TSA Watch: Take a picture of a checkpoint, go to jail?

Bridget Garrity recently saw a sign at Baltimore-Washington International Airport that made her turn off her cell phone a little faster.

“It said it’s against the law to take a photo or video of TSA doing their job,” she says.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by TravelInsurance.com. TravelInsurance.com makes it fast and easy to compare and buy travel insurance online from top rated providers. Our unbiased comparison engine allows travelers to read reviews, compare pricing and benefits and buy the right policy with a price guarantee, every time. Compare and buy travel insurance now at  TravelInsurance.com.

Garrity wanted to take a snapshot of the sign and send it to me, but she was afraid she might be breaking the law by doing that, too. And she knows a thing or two about rules; she’s a lawyer.

TSA is pretty clear about what is — and isn’t — allowed at checkpoints. You can take pictures as long as it doesn’t interfere with the screening process.

So what about those warnings? I asked the agency, and was told the signs weren’t TSA’s. So I checked with the airport.

A BWI representative said the signs were posted by the airport. They say:


Photographing or videotaping of security procedures, personnel or equipment is strictly prohibited.

COMAR 11 03.01.09 B (2)

COMAR is the Code of Maryland Regulations. Here’s the actual rule.

Notice anything? B (2) doesn’t mention anything about photography, just interference with screeners.

Is photography the same thing as interference? Not the last time I checked.

Here’s the interesting thing: TSA’s “photos are permitted” rule has one other exception, besides interfering with screeners, an action that it doesn’t clearly define and refused to define when I asked the agency. And that is, when it conflicts with state or local ordinances.

So a TSA screener at BWI could threaten to throw you in jail for taking his picture, citing BWI’s erroneous interpretation of Maryland law, and TSA would support him, citing its exception to its photography rules.

A little confusing, isn’t it? But it probably conflicts with federal law, according to attorney and photography law expert Bert Krages.

The general rule in the United States is that anyone may take photographs of whatever they want when they are in a public place or places where they have permission to take photographs.

Absent a specific legal prohibition such as a statute or ordinance, you are legally entitled to take photographs. Examples of places that are traditionally considered public are streets, sidewalks, and public parks.

I’m fascinated by this apparent conflict, so I set out to do a broader story on photography in public places. I’ll have that article tomorrow.

I wanted to also bring in one of the voices of support. There are well-meaning people who believe photography can endanger our security. Ann Wolfer is an Army officer who left a comment on my Facebook page, explaining the problem.

In the very vast majority of cases where a security incident has occurred, it was determined that there had been a significant amount of surveillance and practice ahead of time, often involving video and photos.

I get that you feel your right to embarrass the government on YouTube is being infringed upon, but when these security incidents happen and hours of videos and hundreds of photos surface, the public asks (rightfully so) how the heck these people were permitted to gather all of this information without anyone apprehending them.

People just trying to take a picture of a bridge have good reason to be angry about being prevented. People trying to create an incident at a TSA check point so they can get themselves on the news, should stop trying to make this an issue about their “rights.”

She is, of course, referring to the Ryan Miklus incident — a confrontation I’ll revisit in tomorrow’s story.

If there’s a proven link between terrorism and photography, should we put our cameras away and let the TSA do its job? Or is our right to photograph agents in a public place so fundamental to our democracy that we should live with the consequences, whatever they may be?

48 thoughts on “TSA Watch: Take a picture of a checkpoint, go to jail?

  1. Predictable, of course.  As we learned the other week, the TSA is “revisiting” its photography policy.  Sooner or later they’ll come out with a blanket prohibition.  They and the airports will point the finger at each other and give us the usual run-around about who’s in charge, who’s to blame, how it’s all for our own good, blah blah blah.  One more step on the road to a police state.

  2. My husband and I belong to a walking club, which is part of a national walking organization.  One of the ways to pique interest in a walking route is to create programs, such as walking all 50 states, walking past fire stations, historic sites, and so forth.  One of the programs was “Courthouses” – county, state or federal, current or historic. 

    Four years ago, I stopped to take a picture of the Federal Courthouse in Boise, Idaho to prove that there was a courthouse on the established walking route.  I was stopped by Homeland Security.  Also of interest to them was the fact that my husband likes to record all of our interesting walks with GPS, so that we can create a digital scrapbook of our adventures.  After explaining volksmarching at length, and pointing out that our car was some 3 miles away, they let us go back on our route.

    Something similar happened in Salem, Oregon – wasn’t allowed to take a picture of a historic federal courthouse (gorgeous architecture!).  I could understand Boise – couldn’t understand Salem.

    My point?  Homeland Security has already decided there is a link between photography and terrorism and it is not a new decision.  Most newer digital cameras and cellphone cameras can geotag the photos – no need for the GPS unit my husband carried at the time.  I can understand why Homeland Security sees a problem with photography. 

  3. Jeanne writes: “My point?  Homeland Security has already decided there is a link between photography and terrorism and it is not a new decision.”

    Homeland Security has decided there is a link between terrorism and almost everything.

    1. Where was the outcry 4+ years ago, when Homeland Security decided photography of public buildings was a threat to national security?  Remember the edited versions of aerial photographs being published immediately after Sept. 2001 that carefully blanked out sensitive buildings and military installations?  I’m not trying to be a smart alec here – perhaps photographers noticed this first? 

  4. I continue to think Ryan Miklus was wrong, as he purposely caused disruptions and diversions at security points for nothing more than the fame of video-ing the staged incidents.

    On the other hand, I agree this photography rule seems senseless.  The flight crews and TSA have both just gone off the deep end, as if depriving us of our rights is necessary to preserve our rights.

  5. Chris – I’m a little confused. The Maryland statute that you (they) cite is specifically tied to Restricted Areas. I can agree that no photography should take place in Restricted Areas. However, last I checked, the security area at the airport IS NOT restricted. Would this statute even apply?

      1. At least up until now, the TSA has always said that you can take pictures of anything except the monitor screens.  Meaning the screens that show x-rayed baggage on the conveyor belt and, presumably, the screens showing naked bodies.  But given that the latter are supposed to be off in another room, I don’t see how a passenger could ever take such a picture anyway.

  6. Oh, and BTW. BWI is my “home” airport. I don’t travel more than a half-dozen times a year, but this is where my flights originate from. Last week, on my way out to the West Coast, the “regular” metal detectors were all down. You either went through the PornoScanners, or you got the enhanced pat-downs. Don’t know how long this has been going on.

    1. The scanners were always intended to be primary and, eventually, mandatory.  This has been written about quite a lot since they were introduced.  Several members of Congress raised a ruckus 18 months ago and demanded that they not be used as primary screening.  But that was always the plan.  Not surprising that we’re seeing it come to fruition.

  7. I think the concern about terrorism is a utter red herring. The watchers (and gropers) simply don’t want to be watched. A record of their actions allows them to be held accountable and is probably perceived to somehow lessen their authority and control. And a lot of all this stuff is about control.

  8. I recall traveling miles from anywhere in Sweden a few years back, and stopping to take some photos of the light streaming through a deserted forest, when out of nowhere a military policeman appeared, demanding I show him my pics, passport, driving licence etc. etc. It seemed there was a top secret military establishment just behind the trees I was shooting! Thankfully he let me go with a stern warning!

  9. The terrorists have already won.

    Every time some al Queda wackjob has a wet dream about attacking something OUR government grinds the Constitution a little further into the dirt.

    A Police State does not exist because the government arrests everyone — a Police State exists when the police CAN arrest everyone.

    America 2.0; not the America the Founding Fathers created for us.

  10. To Ann Wolfer:  I’m ashamed that you are in uniform.   You should be upholding our freedoms, not joining in the bid to crush them!  I too was in uniform, but got out when I saw this coming, I wanted NO part of the oppression that’s here and growing.

  11. One of the rules to avoid getting ambushed is to keep your enemy guessing what you are going to do next. TSA changes it rules and procedures often and Has slightly different procedures at all airports that already must be unsettling to any adversary. I mean a TSA check point is not like a Pearl Harbor where the entry Pacific Fleet was tied up (minus the carriers thank goodness). With today’s miniaturization of video devices trying and actually preventing a harden terrorist from taking pictures is just not possible. Making exceptions to current law regarding photography are just not a good idea to protect our liberties. IMHO

  12. “The right to embarrass the government on YouTube” is one of the fundamental freedoms of our country.  It falls under freedom of speech, the press, and the right to petition the government for the redress of grievances.  This is not some strange grey area of the law.

    If terrorists want to attack a place, the lack of photo or video of it will not stop them.  They can always use their own eyes and draw up pictures or notes afterwards.  And precisely what terrorist incidents at otherwise-secure places that could have been prevented for lack of photo and video is she referring to?

    1. Unfortunately the bill that Obama signed prohibiting protest within a certain distance of persons protected by the secret service has already severely limited that right to protest.

  13. I’m much more afraid of our Government – and especially Homeland Security and the TSA – than I am of any terrorist group. We live in a police state – and yes, I know what that means – to the extent that I’m applying for jobs abroad. All over the world, people are risking and losing their lives in resistance to their governments, but we seem to be a nation of sheeple.  Our ancestors must be turning in their graves!

  14. I have a picture on my camera right now of the misleading sign at BWI.  Taking photos is not interfering with security.  No one stopped me from taking photos at the checkpoint at BWI, probably because everyone knows it’s not illegal to do so, but possibly because no one noticed. 

    The good news is that TSA is not planning to ban photography at its checkpoints.   From the TSA Blog:
     ***Update: 6/9/2011 – There
    have been many different interpretations of the photography portion of
    this post, so I wanted to clarify things a bit. We recognize that using
    video and photography equipment is a constitutionally protected
    activity unless it interferes with the screening process at our
    checkpoints.  While our current policy remains the same, TSA is
    reviewing our guidance to officers at the checkpoint to ensure
    consistent application.  Our goal is to protect passenger’s rights,
    while safeguarding the integrity of the security process. ***

    I’m hopeful that this will actually mean that fewer people get bullied and threatened by TSA liars and incompetents who either don’t know the law or want to deliberately misrepresent it.   I’m mystified, however, that somehow the Constitution is important when it protects our right to photograph but the Constitution’s ban on warrantless searches is totally inconsequential.  These thugs hear whatever they want to hear. 

  15. A few small corrections for an otherwise very informative


    The portion of the regulation cited, Code of Maryland
    Regulations §, reads in full as follows: “Interference
    with security procedures or violation of security regulations or directives is
    prohibited.” Elliott is probably correct in his assertion that photography
    cannot be equated with interference. However, there are two other prohibitions:
    (1) violation of security regulations, and (2) violation of directives. The
    “security regulations” are those within the whole of §
    But since there are no “security regulations” relating to
    photography, that part of § prohibiting violation of the
    security regulations cannot be relied upon to forbid photography. However,
    there appears to be a directive on point here, BWI-300.3. It is available here:
    http://www.marylandaviation.com/content/passur/directives.php, was adopted on November
    13, 2001, and reads in relevant part as follows: “(A) Photographing or
    videotaping security procedures, security equipment, or security personnel of a
    security-screening checkpoint or other locations at BWI is prohibited. (B) An
    individual or organization that is observed photographing or videotaping
    security procedures[,] security equipment, or security personnel may be
    detained by the Maryland Transportation Authority Police, and may have their
    equipment and supplies confiscated and retained as evidence of a violation of
    the Maryland Aviation Administration’s Airport Security Rules and
    Regulations.” Thus, the cited regulation does in fact, by incorporation
    through reference, purportedly prohibit the referenced photography at BWI.


    But another important correction also exists. Elliott
    provided a convenient link to the regulations, but then incorrectly
    characterized the regulation as a “statute.” In fact, “statutes” are
    enacted by legislatures, and “regulations” are adopted by administrative
    agencies pursuant to statutes. This being an administrative regulation, created
    by bureaucrats rather than legislators, it is valid only to the extent that was
    properly adopted pursuant to a statute. The authorizing statute, Annotated Code
    of Maryland, Transportation § 5-208 (available here: michie.lexisnexis.com),
    reads in relevant part as follows: “The Administration may perform any act,
    issue and amend any order, adopt and amend any general or special rule,
    regulation, or procedure . . . [t]o protect the general public safety, the
    safety of persons who operate, use, or travel in aircraft. . . . A rule,
    regulation, order, or standard of the Administration may not be inconsistent
    with or contrary to federal law.” Accordingly, the directive prohibiting
    photography would probably fall within the authority of the administration to
    adopt rules to protect the general public safety. But if there is Federal law
    to the contrary, then the directive is impermissible. Most of the discussion on
    the subject of photographing TSA people and procedures has focused on TSA “policy”
    (which does not prohibit such photography), not “law.” It is not readily clear
    whether or not taking photographs on airport property is protected by the First


    (One other correction to another poster’s comment. Another
    portion of the regulation states that, “An individual entering any restricted
    area on the Airport requires the authorization of the Administration.” However,
    this is a separate paragraph (paragraph “(A)”) of the regulation, and it does
    not apply to the provision at issue here (paragraph “(B)”). The regulation at
    issue applies to all areas, not just “restricted” areas.)


    The Federal government has the authority under the
    Constitution to regulate interstate commerce, and most aspects of interstate
    transportation by all modes (aviation, bus, railroad) are so regulated by the
    Federal government. The Federal government assumed regulation in order to
    prevent all the various states and localities involved in interstate transportation
    from imposing a patchwork quilt of local regulations that could be in conflict
    with one another, and which overall impedes interstate commerce. Photography on
    airports in general, and at TSA checkpoints in particular, has become so
    contentious lately, and it is unreasonable to expect interstate travelers to
    have researched the various laws in each and every airport through which they
    will transit, that the Federal government should step in and establish Federal airport
    photography law that would preempt local prohibitions.


    1. Thanks for the comment. I fixed the reference to statute. I have no legal training.

      Interesting insights, otherwise. I asked BWI to help me understand the law, but I didn’t hear back from the airport spokesman.

  16. You’re asking the wrong question: “Should we be allowed to take pictures at a TSA checkpoint?”.  The correct question is: “Should the government be allowed to stop us?”

    The answer, of course, is ‘no’.  Governments, we are told in the Declaration of Independence, exist to secure our rights**, not to interfere with them.  When the government stops protecting our rights, that government has failed its primary mission.  If it then crumbles, it’s no big loss.

    **: “…to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men…; that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it …it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government…”

    Any questions?

  17. P.s.: there’s no need to photograph anything to cause a terrorist incident that could halt US air travel in its tracks.  Simply buy a ticket, wire up, get on line for the TSA.  Mid-pack, detonate.  Result: 100-200 dead innocents including several not-so-innocent TSA agents, millions in scanning equipment toasted, an entire airport/terminal shut down until the police finish bagging body parts and maintenance finishes repainting the walls, and all this happened before the first TSA agent said “Please place your laptop on the conveyor.”

    The only way to prevent this is to have TSA meet you at your front door, search you there, and transport you securely to a secure pre-flight holding area.

    Only Bill Gates and Warren Buffett could afford to travel commercially.

    Anybody who thinks TSA is doing a worthwhile task needs to be under the care of a physician.

  18. I’m not sure how I feel about this, but I believe that it falls under the “just because you can doesn’t mean you should’ personal policy that I carry and gave to my now two adult children.

  19. Our constitution is there to protect our freedoms.  Ann Wolfer, the TSA, and others employed by our government are supposed to protect those freedoms even MORE than they are supposed to protect us from terrorists.  Yes, it is MUCH harder to do things the right way, such as allowing constitutionally protected photography.  But it provides a much needed accountability when some individuals use (or should I say abuse) their position (Abu Ghraib anyone?).  If we suspend the constitution, then we stop being the USA.  Does it make things harder for those fighting terrorists?  Yes.  Is the extra hassle utterly necessary to protect the rights of the individual?  Absolutely.

  20. A couple years ago, I was stopped by a park ranger for taking photographs in a public park. Their concern was that it happened to be a park on the top of the dam for the city’s water supply.  The ranger was completely professional, never accused me of anything, just wanted to know why I was taking pictures there. I told her it was my hobby, at that was the end of it. No arrests were made or suggested.

    It is not a requirement for those who protect our security to be rabid about it, nor was it necessary to prevent a photographer from taking photos in a public place. That is probably how this should be handled: no bans necessary, just let them ask, make sure everything is safe, and let me keep my pictures. I’m not asking homeland security or my government to stop being wary, just to stop stomping over my rights in overreaction.

  21. TSA also says it’s against its rules to take pictures of the screening machines, although it won’t identify what rule it violates.

  22. A TSA station, what so classified about a TSA station, it looks almost the same as any security station in another 200 airports. However, I have not seen many people take pictures at airport security stations. It seems to be a need or a desire only in the USA.

  23. One of my closest friends just posted on Facebook 20 minutes ago that
    she was strip-searched by TSA at LAX airport. I called her immediately
    and got the full story. She had been delayed six days leaving Australia
    because of the volcanoes, and when she landed at LAX she had a string
    of flight delays and cancellations. She has been at LAX for over 12
    hours and had boarding passes for a number of flights which were either
    overbooked or cancelled. She is a smoker, and she exited the secure
    area to smoke several times over the course of the day. The last time
    that she came through the checkpoint, TSA recognized that she had gone
    through security several times already and flagged her for a strip
    search. She says she was taken into a private room and had to take off
    all of her clothing down to her underwear. Her underwear stayed on.

    Luckily, she seems remarkably nonchalant about the whole experience, but
    I am shaken. I’m urging her to file a lawsuit, but I don’t know how I
    can convince her how sickeningly wrong what they did to her is. I know
    I’m going to have trouble sleeping tonight. What kind of loathsome
    disgusting people would do this to someone? Shame on you, TSA. Shame
    on your whole obscene coterie of sexual abusers.

    1. Sommer, horrible, but, again, predictable.  Those of us who’ve been warning about this for 18 months knew that this escalation was predictable.  And that the conditioning (“she seems remarkably nonchalant”) was also predictable.  

      But those who don’t know history, those who’ve never heard of Philip Zimbardo, Stanley Milgram, Solomon Asch — and who aren’t interested in learning — well, they don’t get it.  Be prepared for the onslaught of tinfoil-hat accusations.  Denial is a powerful, and beloved, pastime.

    2. She should contact an attorney immediately.This is unacceptable and in violation of TSA regulations as stated on their website. It states “The Security Officer should offer you a private screening if clothing
      will need to be lifted or raised in order to obtain the explosive trace
      sample. You will not be required to remove any clothing during the
      process or remove or display the belt that holds your prosthetic device
      to your body.” http://www.tsa.gov/travelers/airtravel/specialneeds/editorial_1370.shtm

      A GW University Law Professor has expressed interest in bringing suit against the TSA and may be a good contact. http://banzhaf.net/

      This is the second strip search incident of females reported in the past week and there may be more going on that just screening. There was an incident in 2004 at IAD where screeners were taking women to a supervisors office and having them remove bras as part of “screening”, but in reality the office had a hidden camera and they were filming the search.

  24. WRT photography at BWI, a recent incident at another Maryland transportation site may serve as precedent for allowing photography at the BWI checkpoint. In essence as soon as this regulation was challenged by ACLU MTA quickly retracted their assertion and conceded that there is no prohibition of filming since since these are public areas and photography protected by the Constitution.


  25. The thing is, it is actually a state law in Maryland that prohibits someone to photograph, record or videotape officers or security. So if you were ever to post anything online, be sure to cover your butt on where you were, because if caught in the wrong state, you could be seeing a court notice. Also, if a person is to record how security is set up at each airport, they can calculate when the best time to plot something and how to do it.

    1. There is NO saw Law in Maryland!!!!!!!!!!!   People if you don’t know please don’t post wrong information.  

  26. “I get that you feel your right to embarrass the government on YouTube is being infringed upon…”
    Sorry Ann, but we don’t embarrass the government. The government embarrasses itself.

  27. Your military blogger sees only half the picture.  Freedom of the press ensures a democratic society.  Properly trained officers would look professional in a situation such as that while the “actors” would not.  The Miklus incident did not make me think the TSA was being overbearing, however a previous video where the TSA agent was blocking the view of the camera man was.  And while the public does get enraged by the reconnaissance of terrorists, they are more enraged by the fact that the reconnaissance takes place over weeks and no one notices.  Its not the pictures that make people concerned, its the fact that the terrorists seem to do this for weeks and the government has no idea.

  28. In my country 25 years ago, under the communists, it was prohibited to make photos of railway stations, factories, etc.
    It’s said to see that America is going this direction.

  29. This is yet another example of the rise of The New World Order.  Alex Jones is correct.  We are all lemmings being led into the sea by the overpaid political hacks abusing their authority.  Where are all the election promises made by the Chief Executive who will go down in history as America’s most over-hyped and under-performing President?

  30. Chris,
    Perhaps your diligent and responsible journalism has borne fruit at last!  Thank you so much for shining a light on all the many ways we have been abused by TSA’s unconstitutional nonsense.  

    Someone just posted on FlyerTalk that as of today at least, the signs at BWI that seemed to ban photography have been covered.  I can’t wait to hear the full story.  And then this letter:

    Originally Posted by BWI Spokesperson

    Mr. Garmer,

    Photography at the security checkpoints is allowed. There was a policy
    put into effect just after 9/11 which did not allow photography in the
    security checkpoints. That policy has been changed. I wasn’t involved
    and so don’t know who asked for the policy but thankfully it is no
    longer in effect.

    Thanks again for contacting BWI Marshall.

  31. To address Ms. Wolfer’s comments:
    – First paragraph: Well, duh. Half-baked plans and spur-of-the-moment impulses seldom get to the point of a security “incident.” Nice touch conflating “often” with the “very vast majority.”
    – Second: She didn’t answer the question the public was (rightfully) asking, so I will. They weren’t “apprehended” because what they were doing was not illegal; nothing for which to be apprehended. Army security, on the other hand, should maybe be doing some surveillance of their own. They should be able to record public spaces and extract patterns and suspicious activity, right? Don’t they have specialists they pay to do exactly that?
    – Third: People trying to “create an incident” would not be able to do so if the TSA didn’t play into their hands. The issue IS about their “rights.” And the TSA gets it wrong. Every. Single. Time.

  32. I’d like to comment on the person who wrote that with each terrorist episode we chip away at our civil rights. I’m reminded of something Golda Meir once said and I paraphrase the idea to fashion it for the subject at hand:
    We may someday forgive the terrorists for what they are doing, but we cannot forgive what they are making us do to ourselves.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *