Different River

”You can never step in the same river twice.” –Heraclitus

February 15, 2005

Airline Security

Filed under: — Different River @ 9:39 pm

In case you haven’t noticed, many of the “security” procedures we see at airports and other facilities are more or less pointless as far as protecting the public, or the facilities, from most kinds of attacks. Bruce Schneier is one of the world’s top security experts. He got his start in cryptography and computer security, but he has become one of the world’s clearest thinkers on security in general. He recently participated in a working group to evaluation “Secure Flight,” the Transportion Security Administration‘s new program to match airline passengers with terrorist watch lists. He says this match system is much better than the current one, but it’s still basically pointless — not only does it have the potential to evolve into some sort of “Big Brother” system that tracks everyone’s movements everywhere (not just on planes)…

[T]he urge to use this system for other things will be irresistible. It’s just too easy to say: “As long as you’ve got this system that watches out for terrorists, how about also looking for this list of drug dealers…and by the way, we’ve got the Super Bowl to worry about too.” Once Secure Flight gets built, all it’ll take is a new law and we’ll have a nationwide security checkpoint system.

… but it’s an extremely inefficient use of security resources.

Imagine for a minute that Secure Flight is perfect. That is, we can ensure that no one can fly under a false identity, that the watch lists have perfect identity information, and that Secure Flight can perfectly determine if a passenger is on the watch list: no false positives and no false negatives. Even if we could do all that, Secure Flight wouldn’t be worth it.

Secure Flight is a passive system. It waits for the bad guys to buy an airplane ticket and try to board. If the bad guys don’t fly, it’s a waste of money. If the bad guys try to blow up shopping malls instead of airplanes, it’s a waste of money.

If I had some millions of dollars to spend on terrorism security, and I had a watch list of potential terrorists, I would spend that money investigating those people. [What a concept! --DR] I would try to determine whether or not they were a terrorism threat before they got to the airport, or even if they had no intention of visiting an airport. I would try to prevent their plot regardless of whether it involved airplanes. I would clear the innocent people, and I would go after the guilty. I wouldn’t build a complex computerized infrastructure and wait until one of them happened to wander into an airport. It just doesn’t make security sense.

As Bruce points out, the economics of the system simply doesn’t make sense:

That’s my usual metric when I think about a terrorism security measure: Would it be more effective than taking that money and funding intelligence, investigation, or emergency response — things that protect us regardless of what the terrorists are planning next. Money spent on security measures that only work against a particular terrorist tactic, forgetting that terrorists are adaptable, is largely wasted.

If the market, rather than government regulators, were providing security, we wouldn’t have this type of waste.

3 Responses to “Airline Security”

  1. romy Says:

    i’m not sure which security features in specific he sees as “useless” but, even when i personally am subjected to full frontal searches with metallic wands at the security gates, i can definitely see the utility of such procedures.

  2. Different River Says:

    If you are not a terrorist, what’s the point of searching you? I mean, if you were carrying a knife or a gun or something, would you “accidentally” hijack the plane? And what are they searching you for? The same types of knives they give out in the airport restaurants you can go to right after they search you? In part, yes — and that’s useless.

  3. romy Says:

    well, the obvious response is that *i* may know i am not a terrorist, but the TSA certainly has no way of knowing that. it’s not exactly something you can have stamped in your passport. and to be quite frank i’d rather be searched and know they are taking every caution than see a replay of sept 11 2001 because they trusted everyone who went through those gates and said “no way, man, i’m not a terrorist.” wouldn’t you?

    i agree it’s sometimes exaggerated – i had to devise a special checked enveloppe once for my (plastic) knitting needles because they were qualified as sharp objects and i couldn’t carry them into the cabin – but again, tant mieux. it’s a small price to pay.

    i don’t think anyone has said anything about “accidentally” hijacking the plane. desperate people will use desperate measures to achieve desperate ends. and that may happen again, no matter how many safety measures are taken. but at least the precautionary measures are starting to be better in place, and more uniformly observed.

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