On Her Own

Thoughts on airport safety and security

It’s Friday and in the last two weeks, I’ve been in four cities and three time zones. In the next week, I’ll add another city. As much as I love driving, most of that has been by plane, so I’ve been spending a lot of time in airports, which means I’ve been doing a lot of people-watching behind security checkpoints. Much ink and many pixels have been wasted on how you can defend yourself physically with what you can have after TSA is through with you but as is often the case, there are whole other areas of personal safety that get left behind by many. Let’s talk about a few, because they can leave you open to much more likely dangers.

This picture was taken in Nashville, where I saw a couple pile their bags just outside a gate and walk away for one reason or another. Nobody is nearby for now, including the owners, but of course, any airport terminal is full of people hurrying through to their destinations. A momentary lull can never be counted on to last for long, and there are few guarantees about the people who are behind security with you. You know, at best, that they probably work for a place in the cordon or have a plane ticket, and that they aren’t on a no-fly list. Beyond that, what’s stopping one from snagging a bag as they walk by? Or even pausing and rifling through one? Unless someone has been paying attention enough to see who put something down and left, they might not even know that the person digging through a bag on the ground isn’t the owner.

Dragging your bags around with you everywhere while you wait to board might be inconvenient, but having your possessions stolen is even more inconvenient. If you really can’t be bothered, even asking the friendly-looking stranger next to you to keep an eye on your things for a few minutes so you can run to the bathroom is marginally better than just leaving them alone entirely like this couple did. Even if that couple were watching from a distance, they could be too far to stop a theft without a confrontation that could go violent. Had they asked a stranger to watch, it might have been a minor deterrent or at least a description of who took your things. As it was, they just got lucky that everything turned out okay. I don’t know about you, but relying on luck seems like a poor long-term strategy for protecting myself. There are airplane security reasons you’re encouraged to not leave your bags lying around but at the end of the day, it’s just a bad idea if you want to keep your stuff yours.

Along the same lines, make sure your bags are fully zippered or otherwise fastened closed. Pickpockets aren’t just on crowded city streets and even though the vast majority of fliers don’t run into problems, you can better ensure that you don’t have a bad experience with the simple step of actually checking zippers and other closures after going through security. Anyway, the bigger possibility is that something might fall out as you walk or run through a terminal, or you might have a bag failure and spill everything out accidentally and embarrassingly. Perhaps not a safety problem, but one that could still end in you losing something important and souring your trip or more. If you’re especially unlucky, it could become an issue that affects your security if it’s your wallet or keys that disappear, or an electronic device with all sorts of personal information on it. While you’re at it, maybe don’t have your home address visible on your luggage tags to potentially invite a bad guy to your empty house, or to show up later because of an imagined insult or a stalkerish impulse.

Speaking of electronic devices, airports can be a great place to catch up on phone calls or work, or to indulge in social media scrolling. You should remember, though, that you’re surrounded by lots of people you don’t know, and think about who can hear you or see your screens. In addition to being circumspect with what you say aloud, you might want to put visual privacy protectors on devices that you know you’ll use in public a lot or that have very sensitive information on them. That way, you don’t have to be as careful about sitting with your back to a wall or staying away from people in crowded lounges. Also remember that airport WiFi might be easy to use and free, but it’s also extremely insecure and tools to spy on data flowing through your connection are readily available. A VPN or sticking with your own cellular network connection can protect your data more.

It’s true that much of what you do might not seem like it needs a lot of privacy, but consider how the person on the other end of your conversation might feel if their personal troubles are aired to strangers. It’s true that many people might not seem to be paying attention to you, but consider that somebody need not be looking at you or even have earbuds out in order to hear you, and that you can’t see what that person behind you is really looking at. Any of those folks could be journalists or bloggers, or work for a business competitor, or simply and innocently mention something interesting they overheard to a friend who is. It’s also true that thieves and hackers aren’t actually everywhere, but falling victim to one or to a bored kid because you didn’t take simple precautions…well, why?

Measures like these can seem and feel paranoid. They certainly require some assumptions about how not everyone is a good person, and that can be a tough mental hurdle to overcome because it’s an acknowledgment that bad people who want to do you harm exist. Here’s the thing, though: they don’t mean you have to look at everyone with suspicion and they don’t have to take over your life. They can be just making tiny changes to your habits so that you’re no longer an easy target of opportunity, and maybe discouraging to someone who is a little more determined. And that’s worth something for both your peace of mind and for your actual safety and security.

Hi, I'm Annette.

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