TSA de-cluttering tests get attention from ACLU

The Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) is testing new safety procedures meant to de-clutter bags that could require airline passengers to remove books and other items from their carry-on luggage when going through security lines.

In tests run at airports in Missouri and California in early May, passengers were asked to place books and magazines in security bins to be x-rayed.

The idea is to de-clutter overstuffed bags that make it difficult for X-ray machines to decipher. Another worry is that paper products such as books could be hollowed out to hide contraband, while especially thick books can sometimes block other items during the X-Ray screening process.

The TSA emphasized that screeners only inspect an item to clear it of being dangerous or prohibited.

It doesn’t appear that the tests are going forward, however.

The tests in Missouri and California were local initiatives that were halted after a couple of days, according to TSA.

The new tests affecting books attracted scrutiny from the American Civil Liberties Union.

“[B]ooks raise very special privacy issues,” senior policy analyst Jay Stanley wrote i a recent post on its website. “There is a long history of special legal protection for the privacy of one’s reading habits in the United States, not only through numerous Supreme Court and other court decisions, but also through state laws that criminalize the violation of public library reading privacy or require a warrant to obtain book sales, rental, or lending records.”

The ACLU urged the TSA to train its agents in the privacy concerns surrounding examining passengers’ books and papers and proposed the agents allow passengers to wrap their books and papers in another material, like a sleeve, to protect their contents.

TSA says that its practices follow civil rights law, and that items are only inspected to clear them for being taken on a plane.

“Security is always our top priority and as such, we continuously test security screening procedures to improve our operations," Lisa Farbstein, TSA's acting director of media relations, said in a statement.  

"In the past, TSA tested recommending that books be separated for screening to provide a clearer view on X-ray at two airports; however, we are no longer testing these procedures and passengers are not required to remove books for security screening," she said. "At times, paper products do set-off alarms and procedures call for additional screening while maintaining passenger privacy.”

TSA is also testing new procedures that require passengers to put electronics larger than a cell phone in a bin for x-raying. Those tests, underway at select airports, have been being conducted for as long as 18 months in some cases.

Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said in an interview with “Fox News Sunday” in late May that the department would “likely” expand the new carry-on policy nationwide. 

“What we’re doing now is working out the tactics, techniques, and procedures, if you will, in a few airports, to find out exactly how to do that with the least amount of inconvenience to the traveler,” Kelly said at the time.

This story was updated at 4:57 p.m. on June 26.