I was checking out the stocking-stuffer gadgets the other day at Restoration Hardware and found a nifty little object called a Utili-Key. Unfolded, it’s a combination screwdriver (phillips head, micro-flat, eyeglass), knife blade (partly serrated), and bottle opener. Which is useful. Folded, it looks like a key, which means it can lurk like a sleeper agent on your keychain. (There’s also an eight-tool version, but it doesn’t look as much like a key.)
The whole point of this artifact is that it’s invisible to TSA baggage screeners. That’s a known genre of objects. You can buy blades disguised as belt buckles, pens, lipsticks, key chains, combs and brushes, pendants (most of which are seriously ugly), and harmless-looking unidentifiable objects. Almost all of them fall prey to the Urge to Look Badass, which impairs their stealthiness. A few don’t. (I can vouch for the effectiveness of mild-mannered camouflage. I normally wear a folding Silver Leaf knife, which when closed looks like a leaf-shaped silver pendant. On the few occasions when I’ve forgotten to put it in my checked luggage, hastily stashing it with my jewelry in my carry-on has been enough to get it past security.*)
Anyway, it wasn’t the Utili-Key’s existence that surprised me; it was seeing it given prime display space by a mainstream retailer like Restoration Hardware. I expect to find stealthy camouflaged blades at “unleash your inner ninja” websites, not at upscale Midtown stores. I take this as a sign that the general public is getting tired of the TSA’s policies concerning dangerous implements, and is equally tired of being unable to cut string, open bottles, or get at the contents of plastic blisterpaks when traveling.
If so, I say yay. TSA policies are stupid beyond words. Here’s a demo: go to eBay and type NTSA lot or TSA lot -approved -buddha -buddhist into the general search box. What you’ll see is the everyday contraband TSA baggage screeners confiscate when they’re not busy removing the tiny files from fingernail clippers.* It includes about a zillion leatherman multi-tools, bitty Victorinox knives, folding corkscrews, carabiner-style Buck 759s, tiny cuticle scissors, and antique embroidery scissors shaped like storks. (Sometimes you also get to see what happened to those TSA-approved locks that were missing when you got your luggage back.)
What doesn’t show up in any quantity in TSA/NTSA resale lots: the camouflaged metal blades I mentioned earlier, and the more sophisticated camouflaged blades I assume must exist. TSA employees who spend their time staring at x-ray screens are looking for weapon-shaped weapons. Items traditionally made of metal (like belt buckles) that consist of a sharp metal blade fitted into a snug metal sheath are not going to reveal their inner structure. When they show up on the TSA’s screens, they’ll be shaped like the sheath—and that can look like anything.
Non-metallic objects are even more problematical, because you can walk them straight through the metal detector. As I’ve observed before, knapped stone and obsidian blades have been making quite a comeback, and some of those things are sharp enough for surgery. For those with less primal tastes, there are fiberglass-reinforced hard plastic knives, and ceramic blades—in this case, zirconium oxide with an all-rubber handle.
Last week, Bruce Schneier pointed out the exotic weapons issue in Stabbing People with Stuff You Can Get Through Airport Security:
“Use of a pig model to demonstrate vulnerability of major neck vessels to inflicted trauma from common household items,” from the American Journal of Forensic Medical Pathology.This will come as a blow to KZ, a firm which manufactures a line of specialized (and IMO very silly) self-defense pens.
Abstract. Commonly available items including a ball point pen, a plastic knife, a broken wine bottle, and a broken wine glass were used to inflict stab and incised wounds to the necks of 3 previously euthanized Large White pigs. With relative ease, these items could be inserted into the necks of the pigs next to the jugular veins and carotid arteries.
Despite precautions against the carrying of metal objects such as knives and nail files on board domestic and international flights, objects are still available within aircraft cabins that could be used to inflict serious and potentially life-threatening injuries. If airport and aircraft security measures are to be consistently applied, then consideration should be given to removing items such as glass bottles and glass drinking vessels. However, given the results of a relatively uncomplicated modification of a plastic knife, it may not be possible to remove all dangerous objects from aircraft. Security systems may therefore need to focus on measures such as increased surveillance of passenger behavior, rather than on attempting to eliminate every object that may serve as a potential weapon.*Great idea! Since they can’t very well ship us to our destinations naked and shrink-wrapped, the TSA should focus on real security, run by professionals, instead of a fiasco-prone system that spends an unbelievable amount of time, effort, and money making sure that no one can hijack a plane by threatening the flight attendants with tiny Victorinox folding scissors.
Addenda: I just double-checked my “find the TSA-confiscated resale items on eBay” search strings, and for the first time ever saw listings for wholesale lots of TSA-confiscated sunglasses and reading glasses. I have no idea what that’s about.
In early ‘02 when they started confiscating tiny thread scissors, I started seeing these at a lot more craft shops. Like the key, its purpose was pretty obvious.