We’re the TSA. Trust Us.

I know, I gripe about the TSA and drones a lot on this blog, but after reading this story, I think you’ll understand why I think a lot of the TSA airport security policies are nothing more than security theater. It’s supposed to make you feel safer, but it doesn’t actually make you safer. It’s an act, a joke. And the way the TSA responds to criticism of those airport security policies is an even worse joke.

The story begins with this video by Jonathan Corbett. In it, Corbett argues that someone trying to smuggle something past the TSA’s new body scanners (whether contraband, a weapon, or explosive) need only slip it into a hidden pocket along your ribcage. He then shows videos which purport to show him passing through airport security checkpoints and the body scanners without the item being detected by the TSA.

Naturally, a story like that will generate some response. Among them was an article in the Guardian. The only airport in the UK that uses the new body scanners is in Manchester. Spokesperson Russell Craig said, “He’s taken a small metal tin through. And the guards are looking for a threat object. That’s not one. It’s not a valid test. To say this shows it undermines airport security technology is totally wrong.”

That response made me laugh. It gives the game away. First off, what exactly is a threat object? An axe, a sword, a gun? What would-be terrorist would use that? Even the 9/11 hijackers used relatively innocuous box cutters. The “liquid bombers” were going to use energy drink bottles. The underwear and shoe bombers also went for innocuous setups. The spokesman basically said if you’re not obvious, you will get through. And if the only way to test a system is to try to bring something obvious through the system–you know, instead of trying to be subtle and sneak something through–then you’re rigging the test.

Now, the story would have probably died away fairly quickly, but the TSA had to issue a response. And was it a doozy. Here is the official TSA response and here is a Gizmodo article destroying it. The TSA does not even refute the video! But they do take time to make fun of Corbett. The TSA simply says trust us, and trust the body scanners. Don’t you worry your little heads about it–we’ll keep you safe from the big, bad boogeymen. Oh, but all evidence about our successes are classified, so again, trust us. And if you don’t like it, you can opt to be felt up.

Even worse, there are now reports that the TSA is “strongly cautioning” reporters not to cover this story. Way to build trust, TSA.

Those body scanners cost a ton of money. Do they improve airport security? Probably. Is the marginal increase in security worth the cost? What about the health effects for frequent travelers? Do their policies make any sense? Read this article if you want to learn about security theater at its best/worst. In it, a man claiming to be a former FBI counterterrorism officer talks about being able to bring a gun on board, but not a knife. Feel safer yet?

Remember these sorts of stories next time you’re passing through airport security. When you’re getting scanned or invasively patted down. Ask yourself if you are actually safer, or if you’re just supposed to play a part in the security theater.

TSA Brags, Reveals It’s Worthless

Bruce Schneier posted a great story on his blog. He discusses a post on the TSA’s blog: TSA’s Top 10 Good Catches of 2011. The TSA is trying to show how it’s effective and has improved airport security. Obviously, Bruce Schneier disagrees, as do I. Definitely read both pieces, but as a brief aside, aren’t Top 10 lists supposed to list the best of something? Why only “good” catches by the TSA? Strange. Anyway…

As Bruce Schneier points out, the TSA can’t claim that they caught a single terrorist. Instead, just some people who forgot they were carrying guns or knives. But Eric, I can hear you asking, we don’t know that they truly “forgot” those guns. Each of those people could have been a terrorist about to attack! True, I can’t prove a negative, but what I can say is that guns and knives would have been detected before September 11–without TSA’s fancy full body scanners or invasive pat downs.

And the TSA’s number one catch? Chucks of C4? Sounds dangerous. But guess what–the TSA caught it on his return flight. They had already let it through once! This reminded me of the time I brought double-edged razors in my dop kit. Made it form DC to New York just fine. On the way back, a TSA supervisor was monitoring his staff, so they were going through every other bag, including mine. I had to surrender the razors. Yes, I realize the 9/11 hijackers used box cutters, but these were individually wrapped razors in a plastic case. Was I really going to dig into my bag, get out my dop kit, unwrap a single razor–holding it very delicately–and do some damage? No, I wasn’t. And even if someone was so motivated, I don’t think his fellow passengers would have let him get far.

Please excuse the rant, but let me point out that my razors were taken not because of national security or because someone thought I was a terrorist, but so the TSA official could look good in front of his supervisor. That’s what security theater is all about. That’s not an effective way to spend $1.2 billion on airport security. Remember, it’s not about making you safer at the airport, it’s about making you feel safer at the airport. Think about that next time you fly.

Vanity Fair takes Bruce Schneier to the Airport

It shouldn’t be a surprise at this point that I’m a fan of Bruce Schneier’s work. I’ve written about him repeatedly, especially about his idea of “security theater.”

Vanity Fair just published a great article about this topic. Author Charles C. Mann visits the Reagan National Airport in DC with Schneier, who quickly dismantles nearly all post-9/11 security procedures. It’s a very interesting read. Mann writes:

Terrorists will try to hit the United States again, Schneier says. One has to assume this. Terrorists can so easily switch from target to target and weapon to weapon that focusing on preventing any one type of attack is foolish. Even if the T.S.A. were somehow to make airports impregnable, this would simply divert terrorists to other, less heavily defended targets—shopping malls, movie theaters, churches, stadiums, museums. The terrorist’s goal isn’t to attack an airplane specifically; it’s to sow terror generally. “You spend billions of dollars on the airports and force the terrorists to spend an extra $30 on gas to drive to a hotel or casino and attack it,” Schneier says. “Congratulations!”

But it’s not all negative. Schneier does believe some security procedures are worth the money. But as pointed out in the article, these procedures aren’t very visible–they don’t make you feel safer because they operate subtly in the background. That’s security theater in a nutshell.

Be sure to pick up a copy of Vanity Fair next time you’re at the airport.

Science Fiction & Predicting the Future

Today Bruce Schneier posted a snippet of Isaac Asimov’s 1956 short story, “Let’s Get Together.” Schneier notes that Asimov predicted security theater 55 years ago. Here’s the clip:

“Consider further that this news will leak out as more and more people become involved in our countermeasures and more and more people begin to guess what we’re doing. Then what? The panic might do us more harm than any one TC bomb.”

The Presidential Assistant said irritably, “In Heaven’s name, man, what do you suggest we do, then?”

“Nothing,” said Lynn. “Call their bluff. Live as we have lived and gamble that They won’t dare break the stalemate for the sake of a one-bomb head start.”

“Impossible!” said Jeffreys. “Completely impossible. The welfare of all of Us is very largely in my hands, and doing nothing is the one thing I cannot do. I agree with you, perhaps, that X-ray machines at sports arenas are a kind of skin-deep measure that won’t be effective, but it has to be done so that people, in the aftermath, do not come to the bitter conclusion that we tossed our country away for the sake of a subtle line of reasoning that encouraged donothingism.”

At its heart, science fiction is about extrapolating the future of a technology, and, more importantly, describing the effects of that technology on society. I think most non-sci-fi fans only see the first part of that equation–the ray guns and space ships–not the people firing those guns or living aboard those ships.

So it should not come as a surprise that people focus on technology when they look back on older science fiction pieces to see which authors correctly predicted the future. We compare our cell phones to Captain Kirk’s communicator, or we ask where our jetpacks and flying cars are, for example. But as Arthur C. Clarke said in 1964, prediction is a mug’s game: either your predictions sound reasonable (and so they will turn out to be too safe and conservative), or your predictions are so laughably outrageous that they will be ignored (and yet you will likely be correct).

Instead, we should look back at Asimov’s piece and marvel not as his accuracy of predicting technology, such as the use of x-ray machines in public places. We should marvel at Asimov’s ability to understand humanity, to understand our desires and our fears. As I recently posted, great writers will deal just as effectively with internal conflict as they do with physical dangers and whiz-bang devices.

That’s what made Asimov a great writer, and it’s the humanity, not the gadgetry, that makes science fiction great.