace residues tend to accumulate - explosive residue is remarkably sticky and transfers to damn near everything it BREATHES near - as well as checking animals with longer fur to make sure nothing was hidden. (So, part of the job description is petting doggies.)

It is imperative that we have the passenger there to handle the animal; if they left, we would literally call them back from the gate for it.

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I don’t know how well you’d be able to provide information for this based on what you did specifically, but once TSA stopped me for having a suspected explosion in my bag. They looked through it and it was a bag of extreme cheese goldfish. I specified the flavor because I had multiple bags of other flavors in there as well. Any clue to what happened?

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1 hour ago, Pokestardragacraft said:

I don’t know how well you’d be able to provide information for this based on what you did specifically, but once TSA stopped me for having a suspected explosion in my bag. They looked through it and it was a bag of extreme cheese goldfish. I specified the flavor because I had multiple bags of other flavors in there as well. Any clue to what happened?

This is tricky because I don't know the foodstuff in question (plain old goldfish crackers, with cheese flavor-dust?) but we have several methods of detecting explosives.  Our scanners operate largely on density, making a vague judgment of what MIGHT be the right density to be something explosive.  In order to reliably detect any explosive this way, we do have to put up with a certain amount of false positives on things with a similar overall density.

If I had to guess, I'd say that some of them got crushed to powder, with a higher density than intact goldfish crackers.  Maybe it caught that bag at just the right position and angle to mistake it for more mass than it actually was, or maybe that cheese flavor really does change it enough to make the difference.

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6 hours ago, Lurkily said:

This is tricky because I don't know the foodstuff in question (plain old goldfish crackers, with cheese flavor-dust?) but we have several methods of detecting explosives.  Our scanners operate largely on density, making a vague judgment of what MIGHT be the right density to be something explosive.  In order to reliably detect any explosive this way, we do have to put up with a certain amount of false positives on things with a similar overall density.

If I had to guess, I'd say that some of them got crushed to powder, with a higher density than intact goldfish crackers.  Maybe it caught that bag at just the right position and angle to mistake it for more mass than it actually was, or maybe that cheese flavor really does change it enough to make the difference.

Wow. Maybe they were "bursting with flavor" just a tad bit too much?

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5 hours ago, derpy2003pb said:

Wow. Maybe they were "bursting with flavor" just a tad bit too much?

I'm guessing it's not the flavor.  If the scanner caught it, then it's probably just a false positive they had to verify.  If it was caught with trace detection, by testing swabs, then the flavor is more likely - some things use the same chemicals or explosives that chemicals contain, or just molecules with similar properties in some ways, and they can also cause a false-positive.  If it were caught at that stage, it could easily have been the flavoring that did it. 

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To be honest, some of the most interesting stories are less about the procedure and more about the people we meet.  I've had to deal with just about everything from Diplomats, to South American farmers, to anti-TSA protesters, to Secret Service countersniper teams, and some of them carry the funniest things.

 

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10 hours ago, Lurkily said:

I'm guessing it's not the flavor.  If the scanner caught it, then it's probably just a false positive they had to verify.  If it was caught with trace detection, by testing swabs, then the flavor is more likely - some things use the same chemicals or explosives that chemicals contain, or just molecules with similar properties in some ways, and they can also cause a false-positive.  If it were caught at that stage, it could easily have been the flavoring that did it. 

It was a joke and I did not mean in a literal way.

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I know.  I just wanted to touch on the times that the joke could actually be true.  Sorry for the confusion.

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4 minutes ago, Lurkily said:

I know.  I just wanted to touch on the times that the joke could actually be true.  Sorry for the confusion.

oh, ok. got it. also, I wonder when the next Nimbatus update will be. I kinda am getting bored of the same old missions every time and getting them done super easy with my OP drone that I spent well over 24hrs of gameplay making. just a random thought.

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The racing update is in progress.  That's probably a subject better reserved for it's own thread, but you can check out some updates and videos from the upcoming update over at the Development WIP thread. 

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Just now, Lurkily said:

The racing update is on progress.  That's probably a subject better reserved for it's own thread, but you can check out some updates and videos from the upcoming update over at the Development WIP thread. 

ooooo! My OP drone will do quite well I think

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I'm sure people would be responsive to a new topic, if you want to open one, about what they hope for and expect from the racing update.

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1 minute ago, Lurkily said:

I'm sure people would be responsive to a new topic, if you want to open one, about what they hope for and expect from the racing update.

ok

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On 1/11/2019 at 5:29 PM, Lurkily said:

To be honest, some of the most interesting stories are less about the procedure and more about the people we meet.  I've had to deal with just about everything from Diplomats, to South American farmers, to anti-TSA protesters, to Secret Service countersniper teams, and some of them carry the funniest things.

 

Okay you got me, what do Secret Service Countersniper teams carry?

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The biggest damn rifle I have ever seen.  (Seen a lot, in the course of my job at the airport.)  Their job, in essence, is to snipe for snipers.  The one I recall refused to let the rifle out of his sight, and our supervisor let him back into the screening area (pretty unusual to permit) so he could watch us screen his luggage.  Huge rifle, optics, ammunition, some of it color-coded, flak jacket and armor plates, and a notebook with the code phrases for that week, which I'm pretty sure I didn't have clearance to read.

Checked luggage isn't accessible in flight, so firearms here are permitted with a declaration to the airlines, and by meeting whatever criteria that airline might also impose.  (Probably require a license and such.)  Ammunition is also okay, if declared and packaged in specific ways to protect it from accidental detonation. (Such as accidental contact with a primer if things shift in flight.) 

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um.. has there ever been anything dead or... alive in the uh.. "bags"

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16 hours ago, Lurkily said:

The biggest damn rifle I have ever seen.  (Seen a lot, in the course of my job at the airport.)  Their job, in essence, is to snipe for snipers.  The one I recall refused to let the rifle out of his sight, and our supervisor let him back into the screening area (pretty unusual to permit) so he could watch us screen his luggage.  Huge rifle, optics, ammunition, some of it color-coded, flak jacket and armor plates, and a notebook with the code phrases for that week, which I'm pretty sure I didn't have clearance to read.

Checked luggage isn't accessible in flight, so firearms here are permitted with a declaration to the airlines, and by meeting whatever criteria that airline might also impose.  (Probably require a license and such.)  Ammunition is also okay, if declared and packaged in specific ways to protect it from accidental detonation. (Such as accidental contact with a primer if things shift in flight.) 

Cool or at least super interesting

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12 hours ago, Kitten said:

um.. has there ever been anything dead or... alive in the uh.. "bags"

You'd have to define what you mean by dead -- but I'll assume you mean remains.  Sometimes hunters bring back trophies; once I found bits of antler and claw that I couldn't really understand visually, still a bit . . . messy.  There were some anthropologists who brought back some human skulls - X-Ray operators got a shock seeing that on the X-ray - but that was down at checkpoint in carry-on, not checked luggage, where I worked. 

Beyond that . . . in my department, crematory urns were not terribly uncommon.  We might see something every couple of months, and they were rarely marked.  Those who worked out at the cargo hangar had it rougher; when bodies are shipped home, they go by cargo.  Not everybody can work down there.  Seeing a casket in shipping isn't so bad, really; until it's a really small casket.  Then some people just can't work there anymore.

Living things typically don't go in checked luggage, because it's not a pressurized hold, (Animals in carriers get tucked away someplace special,) but I have opened boxes to find bugs.  I once opened a cardboard box, and a whole bunch of spiders scrambled out, dozens of them.  Another had roaches crawling inside.

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Yeah.  Not everything we find is normal, or makes sense, or can be discussed in polite company.  (For stories that aren't family-friendly, you'll have to PM me.)  Unless you were talking about the other part, in which case, yeah, that part of the job wasn't something everybody could deal with emotionally.

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