A tech-laden traveler encounters TSA -- frequently

Gadget-toting GCN Lab director John Breeden has gotten used to extra scrutiny at the airport.

Apparently fellow GCN Lab reviewer Trudy Walsh’s column on how to get your laptop through airport security struck a nerve with readers. So much so that the editors here who know how I travel — laden with enough technology to run a small country’s infrastructure — wanted me to share some of my own stories about getting by the Transportation Security Administration checkpoints.

For the most part, things have gone smoothly. It takes a while for me to empty everything in my technology carrier out into the little plastic trays for scanning, but the TSA folks are generally pretty cool about it. Sometimes they ask me about different devices I’m carrying, though mostly I think out of curiosity rather than concern that they are dangerous weapons. However, when things go wrong, they tend to spiral downward pretty fast.

Just to set the scene, I normally carry a laptop, cell phone, backup external hard drive, network cables, a spare battery, digital camera and Wi-Fi detector. I’ve also been known to carry, on occasion, a global satellite phone, a solar panel sun charger, various special controllers for the computer, a mini-desktop and a satellite radio. And if I’m coming back from a computer show like CES, I’m probably loaded down with any number of gadgets or computing devices slated for review in the lab.

Most of the time I carry a special technology carrying bag that was made by a company called Sceptre. They used to make desktop replacement laptops that weighed about nine pounds and measured more than 14 inches across. As such, they needed a big bag. Now that technology is a lot smaller, the Sceptre bag, with its roomy pockets and deep storage wells, has become the home of many devices. I don’t have a Sceptre laptop anymore, as the company only makes LCDs these days, but I still have their excellent bag.

Most of the time, I simply take each device out of the bag that I think might be trouble, and place it on its own gray plastic tray, then follow up by sending the bag itself through the scanning machine. Items with batteries tend to cause the most trouble, so you can save yourself some hassle by placing those in trays by themselves.

One time this system frustrated a TSA worker who saw the assembly line I was putting through her scanner, and she called for backup on her radio. Her exact words were “Some kid’s got a lot of laptop stuff down here. Get some more people over here to deal with this!” I think I was 32 at the time, but being called a kid was kind of funny. A bunch of TSA agents showed up and started playing with all my gadgets, saying stuff like “cool” and “awesome,” but other than that, there was no real problem. Thankfully I always try to arrive early for a flight.

Oddly enough, the thing that can get you into trouble, or out of it, is often what you least expect. In two cases mouse pads have played a surprising role.

In the good case, I was tapped for extra screening at the airport in Atlanta. I had to carry my gadgets over to a separate table, where a woman was going to sniff them with a special wand that detects explosives, or perhaps drugs. I’m not really sure. I actually asked her what she was looking for and she said “residue.”

Anyway, I had put all my gear back in my bag for the short walk to the extra screening area. When I got there, the woman reached into the bag to pull out my laptop. But she pulled out the laptop and a mouse pad, which was lying on top. I had gotten the mouse pad after doing a story on the Defense Energy Support Center, and they had given me one of their “We Fuel the Forces” mouse pads complete with their American eagle logo. She took a long look at the DESC logo, and then at me. Without a word, she slipped the laptop and mouse pad back into the bag and handed it back to me. Nothing was scanned. I’m not sure if Atlanta is a hub for DESC employees, or if their federal logo looked like a seal for a different agency whose employees the TSA doesn’t scan. Did she think I was in the CIA? I just know that one look at that mouse pad bought me a free ticket through security. I wasn’t about to ask any more questions.

But on another occasion, my mouse pad caused a bit of a stir at the airport in Las Vegas. I was returning from a CES show, laden with stuff I wanted to review and stuff I just thought was cool. I did the scanner assembly line routine and even though I took up eight trays, all seemed OK. Then an older woman came over and started looking through my laptop bag, even though it was mostly empty at that point. She looked inside in horror and actually yelled “We got one!” like it was a scene from “Ghostbusters” or something.

Quickly my mind raced, trying to think about all the stuff I’d collected at the show. Was any of it dangerous? I didn’t think so.

She still had not removed anything from my bag, but no fewer than eight other TSA officers came over to peer inside. Two of them began to move around the scanner to my side. At this point, I started to get a little scared. I had carried ammunition in my bag before, but only when driving up to visit my wife’s family out in the country. There is a nice shooting range near their house. I didn’t think any of my rifles would fit inside a computer bag, and I had already traveled across the country to get to Las Vegas, going through scanners at Dulles Airport. So it must be something I picked up in Vegas. But what could they be looking at?

“Look,” the TSA woman said, pointing inside my bag. “There’s a gun, a grenade, and several knives in there. How did all this get through the scanner?”

Now my blood ran cold. Was this the wrong bag?

Then she pulled out a mouse pad I picked up at the show. It was from a company called Everglide, part of their Special Ops series. The mouse pad is basically just really slick, so mice can glide over it easily. There are pictures of guns and other commando gear on it. It’s aimed at gamers, of which I happen to be one. The woman came over and asked why I would put such a thing in my bag. I didn’t really know what to say, so I just told her that I really liked guns and didn’t think that a mouse pad was all that dangerous. Apparently the woman’s supervisor thought the same thing, because he pulled her aside and let me and my mouse pad go after a few tense minutes. But I learned a valuable lesson. Federal agency mouse pads are good when traveling. Special Ops gaming gear — not so much.

We’d love to hear your funny or horrible technology travel stories.