What TSA’s iPad theft problem means for your next flight

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TSA agents seem to have a thing for iPads.

Apple’s tablet computers are easy to swipe from unwitting airline passengers and can be sold quickly online, as I noted earlier this year.

You’d think the TSA would do something about the wave of thefts reported this spring. But instead, it has apparently done nothing.

Less than nothing, if a new investigation from ABC News is to be believed.

But the report shines a light on a system that allows more than a few rogue TSA agents to get away with filching your electronics. That institutional flaw also allows other airport employees and airline workers to commit additional crimes against air travelers.

The problem may be far bigger than the broadcast suggests.

ABC’s investigative reporter Brian Ross conducted a sting operation in several American airports, leaving an iPad at random checkpoints. Most were returned. But not all of them. A screener in Orlando took the bait, bringing the device home. The video of the confrontation between Ross and the thieving agent is troubling on many levels.

The TSA’s response? It posted a statement on its blog, claiming it didn’t have a problem.

To put theft at TSA in perspective, between May 1, 2003, through September 2012, a total of 381 TSOs have been terminated for theft, which represents less than 1/2 of one percent (0.4 percent) of officers that have been employed by the agency. This extremely small percentage does not reflect the dedication and professionalism of our workforce as a whole.

Who’s responsible?

The real issue — glossed over by both ABC News and the TSA — is that when an iPad disappears, no one entity can be held responsible. Airlines have clauses in their contracts of carriage — the legal agreements between them and their passengers — that specifically deny liability for valuables such as electronics.

For example, United Airlines’ contract (PDF) says it “shall not be liable for the loss of, damage to or delay” of “electronic and mechanical items, including cell phones, electronic games, and other related items.”

When I try to mediate “missing” items cases, I’m bounced between an airline, which claims its contract lets it off the hook for vanishing iPads, and the TSA, whose claims process is a figurative black hole. I haven’t heard of a single passenger who has received a replacement iPad from the agency.

What should happen? Someone needs to say, “it’s my responsibility” from the moment you set foot in the airport until you’re picked up at the curb.

Do these iPad thefts, to quote Rep. John Mica (R.-Fla.), just represent the “tip of the iceberg”? Maybe.

Are TSA agents, baggage handlers and other airport employees taking advantage of an institutional loophole through which you could fly a jumbo jet?

Without a doubt.

The TSA agents caught by the ABC dragnet were not pros. They were clumsy amateurs who didn’t bother erasing the iPad after they pilfered it. The expert criminals working at America’s airports, and taking advantage of an utter lack of accountability, don’t make that mistake.

For a good example of corporate responsibility, consider what happened when Jennifer Linn lost her iPad while she traveled between St. Louis and Milwaukee on Southwest Airlines last month. The device contained sensitive information from her employer.

When Linn phoned Southwest, a representative told her it had found the iPad. She filed a report, and eventually the airline overnighted the tablet computer to her address at its expense. The process wasn’t without a few hiccups (I had to get involved at one point to help move things along) but to its credit, the airline took full responsibility for the misplaced device.

Until there’s a clearly articulated system of accountability that includes the airline, airport and TSA — minus the weasel contracts and the “can’t-help-you” claims process — thefts like the ones documented by ABC are bound to continue.

It isn’t just dishonest TSA agents you have to worry about. It’s that from the moment you arrive at the airport, many eyes are on your iPad.

And when they take your tablet, they’ll probably get away with it.

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