How Dropbox helped me avoid TSA detention

I’m sitting at the Northwest Arkansas airport as I type this waiting for my flight which is about 2.5 hours from now. What am I doing here so early? Here’s what happened:

A couple of weeks back I get an email from the organizer of the NWATechfest giving me instructions on where to park, whom to contact for help, etc. That’s when I realized that I was scheduled to speak there on Aug 24th i.e. today. I quickly checked my calendar to see when my talk at Houston Code Camp was supposed to be and surprise, surprise…it was on Aug 25th (the next day).

It was completely my fault. I let it slip my radar. Now I had to figure out how to get from Dallas to Fayetteville to Houston and back to Dallas all within 48 hours. I got on the phone with Expedia and quickly booked the tickets, made hotel reservations, car rentals, etc. As you can imagine, it costs me a fortune.

Fast forward two weeks, I’m on a plane from Dallas to XNA (Arkansas) with a stop over at Houston and a brief flight later, we land in Houston. It was raining heavily. United airlines did an excellent job of taking care of its customers by asking us to walk to the terminal from the plane IN THE RAIN! They promised that our bags will be delivered to us inside the terminal. While all the passengers including a mother with 3 young children & 2 older ladies were waiting inside after soaking ourselves in the rain, they told us that the bags are in the cart outside and we need to go get it ourselves. It was still raining! Like I said the other day, the airline industry is begging to be disrupted. They treat people like cattle.

Anyway, we board the next flight to Arkansas and finally get there around 7 PM. I pulled up my itinerary on my phone to check where I was supposed to pick up my rental car. And the email doesn’t have any details about the car rental & hotel reservation. Only flight details (turns out that Gmail cuts off messages). Mood: SLIGHTLY IRRITATED.

So I call Expedia and get all the information and walk up to the Budget car rental service. The customer before me in the line literally took 30 minutes talking to the lady at the counter before he left NOT renting a car. Mood: ANNOYED.

Finally I get to the counter and pull up my wallet to get my driver’s license when I realize that my driver’s license is missing. Shit! I remembered taking it out to show the TSA agent when I checked-in in Dallas. I must have put it back in my pocket and somehow dropped it in the flight or in Houston airport when I was running towards the terminal in the rain.

The lady was polite and friendly but she refused to let me rent a car without a valid driver’s license. No other ID mattered. Apparently, it was a matter of policy. So I took a cab to the hotel. Mood: SUPER PISSED.

I ordered Chinese and was contemplating how to get to the University of Arkansas tomorrow for the talk. I didn’t want to keep taking cabs everywhere as they could get very expensive and on a side note – my employer doesn’t cover any of these expenses. And that’s when it hit me like a train – I can’t fly tomorrow to Houston if I don’t have an ID. DAMN IT!

I’d called my wife earlier and bitched about my stupidity for about 10 minutes. She researched “how to fly without a valid ID in the US” on the web and sent me an email instructing me to get to the airport as early as possible because they WILL take me away for questioning for the following reasons: 1) it wasn’t a round trip ticket (remember, Dallas -> Arkansas -> Houston -> Dallas), 2) I don’t have a government-issued ID, 3) and most importantly, I’m a foreigner & my skin color is brown ;-)

Next day, i.e. today, I take a cab to the techfest. Right when I was about to start, the projector started acting up. The screen was super dim & blurry. Thanks to Shawn Weisfeld who let me borrow his HDMI-to-VGA autoscaler, I was able to project to the screen. Then the presentation almost bombed because Azure decided to lock me out of the portal RIGHT IN THE MIDDLE OF THE FREAKIN’ DEMO! But I quickly recovered and signed up for a new account (yes, everyone saw me type in my DOB, credit car information, etc.) and finished it 10 minutes late. Thanks to Chris Koenig for patiently waiting.

I finally rush to airport almost 3 hours ahead of the boarding time and walk up to the security checkin. I show them my boarding pass from yesterday so that it would give me some credibility that I traveled as early as yesterday (less than 24 hours). I also showed them my credit card with my name on it. And then I showed them the Plano Parks & Recreation issued ID. And to top it all, I showed them the scanned copy of my driver’s license ON MY PHONE.

That’s right. My wife & I have scanned all our important documents like college transcripts, SSN card, insurance cards, mortgage documents, marriage license/certificate, etc. into an encrypted Dropbox folder so that we can retrieve them from anywhere, anytime. Thankfully I had the Dropbox app installed which made it a lot easier than downloading it from the browser although that really wouldn’t have been an issue considering the circumstances.

The TSA lady said “NICE! Alright, you’re good to go”. Emphasis hers.

Now I understand that some people don’t feel comfortable putting all their documents online like that. But I personally feel Dropbox has enough security built-in to avoid breaches like that and on top of it, there’s another layer of password-protection anyway.

I could have been in some deep shit if they had not allowed me to fly because I have no other easy way to get to Houston by tomorrow morning. My talk is scheduled at 9:15 AM. I can’t rent a car because again, no driver’s license = no renting cars.

So the moral of the story is; don’t be an idiot. Be careful when you travel especially when you’re a foreigner on the US soil. Having no ID on you is asking for trouble. Also, have an online encrypted backup of your important stuff. You never know when you’ll need it.