Security Theater In Action

from the don't-you-feel-safer-now? dept

The Atlantic has an article in which the author, Jeffrey Goldberg, put various Bruce Schneier theories to the test, to see just how ridiculous airport security is these days. As expected, he discovered that Schneier is correct in calling most airport security “security theater.” It’s designed to make people think they’re safer because they see something that looks like security, even if that security does absolutely nothing to stop terrorists. As the article notes, it’s not at all difficult for terrorists to bypass the system, so the only thing the system is really good for is to (a) catch really, really dumb terrorists or (b) to make other people think that the security is doing something.

Schneier, of course, has been making this point for years, so it was interesting to see what sort of response Goldberg was then able to get out of the TSA’s boss, Kip Hawley. His responses seem to fall into one of two categories. First, he suggests that the TSA is well aware of the potential vulnerability described, but he can’t really explain how it’s been fixed, or secondly, he insists that any odd behavior will be spotted by trained employees and stopped. Except that Goldberg tested that theory too, attempting to behave quite strangely — including ripping up a bunch of fake boarding passes in plain view of people… who all ignored him.

Hawley’s responses at times border on incomprehensible:

“What do you do about vulnerabilities?” he asked, rhetorically. “All the time you hear reports and people saying, ‘There’s a vulnerability.’ Well, duh. There are vulnerabilities everywhere, in everything. The question is not ‘Is there a vulnerability?’ It’s ‘What are you doing about it?'”

Well, what are you doing about it?

“There are vulnerabilities where you have limited ways to address it directly. So you have to put other layers around it, other things that will catch them when that vulnerability is breached. This is a universal problem. Somebody will identify a very small thing and drill down and say, ‘I found a vulnerability.'”

Either there’s some totally secret system that the TSA is using to actually stop these vulnerabilities, or there isn’t a system and Hawley is just being confusing in order to create some doubt. I’m not sure either one makes me feel any safer about flying. While some may claim that we should feel safer because there might be a more secretive plan in place that Hawley won’t talk about, consider me a skeptic. Security through obscurity has rarely proven to be as effective as a real and open security plan. I’m not saying that the TSA should reveal everything it does, but given Goldberg’s experiences in “probing” the system, it’s not clear that any “secret plan,” whether real or implied, is working particularly well.

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Comments on “Security Theater In Action”

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Rather_Notsay (profile) says:

I don’t think the purpose of the TSA is to, “makes me feel any safer about flying.” If someone gets on an airplane and stabs seven people, that’s a crime, but just that, a crime, not a national security imperative. Rigorous security is no more justified to prevent that than it would be to pat down everyone walking down the street because they might be considering committing a crime.

Airplanes represent a force multiplier that potentially allows a few nutbags to use some boxcutters to gain control of something that enables them to do much more damage than they could with their boxcutters alone.

TSA’s mission should be to worry about the latter and not so much about the former.

Jim says:

Re: Re:

“Airplanes represent a force multiplier…”

Bingo. If that is the threat (hijacking) – then focus on the threat. It is much easier to make cockpits hijack proof than it is to ensure nothing dangerous gets on planes.

If the plane can’t be hijacked then there is little point in getting weapons on board. The reward/risk ratio just gets lowered to a point where there are better targets.

So, we are spending a huge amount of money to poorly defend one transportation source. All the while we are doing little to protect (or upgrade) infrastructure or other transportation means.

chris (profile) says:

you have to exploit the vulnerability first

airlines and government overseers, like all vendors, often need a little embarrassment to prompt them to act.

so when standing there and pointing at the flaw doesn’t prompt action, then sometimes you need to go a step further.

why not smuggle whatever it is that you want to smuggle on to the plane and film yourself holding it during take off then upload the video to youtube?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Hey, douche, americans value the ability to travel when and where they want without fear. Murders and alcohol related collision deaths are near historic lows, so not only have they been absorbed just due to that part of the human mind which learns to ignore such things, but they are actually less severe than in living memory. The terrorism is supposed to be a new threat which is fresh on our minds and thus of a different character than the threats you mentioned. The buildings have nothing to do with it.

Urban says:

Re: Re: Re:

That is a great OPINION you have.
But people will always fear traveling, just ask my mother in law.
Still, if 50,000 people die in 2008 due to alcohol and guns. This should be in focus instead of millions of people being harassed at airports because they happen to carry a bottle of water. The risk of anything BAD happening while flying is insignificant when compared.
So grow up and stop fear mongering.

Urban says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

Fairly obvious this is not a topic you have read much about.
What happens is they discard your bottle and let you on the plane. The bottle is tossed into the same trash can as all other bottles. Tomorrow you can try again, and the next day, and the day after.
There is no security measure involved at all.

I am all for security that works.
Sectioned off secure cockpits and US marshals on planes. Most/all else is a waste of resources currently.

And unless 100 planes are to go down in flames due to 5ml of alcohol brought onboard and set on fire this year. Money could have been better spent on preventing alcohol and gun related deaths.

Get your priorities straight. Flying is safe, even with the boogyman holding a 5ml bottle of water in the seat next to you.

mobiGeek says:

Re: Re: Re:

So you support “action without thought”?

You are happy that gun deaths are at a near all time low…of over 30,000 in a year?

And your comment about the ability to travel without fear? What we’re saying is go after the actual threats (insecure cockpits) and quit messing around with theatrics. Do you honestly feel safer travelling through airports today than before 2001? I know that I spend WAY MORE mental energy thinking about threats now that I’m surrounded by blatantly ineffective security measures.

Jeff (profile) says:

It is just a show.

I personally know people who’ve madee it through security and on to a plane with, of all things, a box cutter. If I wanted to, I could easily get on board with weapons.

What I found when preparing to travel recently is that you may not have an aftermarket gel filled insole in your shoe, however, a gel or water bra is just fine.

Like many of these precautions or restrictions, all it does is inconvenience law abiding citizens.

Jeff (profile) says:

It is just a show.

I personally know people who’ve madee it through security and on to a plane with, of all things, a box cutter. If I wanted to, I could easily get on board with weapons.

What I found when preparing to travel recently is that you may not have an aftermarket gel filled insole in your shoe, however, a gel or water bra is just fine.

Like many of these precautions or restrictions, all it does is inconvenience law abiding citizens.

John Doe says:

Why should the TSA be any different than the rest of our government? Instead of coming up with real solutions to problems, they pass feel good laws with little to no effect. So really, how can the TSA be held to any higher standard than we hold the government as a whole?

Little can be done to stop someone who is willing to die to accomplish an act. The best we can probably hope for is that pilots won’t turn planes over to terrorists who can then use them as weapons. We will lose individual planes, but hopefully not whole buildings.

Urban says:

Re: Re: Re:

I think it has a lot to do with a perceived need to hire an expert to deal with terrorist threats to flying.
Once hired the dude figured out he is clueless and begins implementing anything that looks like he is worth his paycheck. Now he needs staff to make him less likely to be sacked when money is tight. And you end up with a system of making poor choices.

mobiGeek says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

I think that the lobbyists cause the politicians to push the “national security” message. That is what creates the perception, not the public in general.

If politicians instead talked about the actual numbers involved (how many domestic terrorist deaths in the past 100 YEARS vs. how many gun deaths in the past 100 DAYS?), they could avoid the pork-barrel lean.

But that is not what politicians do for a living…

John Doe says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

Boy you really worry about gun deaths don’t you? Where do you live? Are you afraid of your spouse? Would you prefer making guns illegal? Aren’t drugs illegal yet you can get them on any street corner in the country? How would guns be different? Just look at Great Britain; they practically outlaw all gun ownership and crime is way up.

Talk about feel good laws. Outlawing guns would feel good for all of a few weeks while the honest people give up their guns. But then reality would sink in when crime would go through the roof because the criminals know they are the only ones with guns!

mobiGeek says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

Do you honestly believe that gun ownership in the US is what is keeping “crime at bay”?

Does having guns on the street make a home more safe (scare away criminals) or more dangerous (improperly kept, the deranged/drunk/”temporarily insane”, criminals arming themselves)?

The UK may have crime going “way up”, but take a look at *which* type of crime and how guns would hinder/enhance that rate (hint: gun advocates don’t like going this deep into the topic…)

But forget the “philosophy” of pro-/anti- gun freaks. Simply look at the raw numbers. Does it make sense to invest a HUGE amount of resources on fixing a prick in your finger at the same time that you are hemorrhaging out somewhere else?

John Doe says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Re:

Every state that has enacted a concealed carry law has seen crime go down. This is a stat that anti-gunners don’t like to examine.

The UK crime is home invasion and yes, a gun in the home would slow that down. Home invasion went up dramatically after guns were removed.

I am not arguing that the TSA needs fixed, only examining your desire to reduce alcohol and gun deaths. Please put forth a solution as complaining about it doesn’t fix it.

Enrico Suarve says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

“Just look at Great Britain; they practically outlaw all gun ownership and crime is way up”

Source please?

As a Brit one of the few things this government has done is drop most crime dramatically – serious crime is down as is the risk of becoming a victim of crime

You can argue that some of it is stats and it might not be as rosy a picture as the Home Office is painting but we are a long way off up, let along “way up”

Obviously you know better what with being an American an’ all, but I for one kind of like living in a country where shootings still make national news

I don’t know how you go about removing guns from a society that already has them but if the rest of your ‘facts’ are comparable to the ones above then I would guess neither do you

John Doe says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Re:

I don’t know how to remove guns from an already armed society because it can’t be done. Even if it could, they would be available on every street corner right alongside the drugs that are avaiable on every street corner. Oh, and the last time I checked drugs are illegal. Hmm, can you say feel good laws? Sure, I thought you could.

Joh Doe says:

You prove that your reading comprehension is very low. I am not afraid of my wife killing me or anyone else for that matter. Could it happen? Sure, but it isn’t worth giving up my freedoms for; NO WAY!

As for the risk of flying, I don’t much worry about that either. There is little to nothing I can do about it and the risk that someone jacks the plane I am on is very low. My comment about the alcohol was only to point out that they don’t allow bottled water through security because it may not be bottled water! Some of the measures they have taken are actually worthwhile.

Zehawk (profile) says:

Plug the real security holes

Well, the current crop of security measures are unfortunately necessary. Thats the only way to find out if people are carrying anything lethal on board that can be used to threaten passengers and crew. Its the old saw… everyone knows that the locks that you put on your front door can be open in a minute flat by any decent locksmith, but would you not do it? So I have no issue with all the security measures at airports.

Unfortunately, the security measures concentrate only on well marked entry points. I travel a lot and I’m often puzzled about how easy it is to get access to the plane parking bays from outside. To make it easier, many airports around the world have public roads running through the runway area. Whats to stop someone from jumping off a vehicle, dressed as ground crew, taking whatever lethal items with him and planting it in a plane, or hiding out in the plane? The runway area is so large, there’s no way to prevent total access short of having guard towers and patrols… or am I missing something here?

mobiGeek says:

Re: Plug the real security holes

But why is there no such security for, say, commuter trains? Passengers there are less worthy?

Why are the current crop of security measures necessary? How do a bunch of INEFFECTIVE measures help “the situation” (and what is that situation)?

I believe that some level of security is necessary, but that’s true of any public place (malls, libraries, schools, trains, airports, roadways, etc…) But the amount and the particular measures of security need to be properly assessed.

The current over-emphasis on one area shows at least two problems: (1) massive spending is not actually securing anything [i.e. wasted resources] and (2) other areas of public safety are suffering [i.e. resource starved].

W says:

The employees who drive fuel trucks, and make french fries at McDonald’s, and clean airplane bathrooms (to the extent that they’re cleaned anymore) do not pass through magnetometers when they enter the airport, and their possessions are not searched. To me this always seemed to be, well, another “vulnerability.”

Not true everywhere, certainly some hyperbole. I’ve been to Midway Airport (Chicago) and seen the McDonald’s employees going through security with everyone else. I think there’s a separate line for airport employees, but they were all going through security.

NeoArcane says:

Play the TSA Game

Here’s a fun game to PROVE how much BS the TSA is. Next time you are travelling through one of the “mall inside” airports, print off the list of TSA “banned” items – those that they will confiscate. Then see how many you can BUY in the Airport Mall between the TSA checkpoint and getting on the plane.

And if you remember anything from your chemistry classes, check out the “science” store in the Charlotte Airport mall. Can you say “Fun With HouseHold Chemicals”???. I knew you could…

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