Saturday, August 3, 2013

Airport Valet Parking, The TSA and Your Privacy

To give us a bit of perspective on how widespread and foolish the imposition of security measures are in the United States, a recent posting by Bob Burns (and yes, that's his real name and he has been working for the TSA since September 2002) on the TSA Blog provides us with a prime example.  Interestingly, the TSA Blog deals with such interesting topics as what kind of deodorant you can take on your carryon luggage (stick deodorant is fine in any size, gels and sprays must be 3.4 ounces or less) and what type of gag gifts you should not try to take on board (hint: a retirement gift that looks like an explosive device).

A mainstream media story recently reported that TSA officers searched a valet-parked car at the Greater Rochester International Airport without the owners consent.  In response and in defence of the situation, the Transportation Safety Administration posted this on their blog:

"It has been reported that TSA Officers at airports are now searching cars. The news started to spread after a story ran  this week stating that a woman found a notice informing her that her car had been searched by TSA. 

The short version: While we deploy numerous layers of security, TSA officers are not inspecting cars or mandating that they be searched.

In this case, it turns out the car was searched by an employee of a car parking service. 

Each airport authority, along with its state and local law enforcement partners, is responsible for securing airport property, including the outer perimeter.  At this particular airport, car searches are part of their “airport security plan.”

An airport security plan addresses a myriad of security requirements that each airport must adhere to in order to protect the traveling public, which includes the physical security of the airport property. While the airport security plan is approved by the TSA, it is up to each airport authority and its state and local law enforcement partners to follow the plan that has been implemented. " (my bold)

It kind of makes you wonder what the "long version" of the story is, doesn't it?

Basically, each airport must supply a plan that protects the travelling public to the TSA which then provides its approval.  Since valet-parked cars are often sitting immediately adjacent to airport terminals for extended periods of time, they are deemed risky since any number of them could potentially contain explosives.  In the Rochester case, while the car was not actually searched by the TSA, the employee of the car parking service acted as a proxy for the TSA or, in other words, an agent of the federal government.  Basically, our privacy is at the mercy of a parking valet on a power trip who has been granted the right to search your car and all contents based on a suspicion (aka a whim).  According to the valet service at the San Diego International Airport, should you happen to drive to the airport and forget about those illicit drugs that you have stashed in the trunk of your car, the parking service will contact the police on your behalf should they happen to discover them.

"The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."

The purpose of this Amendment is to protect our right to privacy and to provide us freedom from arbitrary invasions.  Under the "plain view doctrine", if a restricted object (i.e. dangling wires and fuses) is in plain view of a government agent (in this case, a car parker), the agent has the right to search and seize.  In the case where nothing is obviously amiss, the legal loophole seems to exist with the fact that persons using a valet parking service are handing over the keys to their vehicle voluntarily; this is interpreted as giving voluntary consent to search your vehicle and potentially seize any "deemed contraband".

My advice; don't use an airport valet service unless you absolutely must and if you do, provide a valet key only that does not give access to the trunk.  That way, at the very least, the car parker will have to jimmy open your trunk if they want a peak at the vast horde of restricted treasures that await them.  

Apparently, in the "Modern Age of Paranoia", just about any excuse for a privacy violation is justifiable.


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  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

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