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Airport Security: Annoying or Pointless?

First, here’s an opinion piece by Patrick Smith at the NYT’s “Jet Lagged” weblog, pointing out a lot of the problems with airport security procedures.

At every concourse checkpoint you’ll see a bin or barrel brimming with contraband containers taken from passengers for having exceeded the volume limit. Now, the assumption has to be that the materials in those containers are potentially hazardous. If not, why were they seized in the first place? But if so, why are they dumped unceremoniously into the trash? They are not quarantined or handed over to the bomb squad; they are simply thrown away.

We are not fighting materials, we are fighting the imagination and cleverness of the would-be saboteur.

If you’ve read that and gotten your blood pressure up, you won’t be doing your cardiovascular system any favors by reading this article by the always-excellent Bruce Schneier about a study (well, a meta-study, really) by the Harvard School of Public Health that went looking for evidence of the effectiveness of TSA screening procedures.

I’m going to disagree with Schneier on one point: he summarizes the study as

Surprising nobody, a new study concludes that airport security isn’t helping

From the articles he links to, I’d say it’d be more fair to say “Airport security procedures are costing us a lot, and we don’t even know whether they’re doing any good.”

But he’s right when he says:

The goal isn’t to confiscate prohibited items. The goal is to prevent terrorism on airplanes. When the TSA confiscates millions of lighters from innocent people, that’s a security failure. The TSA is reacting to non-threats. The TSA is reacting to false alarms. Now you can argue that this level of failures is necessary to make people safer, but it’s certainly not evidence that people are safer.

(Update: Punkwalrus imagines the future of air travel, in grainy black and white, with cheesy upbeat music.)

I’m not opposed to a little security theater: having a few conspicuous patrols and checkpoints can provide a sense of “We mean business”, even if most of the real security work is done invisibly, behind the scenes (e.g., by the NSA and FBI, by breaking up plots while they’re still in the planning stages). But what pisses me off is large numbers of procedures that obviously serve no purpose except as theater. Like the business of making everyone take their shoes off:

“Can you hide anything in your shoes that you cannot hide in your underwear?” [the Harvard researchers] asked.

I also understand that in the security world, it’s desirable for nothing to happen, but if nothing happens, it can be hard to tell whether it’s because your security measures are working, or because the bad guys aren’t trying anything. But this is a well-known problem, and I can’t believe that security professionals don’t have any way of at least estimating whether secure measures are proportional to the threat. For instance, I can look at my firewall logs to see which rules are worthwhile, or read my spam folder to see how many piece of spam were sent, and decide how much time and money I’m willing to spend on protecting my system and my mailbox.

So shouldn’t we expect the TSA to make at least a good-faith effort to demonstrate that it’s spending its budget wisely, and not just annoying travelers for the pure hell of it?

2 thoughts on “Airport Security: Annoying or Pointless?

  1. We should, but we’ll have to wait for people to stop freaking out reactionarily and throwing money at the problem to get there. Rational thinking first, then decent planning. I hope that we are finally nearing that point.

  2. Raven:
    True, of course. Fear is a big factor in all this, one which neither the government nor the media have refrained from fanning. And scared people will put up with a lot of inconvenience and expense.

    And it’s another one of those cases where it’s hard to tell malice from incompetence: on one hand, a strong police presence can be reassuring. On the other hand, if the rules are arbitrary and keep changing all the time (as with the TSA), it makes things seem unstable, which is unsettling.

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