Is the TSA coming for your iPad?

Well, at least they have good taste in tablets. / Photo by the D34N - Flickr
It happened again last week: A TSA agent was formally charged with swiping yet another iPad from a passenger.

Or iPads, in Clayton Keith Dovel’s case.

Dovel, an airport screener at the busy DFW airport, was arrested in February and indicted last week in the theft of multiple Apple iPads from luggage over eight months, according to reports.

He’s hardly the first TSA agent accused of stealing iPads. In fact, TSA agents seem to have a thing for Apple’s popular tablet computers. And with the release of the iPad 3 last month, I thought it might be helpful to review the most recent iPad-snatchings and what they mean for airport security.

The Dovel case is fascinating. Earlier this year, a passenger reported his iPad 2 had been stolen and that he’d traced it electronically to a home in Bedford, Tex., owned by Dovel. Airport police discovered another iPad in Dovel’s leather satchel. He told authorities that the iPad was his but that he couldn’t remember where he bought it, according to police.

A total of eight stolen iPads were recovered.

His indictment, issued last week in Tarrant County, charges Dovel with theft by a public servant. He faces two to 10 years in prison.

Memo to thieving TSA agents: those fancy iPads can be traced right back to your residence.

Maybe Michael Pujol missed that memo, although he’s accused of doing something even dumber than Dovel: He tried to sell his hot iPads on Craigslist.

Pujol, a screener at Miami International Airport, was arrested in January after investigators discovered he stuffed goods from passengers’ luggage inside a hidden pocket in his work jacket.

His wife, Betsy Pujol Salazar, reportedly admitted that she and her husband had taken items stolen from luggage and sold them on Craigslist for the last three years.

Interestingly, another iPad-snatcher had been caught only a few months earlier in nearby Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport under similar circumstances. Police there arrested TSA screener Nelson Santiago after an airline employee allegedly caught him slipping an iPad out of a suitcase into his pants.

Authorities discovered a sophisticated operation. Santiago allegedly stole the iPads, took a photo with his cell phone, posted it to Craigslist and would have it sold by the time his shift ended. He was accused of taking up to $50,000 in electronics.

Do they offer a class on supplementing your salary by selling stolen goods as part of your TSA training?

Sometimes, other law enforcement officials join in. Here’s an off-duty police officer who also decided to help himself to an iPad at an airport screening area last year. He was caught within minutes.

Why iPads?

Well, they’re the perfect item to plunder. They’re relatively compact, they’re sought-after and there’s a robust, no-questions-asked market for used iPads online. Oh, and they’re pretty easy to steal. Since TSA doesn’t require them to be removed during screening, passengers often pack them away in their carry-on bag and forget them.

Protecting your iPad is easy. Carry it with you on the plane (it makes a great in-flight entertainment device) and keep a close eye on your bag when it’s being screened. A vast majority of iPads are stolen from checked luggage. Also, secure the content on your tablet with a password and make sure you have tracking enabled so that you can find the iPad if it’s stolen.

But this string of tablet-swiping makes me wonder about TSA agents in general, and specifically the ones who were stupid enough to get caught. Here’s an agency that likes to think of itself as our last line of defense against terrorism. Its agents are briefed every day on sensitive security information, which, we’re told, is so secret that it can’t even be put on paper.

And yet these agents aren’t smart enough to know that iPads can be tracked electronically?

I think these iPad thefts may say more about the agency than they do about the thieving TSA agents who have been caught. How could their employers entrust such “important” secrets to these criminals? How could the agents make it past the first level of employment screening?

The iPad thefts suggest the TSA has bigger problems than a few thieves in its ranks. It gives the TSA’s critics every reason to believe the agency assigned to protect America’s transportation systems isn’t up to the job.

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