TSA: You’ve Got Mail! (So You Might Want to Read It)

“E-government” sounds like a great idea, but not if the government ignores important e-mail. Here’s yet another example of why e-mail is definitely not the best way to communicate with the U.S. government.

Earlier this year, 20-year-old Nathaniel Heatwole tried to e-mail some very important information to the US Transportation and Security Administration (TSA). Heatwole wished to inform TSA that he would be placing bags containing security contraband such as box cutters and bleach on two airplanes, in order to spotlight continuing airline security breaches.

On Oct. 21, 2003, CNN reported: “The e-mail provided details of where the plastic bags were hidden – right down to the exact dates and flight numbers – along with Heatwole’s name and telephone number.”

Apparently, TSA didn’t bother to read Heatwole’s e-mail until after the bags were found and an extensive and urgent investigation into their origin began. Why? Poorly programmed e-mail filters.

Apparently, the software that the TSA contact center uses to filter and rank its approximately 5,000 daily incoming messages didn’t flag Heatwole’s message as a threat because he never threatened harm. (Not surprising, since Heatwole claims this was an act of civil disobedience, not terrorism.)

This, obviously, is e-mail management at its worst. I don’t doubt that sorting and managing 5,000 e-mails per day is a herculean task. I also don’t doubt that automated filtering is necessary and warranted. Still, that filtering must be smart if it is to succeed. This kind of lapse is especially dangerous and unconscionable coming from TSA, given that agency’s enormous responsibility to be alert and proactive.

An Oct. 22, 2003 Newsday story noted: “The Bush administration pledged yesterday to reprogram computer software to immediately single out any e-mail messages that refer to banned items – real or alleged…”

Why on earth wouldn’t that have been part of the initial requirements list for TSA’s e-mail management system?

I think NPR’s Scott Simon hit the nail on the head about the broader message this particular communication failure sends in his essay on airline security, broadcast Oct. 25, 2003. Simon noted,

“Does the US Attorney really want to try Nathaniel Heatwole before a jury that may be filled with citizens who are tired of sending letters and e-mails to the IRS, Social Security, Medicare, banks, health plans, and airlines that never get a response? US travelers have accepted biding their time in long lines, stripping themselves down to their skivvies in a public place. But their good spirits may go flat if they believe the people enforcing those rules can’t recognize a security breach when it’s e-mailed to them. Heatwole may have acted recklessly, or foolishly, and illegally. So far, he has accepted responsibility for his actions. He hasn’t said ‘the software made me do it.'”

…Now, I am definitely NOT defending Heatwole’s actions. Personally, I disagree with him strongly – I think there are far better ways to make a point than to put dangerous materials aboard aircrafts.

But I ask CONTENTIOUS readers to consider this: What other important warnings might TSA have missed so far because apparently no one considered the fact that not all threats necessarily use threatening language, or even are intended as threats by the sender?

Which brings me back to this: As I noted on Oct. 20, 2003, “Online Public Comments on Government Rules? Lotsa Luck,” if you wish to communicate with the US federal government for any reason, e-mail is probably not your best bet. Not that phone calls, letters, or faxes will necessarily yield success either – but with e-mail it’s way too easy for important voices to automatically get filtered out of the conversation.

2 thoughts on TSA: You’ve Got Mail! (So You Might Want to Read It)

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  1. Again, to be clear, I’m not taking sides here about the rightness or wrongness of Heatwole’s actions. My point here is that TSA blew this one big time simply by apparently not using common sense when programming it’s e-mail filter.

    – Amy Gahran

  2. I agree with your postings re: the tsa. If I were on the jury, I would definitely vote not to convict. This young man made it possible for everyone to see how vulnerable we are to attack even when warned. Let us hope adequate measures are taken to correct this problem.