The Fallout From SD-1544-0906 : The Feds Take My Computer

31/12/2009The Fallout From SD-1544-0906 : The Feds Take My Computer

I started writing this post yesterday, but I have been writing and rewriting it all night. This post is nothing special, it is not a masterwork equal to that of Tolstoy, Twain or Shakespeare. This post also isn’t how I wanted to end 2009…so I need to figure out what else I can write today, because I don’t want to end the year with this post and my iPhone App of the Week (since its Thursday…and Thursday is iPhone App of the Week Day).

The past few days have been a bit of a whirlwind for me, so here is a recap, then I’ll get to the meat of this post.

– On the 27th of December I received a copy of the TSA’s Security Directive SD-1544-09-06 and published it on Flying With Fish

– On the 28th of December my publishing of Security Directive SD-1544-09-06 had been widely quoted by news outlets and social media outlets and I wrote about the Security Directive being modified and asked who will fix the system.

– On the 29th of December two United States Transportation Security Administration Special Agents came to my home with a subpoena and stayed for more than two hours questioning me on how I came to be possession of Security Directive SD-1544-09-06

– On the 30th of December the same two US TSA Special Agents from the previous night returned to my home and removed my laptop from my house at approximately 10:30am and returned it around 4:20pm.

…this leads to the meat of today’s post.

Yesterday was an interesting day, which I really wish had happened to someone else. At 10:30am two Transportation Security Administration Special Agents returned to my home and removed my laptop from my house. The TSA was looking for the email address of the person who sent me Security Directive SD-1544-09-06. I did not have the email address and knew it was not on my hard-drive, however the computer was removed to be searched by a Secret Service computer forensics expert. The search yielded nothing.

What worries me is this…and not for my own security and freedom…but for the safety of the traveling public which the TSA is charged with protecting. Why was I assigned two high-ranking TSA Special Agents?

One Special Agent, out of Boston, served with Secret Service for more than 30 years and has also served in the role of Director of Counter Terrorism & Law Enforcement with the U.S. Attorney’s Office. The other Special Agent, from New Jersey, served more than 20 years with the Secret Service, leaving the Secret Service in the position of Assistant Special Agent In Charge of the New York Field Office, and then going onto work as a Deputy Director of Global Security.

The agent from Boston joined the TSA as a Special Agent in October 2009; the agent from New Jersey also joined the TSA as a Special Agent in 2009.

I understand the TSA’s concern in finding their internal leak, however as much of the media has reported, the TSA appears to be using a heavy handed tactic in coming after Chris Elliot and myself regarding this issue. These two agents, with more than a combined history of 50 years of working as Secret Service investigators, may be better tasked to dealing with matters of direct national security issues.

The Department of Homeland Security could have better allocated its resources of two clearly senior investigators researching something more befitting their experience and expertise. The Department of Homeland Security could have better allocated its resources in having a Secret Service computer forensics specialist travel more than 100 miles to image my hard-drive.

When the TSA removed my laptop from my home, my computer and system was functioning perfectly. Shortly before the TSA returned to my home they called me to tell me that the Secret Service computer forensic investigator was encountering many ‘bad sectors’ in my hard drive. Upon checking my MacBook following its return, and running Disk Utility it appears that I have many bad sectors in my hard drive, countless errors in my operating system, my MacBook will not synch with Time Machine to be backed up, my audio is no longer working and a red-light inside my audio jack is on constantly.

There are real security issues facing not only the United States and airlines, but also our global society as a whole. It is my hope as a traveller and as a citizen of the United States that the real security issues can be focused on.

The Federal Government can start by appointing a permanent Administrator to the TSA. I addressed this in April, before the media started discussing this a few days ago in this post: 27/04/2009 – The TSA Needs To Receive A Permanent Boss

Following the appointment of a permanent Administrator the TSA can be reshaped, streamlined, defined. The agency can create its boundaries to eliminate ‘mission creep.’ The TSA can work to be at the ‘bleeding edge’ of security technology, it certainly has access to the resources. The focus of the TSA survival must be on internal issues, not external issues.

The agency has an important job, access to excellent resources and the manpower to be the world leader in transportation security. I for one would like to see that potential become a reality.

I do not plan to cease my coverage of airline and airport security. These are serious and important topics that impact the lives of millions of people every day in the skies.

Happy Flying!


  1. […] Steven Frischling got his laptop back from the Special Agents who demanded it, then imaged his hard drive, but the laptop no longer works (paranoid commenters suggest one explanation could be the installation of keylogger software, but that’s just one of many possibilities.) Annie Jacobsen of has posted an interview with Frischling here. Why, Jacobsen asks in that piece, is Homeland Security going after these guys so hard? [I found] my answer in a pre-recorded message at the FBI’s Detroit Metro Bureau to which press are referred. The message there states that anyone seeking information about “the Christmas Day event at Detroit metro airport” should call the Department of Justice in Washington. […]

  2. […] Flying with Fish (Steve Frischling’s blog): Yesterday was an interesting day, which I really wish had happened to someone else. At 10:30am two Transportation Security Administration Special Agents returned to my home and removed my laptop from my house. The TSA was looking for the email address of the person who sent me Security Directive SD-1544-09-06. I did not have the email address and knew it was not on my hard-drive, however the computer was removed to be searched by a Secret Service computer forensics expert. The search yielded nothing. […]


  1. First, thank you for all that you have done for consumers and in fighting the fight of the First Amendment. I think you know you have a lot of support. I look forward to reading your updates to the blog.

    Secondly, Chief Wiggums was rather harsh and leads me to wonder whether he is on the inside of one of the offending agencies and is now feeling the scrutiny that your case has surely brought. He certainly does have the right to express himself but he would have more effect if he wasn’t emotional.

  2. While I, as a U.S. citizen and semi-frequent flier, appreciate your efforts, I’m also worried about your freedom and safety. I wouldn’t put it past these people to zap you by adding YOU to a no-fly list, thus destroying your means of earning a living.

    No, I’m not a conspiracy theory nutcase. But that seems like the kind of thing they might do to “teach you a lesson.” I hope I’m wrong.

    Best wishes to you. I hope 2010 brings you some relief to this craziness.

  3. Thanks for deleting my post. Nice to see putting your beliefs in free expression in practice.

  4. Wiggums,

    You’re email goes back to a total bogus URL. You want to leave me a comment? Please use a valid URL and a real e-mail address.

    Happy Flying!


  5. I know you wish this experience on to someone else, but as an aviation blogger I am glad you are keeping positive and reporting what is happening and keeping it professional.

    I am so happy this story has been picked up by almost every major media outlet and people are seeing how CRAZY this all is!

    I hope that you and Chris can fight this to help bloggers get more rights, I sure don’t want a TSA agent visiting me anytime soon.


  6. I was introduced to you and your blog via twitter last spring. You are one of the aviation tweeters and bloggers that I read/follow religiously and have always been impressed by your professionalism and balance, and appreciate the opportunity to learn via your research and presentation.

    This awful ordeal couldn’t have happened to a more thorough, reasonable writer who obviously has no malicious intent. I think you have handled this incident admirably & somewhere along the way I hope you get a new mac!

    Cheers & happy new year from Virginia!

  7. Barbara

    Thanks for the well wishes and kinds words, they are very much appreciated!

    I’d like to wish you and everyone at CHO a happy and a healthy New York (insert noise maker sounds here)

    Happy Flying!


  8. Not saying anything about possible malware, but were that MY MacBook, I’d pull that hard drive, drop a new one in and restore from a Time Machine backup dating from before TSA showed up.

    (I’d also save that hard drive for future examination by a third party security expert.)

    There is NO excuse for the damage to your personal computer.

    Take care,

  9. I would seriously consider reformatting and reloading that laptop before I did anything else with it.
    Just sayin’ 🙂

  10. Assuming you’re under warranty — could you document your attempts to get this serviced by Apple ?

    I kind of think this might be hilarious. Though I wouldn’t be surprised if the Secret Service ended up physically breaking things because they’re more used to PC systems.

  11. I can’t wait for the Obama administration to transfer management of the TSA to the SEUI. (sic)

    Things will really be 1930s-like then.

  12. Fight the good fight Fish. This Security Theater nonsense is more than tired, it’s comatose. Closing the barn door after the horse….blah, blah, blah.

    I’m a Canadian frequent flier who will probably have to fly to BDL a couple of times next month. I’m doing everything I can to avoid those trips until the puppetmasters wake up and return to whatever passes for normalcy at the TSA.

    You hit the nail right on its proverbial head. If agents with 30 years SS experience have time to harass you instead of working with “intelligence” that is already in the system – the terrorists have, indeed, won.

    Happy New Year to you, your frightened family and friends and all your readers.

  13. Congratulations! If only the TSA were as efficient in stopping terrorists as they were at intimidating people who embarrass them politically …

    You might want to examine that laptop out to see if the TSA bugged it. Just a thought.

    Happy New Year!

  14. Did the subpoena require you to submit your laptop for investigation? I’d like to know under what legal authority permitted the TSA to examine your laptop.


  15. Arsenio,

    Although the TSA has dropped its investigation and subpoena, I am still not discussing certain details of what transpired at this time.

    Happy Flying


  16. News reports are saying the TSA has offered to buy you a new laptop. I suggest that if they do that, you take the money, drive up to the Apple Store, and buy it off the shelf.

  17. Fish,

    I understand. After I posted my question, I read in a previous post that you were not discussing certain details of the incident.

    Everything I’ve read about this incident leads me to believe to you acted appropriately and professionally under extremely trying circumstances. Everyone should aspire to duplicate your actions under similar circumstances.

    Given the attention you have received, I wish for two things:

    1. The TSA will learn something from this event.
    2. You pick up new clients. You can’t buy this kind of exposure. 🙂


  18. Sorry you had to go through all this matey. Cheer up, it could of been worse. You could have had some of Whitey Bulger’s Boston Office FBI era goons show up at your house instead.

    then again, multi-redentialing is traditional in this theater of operations…

    Keep a pocket copy of the US Constitution handy, refer to it often as the writers instructed, be respectful and understanding of their job, smile a lot, their actions will then define them as either respectful peer patriot countrymen or DC beltway pantywaist defenders conducting some impossibly hestrated investigation beyond their control.

  19. I hate to say this but dump the computer. They have undoubtedly installed a software (SW), firmware (FW), or hardware (HW) keylogger that will record everything you type and save it until they come back and take your computer again. If you re-image your drive to get rid of the SW tools they have installed, the HW or FW tools will still be there.

    I am not telling you this out of paranoia, but as someone who has experience in the IT industry.

  20. Just saw your blog after reading about it in the news. Never even thought to look for a blog like this, but I’m definitely interested in reading more since I do travel a fair amount. Hopefully a lot of people like me will have discovered your blog as a result of the TSA… thing.

    I would expect you to be unable to be perfectly candid about the manner and details of the experience, so it’s hard to know the actual degree to which I should worry about our sorry government. The fact that you take the high road in expressing your hope that TSA can be more effective and keep us safe… is remarkable.

    I hope you have a wonderful year writing and traveling!

  21. I can’t help you with the bad sectors, but the little red light in your audio out port is the digital optical audio output. It’s also why your audio doesn’t work. You computer thinks it’s connected to a digital output. Try plugging in a pair of headphones – that should correct the issue.

    If you’re under warranty, I’d be concerned about the TSA potentially having opened up the machine (which would void the warranty). Can you see evidence that the computer has been opened?

  22. problem is there have been hijackers around for years – just sealing the cockpit would stop terrorists from using a plane as a weapon. Screening passengers did not have to be this complicated. If you seal the cockpit – the most a passenger can do is try and blow up the plane. This act in itself has never happened with much frequentcy. So the TSA and the American govt. as a whole has mixed up 2 separate acts. One is trying to blow up a plane, and the other is to hijack and use as a weapon. I’m not worried about people bringing knives, guns on a plane – only worried about people getting into the cockpit.

  23. The TSA is very confused and has no proper direction. If your an IAC (indirect air carrier) – the TSA makes you jump hoops to send freight. This will result in small IAC’s to go out of business, or lose business. The old KSDB (known shipper data base) system was better in many ways than the new KSMS (known shipper management system). Many IAC’s were able to use approved shippers and help build a great database. Now we cannot really share the database and are rersponsible for things out of our control. The CBP’s MQ system gor ABI (Imports), and the Census’s AES (Exports) systems both use MQ and encrypted VPN’s. TSA should have followed that method – as it has worked well for years. TSA decided to really hurt small and medium forwarders, albeit unintentially (I think). They pursue ridiculous investigations on forwarders that are honest and trying to move freight. You may wonder why food is not as fresh as it used to be, or why things are so expensive – thank the TSA, CBP, and Census. The terrorist have made us spend so much money and caused so much lost productivity – that they must be vewry happy with their work. The US could go broke if we keep this up. Then add social medical care and expanded benefits to the masses – let’s see if the US can remain the best country in the world while going to the poorhouse.

  24. Mike

    The ACLU in Connecticut offers legal help on Fridays from 9:00am to 10:00am…I kid you not, call their number and hit the extension for legal. I called the ACLU in New York six times, no one called back.

    Happy Flying!


  25. I feel sorry for the guy who went under the rope to kiss his girlfriend @ Newark Liberty International Airport. If they go thru the trouble to find him – his life will be a mess for a while. What started with a kiss will end with a fine. Its madness.

  26. Sorry for everything you went through. Look on the bright side, though— you may have gotten a new reader!

    I would definitely have the computer examined for malware/keyloggers/any other nasty stuff or buy a new computer. Either way, bill the TSA for it! If they offered to buy you a new computer (did they? I’m late to the party), make sure you pick out the computer yourself; have them pay you, not ship you a computer.

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