Oops! Unredacted TSA manual released; “full review” underway by agency

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By Christopher Elliott

The TSA Transportation Security Administration is promising a “full review” after the release of an unredacted version of its Screening Management Standard Operating Procedures over the weekend.

The existence of the document, first reported yesterday on the blog Wandering Aramean, was a brief sensation in the travel blogosphere — until people read the manual. Not only was it boring. It was also obsolete.

What gave this story more than its 15 seconds of Internet fame? Probably the fact that TSA had meant to redact certain portions, but because of an apparent lack of computer skills, it failed to effectively do so.

This afternoon, TSA released the following statement on the manual:

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has become aware that a outdated version of a Standard Operating Procedures document was improperly posted by the agency to the Federal Business Opportunities Web site wherein redacted material was not properly protected.‪

TSA takes this matter very seriously and took swift action when this was discovered. A full review is now underway.

TSA has many layers of security to keep the traveling public safe and to constantly adapt to evolving threats. TSA has appropriate measures in place to effectively screen passengers at airport security checkpoints nationwide.

Wandering Aramean had harsh words for the agency charged with protecting air travelers:

It is pretty pathetic that the folks supposedly responsible for administering this “security” program cannot even be bothered to do the simplest parts of their job correctly. Then again, passing through the checkpoint every time I fly it is pretty clear that they do a lot of things incorrectly. Just chalk this one up to more of the same idiocy. More done badly.

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I’m told that this version of the Standard Operating Procedures was actually never implemented. So although this document gives us a good idea of TSA’s current procedures, it should in no way be considered up-to-date, or even accurate. My source says it’s been revised six times since the release. (Why release something that was never implemented? It’s a mystery.)

I spoke with a person who is familiar with redaction boo-boos. Her take?

The elementary error they made in redaction using Microsoft Word is a fairly common piece of stupidity. Word jockeys and technical writers laugh or cry every time this happens. It’s truly idiotic.

That said, as a former government consultant I can say that the document is probably born of compromise, not followed in practice, and written by a team of consultants trying to mediate the various views of various stakeholders.

As if people on the front lines are going to read all that!

It’s a mistake nobody makes more than once.

This is by no means the first time someone has redacted without redacting. A few years ago it led to this interesting story. Maybe TSA should have read this handy redaction how-to from the NSA before releasing this into the wild. (Here’s how to handle the TSA when you are traveling.)

What do you think? Have you read the TSA SOP? Anything interesting in there that we haven’t noticed yet?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. He is based in Panamá City.

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