by Mike Masnick

Filed Under:
cost-benefit, flying, security, tsa

Cost-Benefit Analysis On Why We Should Just Do Away With The TSA Completely

from the just-get-rid-of-it dept

One of the key points we've brought up repeatedly in discussing the current surveillance state we seem to live in, is that those in charge seem to have no concept whatsoever of a cost-benefit analysis. They look at the world as a situation in which "terrorists must be stopped at all costs." But that's obviously ridiculous. For example, if you really wanted to stop terrorists on commercial airplanes there's a simple way to do that: you end all air travel. That would knock out the issue of terrorists using commercial flights -- but would obviously create another set of headaches while probably doing very little to stop terrorism. That's an extreme example where the costs outweigh the benefits, that's so obviously crazy that it's not considered serious. Yet, by creeping and crawling along, we continually expand the surveillance state in similar ways without ever stopping to consider all the costs that are piling up.

Over at the Washington Post's Wonkblog, Dylan Matthews recently wrote about his experience flying commercially without having to go through security. That's because he flew a small commuter plane that is exempt from having to send its passengers through TSA security. As he noted, the experience was a lot more like taking a bus or a train. You show up right before it's time to go, collect your ticket and get on board. He thankfully points out that this was both awesome and no one died.

That eventually leads to a fairly simple idea: just get rid of the whole TSA and make all air travel like this. He points out that, on a basic cost-benefit analysis, this is probably totally worth it, even if terrorists do go back to trying to use commercial airlines in their plots:

Would this increase hijacking? Probably. But there's no reason to believe it would increase casualties from terrorist attacks overall.  That's because increasing airport security just leads terrorists to direct their assaults elsewhere.

The best literature review available on the efficacy of counterterrorism tactics found that, on average, adding metal detectors and security screenings at airports led to about 6.3 fewer airplane hijackings in the years examined (a hijinking-heavy period chronicled in Brendan Koerner's latest book, in case you're interested). But that was more than compensated for by an increase in "miscellaneous bombings, armed attacks, hostage taking, and events which included death or wounded individuals (as opposed to non-casualty incidents) in both the short and long run." In fact, metal detectors and security screenings at airports led to about 6.8 more of these substitute events. "When calculating the overall weighted mean effect size for all of the findings examining the effectiveness of metal detectors, the positive and harmful effects cancel each other out," the review's authors conclude.

Could that literature review be wrong? Sure. The evidence base on counterterrorism effectiveness is very thin because true experiments on it are hard to conduct. But you go to war with the data you have, and the data we have (including some from after that review came out) suggests that even the most rudimentary of security screenings have not saved any lives, all things considered. What they have done is waste countless hours and dollars, because we really needed a rock with which to scare away tigers.

In short: there's little to no evidence that the TSA has saved a single life in stopping terrorism. While it may have prevented specific plots, that energy just went towards other plots and attacks. Yet the costs of the TSA are immense, and we're not just talking about hiring all those people to feel you up at the airport, or even the super expensive naked scanner machines. It's the costs to all of us -- the public who travel. The fact that you have to get to the airport hours before your flight, stand in a very long line to be scanned or felt up and generally humiliated -- that's a massive waste of time and productivity for everyone, for apparently no benefit at all, other than security theater.

Yes, in many ways, this is the same point that Bruce Schneier has been making for ages, but it's nice to see more mainstream publications, like the Washington Post, not just make this basic argument (the costs outweigh the benefits of the TSA) but to go all the way to the level of arguing that totally abolishing the policy probably makes the most sense.

Reader Comments

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  1. icon
    akp (profile), 2 Jan 2014 @ 9:36am

    Re: We can all do our part and get rid of the TSA the easy way

    This is just not an option. Too many people have to fly for business (and there are sooo many jobs out there..) and thus have no choice.

    Consider also those of us who live in Alaska and Hawaii. We have no other (reasonable) way to access the rest of the country. Where the rest of you have the option of bus/car/train travel (which also could get the TSA treatment), we simply don't.

    I do have a right to travel within my country, and if I don't do it by air, I can't.

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