In an era when more than 3.4 ounces of shampoo is deemed dangerous, you’d be surprised by the terrifying items that turn up in airport travelers’ bags.
A jewel-encrusted lipstick taser at Detroit International Airport. A hollowed out book concealing 6.5-inch throwing knives at Reagan National Airport outside Washington, D.C. In Boston’s Logan airport, a samurai sword.
These and other finds are documented in alarming yet entertaining detail on TSA’s Instagram feed, where a man known as Blogger Bob shows how the agency is taking care of business one weapon at a time.
That TSA is on Instagram may come as a surprise. The agency has rarely, if ever, made headlines for its social media success. It’s usually in the news for negative reasons: the full-body scanner debacle, a former TSA agent’s recent tell-all, government reports documenting security failures. And then there are periodic press releases announcing new security measures to combat vaguely described terrorist threats.
Though a 2013 General Accountability Office report said there’s no evidence TSA is stopping terrorists, Blogger Bob is working to rehabilitate the agency’s reputation one confiscated gun photo at a time.
Bob Blogger – real name Bob Burns – told Wired that social media can shift the conversation. “You change it from people complaining about TSA to people saying, ‘Wow look what TSA found, I can’t believe someone would try to come through with this,’” he said. “We like to show not only that our workforce is capable of finding these things, but we’d like to educate people.”
Some of last year’s reported finds: A shotgun in a checked golf bag at Detroit, guns hidden in laundry detergent in Houston. Overall, 1,813 firearms were found in carry-on bags at checkpoints across the country last year. That’s nearly five firearms a day. And 81 percent of them were loaded.
“While we like utilizing social media, we’d rather not find these items,” TSA press secretary Ross Feinstein told Wired.
Before he started TSA’s Instagram feed, Burns helped launch the TSA blog in 2008. The weekly reports on contraband confiscated at 450 airports were all the work of one man, Wired reported.
So who is TSA’s social media savant? He’s an Army veteran who served in Desert Storm and a singer-songwriter who lives in Ohio with his wife and two daughters. He collects photography and ugly ties. He loves 1960s garage rock. He joined TSA a year after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and started as a transportation security officer – one of the guys who screens your luggage in the airport.
Officially, he’s TSA’s Social Media Analyst with the Office of Strategic Communications and Public Affairs. In addition to overseeing the Instagram and Twitter accounts, he writes for TSA’s blog, where you can read posts with titles such as “TSA Travel Tips Tuesday: Flying with Deodorant Isn’t a Sticky Situation” and “TSA Week in Review – Samurai Sword, Stun Cane, 33 Firearms, and More.”
“I used Instagram personally so I knew the kind of photos people shared, and I just knew that the photos we had from the week in review would be successful,” Burns told Wired.
So far, Bob’s photos of airport contraband and K-9 security dogs have garnered more than 93,000 followers – not as many as the White House or NASA, but not too shabby given his Instagram has only been around for a year.
“We’re just using a new mechanism to reach an audience with Instagram,” Feinstein told Wired. “Many often assume our officers are not discovering dangerous, prohibited items.”
Sometimes TSA’s Instagram includes helpful hints — such as this warning that mascots may not go through the X-ray machine.