Government department in charge of airport security can’t stop losing their own stuff

How upset would you be if you lost your laptop computer? How upset do you think your boss would be if your company lost not one, but one thousand of them?

The loss of 1000 computers within a single government department is apparently not much of an issue, because that is how many went missing at the Department of Homeland Security in 2008.

The department is in charge of the TSA as well as Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (the old INS).

During an audit, a total of 1,975 pieces of equipment could not be located, at a total valuation of $7.5 million. Included in the list of missing items are 235 night vision goggles, a $116,000 truck and 13 other vehicles.

The departments claim the number of missing items is perfectly normal and that they are “well within loss rates deemed acceptable by industry for asset accounting“. I’ll be sure to use that excuse next time I lose something.

Remember, these losses are on top of the thousands of items that mysteriously go missing from luggage of passengers entrusting their belongings to the TSA. Shipping your luggage suddenly doesn’t seem like such a bad idea. US Senator Tom Coburn has more about the embarrassing losses on his personal site.

Europeans complain about U.S. travel fees

Extra fees charged by airlines, the “new normal,” are so popular that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has gotten into the game. And, bitching about these fees is equally popular, prompting the European Parliament to sound off like its members are Ryanair passengers with full bladders and no coin for the slot.

At issue is a planned $10 charge for Europeans coming to the United States. The European Parliament calls the charge unfair, saying it amounts to a new visa restriction. Enrst Strasser, a lawmaker from Austria, says that the requirements for entry under the Obama administration are even harder than they were under the previous (U.S.) government and that for us is a contradiction that we in the European Parliament cannot accept,” Austrian lawmaker Ernst Strasser told Napolitano during a special hearing with her. “We really have to insist on our European values, that European data protection laws and European civil liberties also have to be taken account of.”

Janet Napolitano, Homeland Security Secretary, calls the fee reasonable, since the United States doesn’t have an agency for travel and tourism, “unlike many of your countries,” she said of the European states. The $10 fee would be used to “fund and help tourists and travelers who wish to come to the United States.” Since budgets are constrained at both federal and local levels, Napolitano feels this is a reasonable move.

The money has to come from somewhere, and if Washington has to choose between taxing Americans and taxing everyone else, who do you think wins? Napolitano may not be an elected official, but her boss sure is. There’s a pretty clear need for travel-related revenue in D.C., and the government needs to invest in promoting visits from overseas. When people cross a border to come here, that’s a net inflow of money into the United States.

Despite European objections, the numbers suggest that this isn’t a bad idea. Foreign spending in the United States has fallen for the past year, with drops becoming particularly severe last spring and continuing without reprieve. From August 2008 to August 2009, spending by visitors from other countries fell 21 percent, marking the fourth consecutive month of declines worse than 20 percent.

When it’s time to pass the hat, nobody wants to reach into his pocket.

DHS biometric program begins in Atlanta and Detroit

Non-U.S. citizens flying from Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport will now have to leave their fingerprints as they leave the country. The objective, of course, is to prevent the use of forged or otherwise fraudulent documents, curb identity theft and apprehend “criminals and immigration violators.”

“Collecting biometrics allows us to determine faster and more accurately whether non-U.S. citizens have departed the United States on time or remained in the country illegally,” said DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano. “The pilot programs in Atlanta and Detroit will help us determine and develop standard procedures for use at airports across the country to expedite legitimate travel and enhance our nation’s security.”

U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers will be taking the fingerprints at the boarding gate in Detroit, with Transportation Security Administration officers doing the honors at the gate in Atlanta. The program is expected to run through early July at these two airports. If the test run goes well, it will be implemented across the United States within the next year.

Visting the US? Remember to register with ESTA before you leave!

If you live in one of the countries participating in the US Visa Waiver program, pay attention, as things just got a little more complicated for you.

As of January 12th 2009, all visitors to the US who are eligible for the visa waiver program will have to apply for travel authorization at least 72 hours prior to their trip.

There are 35 countries that participate in the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), and if you have ever come to the US on the VWP, you’ll have probably filled in one of those annoying green forms on your flight here.

Those days are now officially over, and the US Government wants to know who is coming here, before they get on the plane.

Statistics from the Department of Homeland Security claim that 99.6% of all people who apply for travel permission get it granted within seconds, which still leaves a fairly decent amount of people who do not get it, for any number of reasons.

The new authorization system is called ESTA – Electronic System for Travel Authorization. The site is available in 16 different languages. To apply for permission to fly to the US, you enter all your personal information, passport data, and flight numbers. You then get to answer the same questions you probably remember from the VWP form, which are there to determine whether you are a Nazi, drug dealer or other nasty kind of person.
If all works out, and you are not on a terrorist watch list, you’ll receive an authorization number. If the system declines your request, you’ll be required to apply for a regular visa through your local US Consulate or Embassy, which will most certainly take some time, so be sure you don’t wait too long!

Of course, as with all new systems like this, there are going to be some glitches, but the most worrying statistic is that far too many people had not heard of the new rules, and arrive at the airport unprepared. Thankfully, the US government has allowed for a short grace period.

The hardest hit are going to be people without Internet access as there is no offline application process. There will be no terminals at the airport, and people in a VWP country who arrive at the airport without an ESTA authorization number may be denied boarding.

Once you register for ESTA, the authorization is valid for 2 years, or the life of your passport (whichever is shorter). As with all international travel, you will need at least 6 months duration left on your passport if you want authorization.

The official ESTA site can be found here, just make sure you don’t fall for the tricks of paid services like, who’ll do “all the hard work” for you, for a mere $249!

So, what exactly is in your Homeland Security travel file?

Back in 2007, Jamie wrote an article outlining how to request getting your hands on your Homeland Security travel file.

Based on the Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA), anyone is allowed to request that federal agencies hand over the information they keep on file about you. There are of course a couple of exceptions, but your Homeland Security travel dossier is not one of them.

Of course, just outlining how to get this information is not that interesting, actually seeing one of these dossiers is the really good stuff.

Newsweek reporter Sean O’Neill put in his request, and received a large Homeland Security envelope with 20 photocopies containing his dossier.

So, what exactly is in the file? There is of course the usual stuff about where you went, and when you got back. The file listed all his ports of entry, as well as his passport information and various other pieces of data.

The bit that surprised me, was how much information was on file about how he paid for his tickets. Not only does the airline send the government your payment method, they even send the IP address of the computer used to make that purchase as well as any IP address assigned to a computer that was used for other things, like a seat assignment change.

Of course, none of this information is all that sensitive, but it’s obvious that the government is collecting a massive amount of information on every single traveler in the country. On the one hand, it’s a minor invasion of privacy, but on the other hand, if the government puts this information to good use, and masters the art of data mining, they may be able to halt the bad guys before they make it to the airport.

Either way, it’s a very interesting read, and it may prompt you to ask the government for access to your own file, or perhaps it’ll just remind you not to use Al Qaeda computers to pay for your next ticket.