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Monthly Archives: March 2014

At times, it puzzles me almost to no end the degree to which some people will choose to get themselves all worked up and upset over matters that (a) are of little consequence, (b) aren’t directed at them personally, and (c) involve situations where they themselves hold almost all the power.

The latest puzzling incident of this stripe that caught my attention pertains to an individual named Davi Barker.  Political theorist and freedom activist to some, ranting quasi-nutter to others, this man made a blog post in late February of 2014 which set Twitter on fire briefly, because it involved two very reliable buzzwords (TSA and Bitcoin) in the same story.  Within hours, countless people were tweeting and re-tweeting links to the Daily Anarchist blog where the story appeared, telling all of their friends and followers that, “The TSA is actively looking for Bitcoin!!”

Now, the renowned tech-savvy journalist Kashmir Hill has already put together a pretty decent analysis of this incident, but I’m going to offer up a few more thoughts here which do not appear in her column, probably due to limitations of taste and professional decorum.

Ms. Hill has already covered this, but for those who haven’t read her whole piece in Forbes yet, let me assure you… the TSA is not actively looking for Bitcoin (or much of any other currency) in anyone’s luggage.  The TSA is aware (in a vague and probably poorly-trained way) that there are certain laws regarding the transport of large sums of money out of the country… and it’s possible that some TSA screeners choose to ask a few questions in situations where they think someone might be in violation of the law.  But that’s a far cry different from actively seeking out passengers with money and subjecting them to extra scrutiny.  The Forbes article explains as much, with good quotes and citation of other resources online to explain things further.

Ultimately, what I do not get about Mr. Barker’s encounter, is how unnecessarily upset he seems to have gotten over the whole thing.  It almost smacks of a situation wherein someone feels more legitimized in their grief and anger if they can cast themselves in the role of the victim more fully… as opposed to the reality of the situation, which is that TSA screeners have virtually zero power and authority over the public.

Yes, dealing with the TSA is hardly enjoyable and the whole organization is a colossal waste of taxpayer dollars which ultimately makes us less safe, not more safe, every single day.  But to feel legitimately threatened by them?  That’s where I start to raise eyebrows.  Let’s look at some sections of the original write-up post in more detail.

I make it a point to always opt out, and if possible always strike up a conversation with the man molesting me.

Right off the bat, we’re barely one sentence in and already the rhetoric is off to the races.  I hate passenger screening as much as the next guy.  AIT machines are a joke and I, too, am a gold star op-out flier (i have never gone through a backscatter or millimeter wave machine).  Unlike Mr. Barker, however, I recognize that there is a difference between “ineffectual attempts at pat-down by a poorly-trained government functionary” and “sexual assault”.  One is a non-consensual contact crime, the other is just annoying.  (Also, if you fly that much and hate the pat-down, either enroll in TSA Pre-Check or claim a medical opt-out at screening check points.  I rely on both and have never had a pat-down since the middle of last year.)

OK, maybe he was just being a bit over-dramatic in order to start his story off with a bang.  Let’s continue…

What’s absolutely clear is that the TSA is looking for Bitcoin, and Bitcoin users need to be conscious when they travel, especially internationally.

No, what’s absolutely clear is that the author experienced a bizarre encounter, which is hardly evidence of a deeply-entrenched policy.  Bitcoin users more than anyone can relax when they travel due to the very nature of Bitcoin itself.  If you are using cryptocurrency properly, there is no accessible evidence of how much you have or where you are moving it.

Then we get to the real meat of the story.  After an annoying passenger screening experience, where Mr. Barker was slightly delayed due to his backpack being re-run and swabbed, he recounts the following…

Bill and his wife were sitting on a bench in the terminal waiting for me as I approached them. Then two men stepped between us, both wearing dress shirts, one orange and one blue. The orange shirt asked where I was traveling to.

This is the part of the story where things take a turn.  It is also, however, the point in the incident where the two distinct mindsets “Victim of the State” and “Citizen of the State” start to see the situation in very distinct ways.  For the “Victim of the State” every encounter with an authority figure is tense, a time to be on-guard, a moment of oppression happening.  On the other hand, a “Citizen of the State” typically can proceed about their daily life with great confidence, secure in the knowledge that 90% of the bureaucrats and functionaries with whom you may interact have essentially zero power over you.

These two distinct mindsets tend to color virtually all interactions that people have with authority.  If you project fear and act defensive, your typical authority dimwit will respond to this with more forceful words and bluster.  If, however, you are calm and confident and –above all– polite, this reduces the need for petty posturing on everyone’s part.

A “Citizen of the State” might have interacted with these two oddball gentlemen by politely asking for their cards (or at the very least clearly getting their names in conversation and noting them down later) and then excusing themselves and proceeding on.  I really think that this is one of the hallmarks of a self-confident citizen… the ability to rise above and not directly engage idiots when they attempt to insert themselves in your life.  As a “Victim of the State” however, Mr. Barker went into a defensive mode and offered snarky non-answers to their questions.

They identified themselves as “managers” and the orange shirt said he was obligated to inquire whether or not I was traveling internationally, which was not an answer to my question. I replied, “Am I obligated to answer your questions?” He replied, “If you are traveling internationally you are.” I replied, “Do you have any reason to suspect that I’m traveling internationally?” The orange shirt said “We’re the ones asking the questions here” and the the blue shirt asked to search my bag for my boarding pass. I told him that my bag was already inspected and didn’t contain anything dangerous, and that I didn’t consent to another search. He said until I was cleared by security he was free to search. I said I was cleared by security.

If you are going to decline to answer someone’s questions, fine.  But please do so by rising above the issue.  Don’t drop to their level.  I realize that in the moment when one is being hassled by an authority figure it’s not always easy to keep a straight and clear head, but come on… one gruff exchange with a man in a suit and all of a sudden this self-described fan of liberty completely forgot that the TSA has no real power?

There is a time to (politely) escalate things.  If you are not getting satisfaction during a screening incident with a TSO, instruct them to call their LTSO (or STSO).  If these managers were giving Mr. Barker a headache, he could simply instruct them to get the CSM on the phone (all major airports have a Customer Service Manager for the TSA… the big boss above all others).  Failing any of that, a polite but confident assertion that they are free to get the police if they desire would do the trick.

This applies to conversational encounters, disagreements over policy (I’ve had loads of odd conversations regarding my travel with firearms. Escalating to real police has always defused it immediately.) or even shows of force.  Do you think I would ever stop in an airport if a silly TSA “Code Bravo” drill was taking place?  No, I would not.  I wouldn’t get mad, either.  I would simply not give these people a second thought.  They aren’t worth my time, my consideration, or –most surely– my aggravation.

I know that the TSA has become a monstrosity of waste and annoyance, but please don’t ever let your disgust with a government program trick you into thinking that they have any real power over you.  They don’t.  We still live in a free country and no one is going to whisk you away to a secret prison somewhere just because they feel like it. (At least that rule applies within our borders.  Border crossings involve surrendering of many of our rights.)

Read the following snipped segments of text that go on to further illustrate the “oppressed” victimhood in which the author sees himself…

a little frightening that they were looking for Bitcoin. … At this point I was beginning to panic and looking for a way out. … Without [his friend Bill who spoke up in the conversation with TSA] I’m not sure what would have happened to me. … didn’t fully relax until we were in the air, because I’ve seen cases of security pulling passengers right out of their seat.

Really?  Without his friend Bill there he isn’t sure what would have happened to him?  Here’s what would have happened… eventually someone, somewhere (either one of the TSA managers or a law enforcement officer whom they may have gotten involved) would have realized that this man wasn’t leaving the USA and therefore was outside the scope of anything that they could investigate.  No one would be going to jail, no one would have their belongings confiscated.  At worst case, his needless snark and combative attitude might have resulted in his missing a flight.

I should point out one last element that got me thinking while reading Mr. Barker’s write-up.  When talking about travel with Bitcoin, including international travel, he states…

It’s entirely possible that a traveler could be carrying thousands of Casascius coins which are not loaded, and worth little more their value in brass. It’s also possible that a traveler could be carrying one Casascius coin that has been loaded with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of Bitcoin.

…now this may sound cruel, but I have to point out that if you’re so unbelievably dumb as to carry around physical Bitcoins of real value, then you basically deserve whatever goddamn happens to you.  You are literally too stupid to deserve to own that currency.

The entire benefit of cryptocurrency is that it’s NOT subject to search, seizure, or inspection.  If you are transporting it in physical form (or if you are transporting it electronically but without appropriate device-level protections of encryption and long passphrases, etc) then I genuinely do not know what the hell you have between your ears but it surely isn’t functioning gray matter.

I’m sure someone will make the news doing that at some point.  They will fail the attitude test when interacting with TSA or CBP, then needlessly escalate the situation by playing the victim instead of calmly and politely asserting themselves and rising above the bait.  And, in the end, they will write an article describing how the big, mean authority figures “stole” their Bitcoin and “oppressed” their rights.

I, however, will choose to not be a victim for as long as my smile and my confidence allows.