Tag Archives: security

Holiday Travel Travails

Just in time for the holiday travel season, Vanity Fair’s Charles C. Mann took a trip through airport security with security expert Bruce Schneier. Mann used a fake boarding pass that he printed at home with a little bit of Photoshopping and some coaching from Schneier; it worked.

In fact, there are only three security measures that are effective, and they’re all already in place. They are “locking and reinforcing the cockpit doors, so terrorists can’t break in, positive baggage matching”—ensuring that people can’t put luggage on planes, and then not board them —“and teaching the passengers to fight back. The rest is security theater.”

It’s also time to allow passengers to keep their shoes on:

Taking off your shoes is next to useless. “It’s like saying, Last time the terrorists wore red shirts, so now we’re going to ban red shirts,” Schneier says. If the T.S.A. focuses on shoes, terrorists will put their explosives elsewhere. “Focusing on specific threats like shoe bombs or snow-globe bombs simply induces the bad guys to do something else. You end up spending a lot on the screening and you haven’t reduced the total threat.”

Schneier goes on to show, point-by-point, why almost every aspect of TSA’s security apparatus is spectacularly ineffective. Body scanners, behavioral detection officers, air marshals, and all the rest are the kind of big-budget production that doesn’t actually produce much in the way of increased safety. Fortunately, terrorism is rare; we are still safe.

Read the whole thing. And when you’re done, pick up a copy of Schneier’s book, Beyond Fear: Thinking Sensibly About Security in an Uncertain World.


Regulation of the Day 200: Flying Food

Millions of Americans are taking to the skies to spend time with their families over Thanksgiving. Many of them will be carrying leftovers on their return trips. Fortunately, the TSA is fully prepared to defend the airways against terrorist turkeys and rogue desserts. Here is a list of food and other holiday-themed items that run afoul of the TSA’s 3-1-1 rule:

Cranberry sauce, creamy dips and spreads (cheeses, peanut butter, etc.), gift baskets with food items (salsa, jams and salad dressings), gravy, jams, jellies, maple syrup, oils and vinegars, salad dressing, salsa, sauces, soups, wine, liquor and beer.

That means you’ll have to put them in checked baggage if you have a decent amount. They are far too dangerous to bring on the plane in a carry-on.

There are also specific guidelines for pies and cakes:

Note: You can bring pies and cakes through the security checkpoint, but please be advised that they are subject to additional screening.

I feel safer already.

In Other TSA News…

TSA officials recently performed a bomb drill at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, and didn’t tell anyone about it in advance. Local police surrounded a TSA-employed “bomber” with guns drawn before someone finally told them it was only a drill. Fortunately, no one was hurt.

A spokeswoman says that TSA will “ensure the correct procedures will be followed in the future.”

Time will tell.

TSA Pats Down Infant

Apparently its stroller failed an explosives screening. Surprisingly, no explosives were found during extra screening, including what a TSA  official describes as a “modified pat-down” of the suspicious infant.

I Usually Avoid Puerile Humor on this Blog, but…

… this one was too good not to share.

Original version here.

Where Are the TSA’s Full-Body Scanners?

Here is the TSA’s list of airports that use full-body scanners. Worth a look before your next flight.

Another TSA Indignity

This picture is its own argument for disbanding the TSA. Better to put security under the charge of people who actually have an incentive to maximize safety and minimize intrusiveness — airports and airlines. The TSA takes the opposite approach, as shown above. Original picture here.

TSA Averts PR Disaster

Yesterday I went to the airport, dreading the choice between a full-body scan or a full-body pat-down. I arrived more than two hours early. I was expecting long lines, large crowds, and a testy atmosphere; neither passengers nor TSA employees seem to enjoy the new security procedures.

After checking in with my airline, I walked down to the dreaded security line, ticket and driver’s license in hand. The line was suprisingly short. DC is a transient city. About 40 percent of the region’s population is originally from somewhere else. That means more people fly out for the holidays than in other areas. But security was a breeze! What was going on?

As it turns out, just for that busy day, the TSA decided to revert back to the old shoes-and-metal-detectors policy at many airports. No scanners. No pat-downs. At least not that day. After I went through the metal detector, put my shoes back on, and found a seat near my gate, I saw on the news that this was happening nationwide.

Not every airport eased up. Some people still had to choose between the two indignities. But the planned opt-out protests seemed to fizzle out, mainly because most people didn’t have to.

The TSA did the right thing. It doesn’t need the scanners. It doesn’t need the pat-downs. Unfortunately, it did the right thing for the wrong reasons.

If scanners and pat-downs really are about safety, TSA would have stuck to its guns. No, they are about security theater. And PR is one of the most important aspects of this theatrical production.

The opt-out protests were a PR disaster waiting to happen. How many John Tyners would be born that day? Better to not even give them the chance. Then reinstate the scanners when popular fury dies down.

It worked. This morning’s headlines are screaming about TSA protests fizzling, or disappointing, and the like. That’s because TSA took away the opportunity for anything to be protested.

Worth noting: even without the scanners and pat-downs, there were no terrorist attacks. This is because terrorism is rare. I look forward to the day when we have an adult security policy that reflects that reality.

Now we shall see if I have to endure the scanner-or-pat-down Hobson’s choice on my return flight.

Some of Us Are More Equal than Others

Don’t like dealing with the TSA’s body scanners or pat-downs? Consider getting into politics. The Associated Press reports:

Cabinet secretaries, top congressional leaders and an exclusive group of senior U.S. officials are exempt from toughened new airport screening procedures when they fly commercially with government-approved federal security details.

Maybe Congress and the President would be more willing to rein in the TSA’s excesses if more of them actually had to endure them.

Apparently TSA head John Pistole goes through the same security that you and I do, for which he deserves praise. Though one does wonder why it hasn’t made him realize the absurdity of modern security theater.

TSA Roundup

The Thanksgiving travel rush is officially underway. Airports are clogged with passengers. Many of them are upset at new TSA screening policies. A new poll finds 60 percent support for full-body scanning, and just under 50 percent support for pat-downs that involve touching breasts, buttocks, and genitals.

If that sounds high, remember that most Americans don’t fly. Jim Harper also points out that the poll’s wording is biased. “Before being asked about strip-search machines, poll-takers hear cognates of “terror” three times, “privacy” once.” Wording like that skews the results in the TSA’s favor.

Unsurprisingly, many TSA employees don’t care for the new pat-down policy either. Near-constant verbal abuse and poor passenger hygiene are among their biggest complaints. There is also the matter of having to “feel inside the flab rolls of obese passengers.”

Assuming that most TSA screeners are not sex perverts, it can’t be much fun spending 8-hour shifts inspecting other peoples’ genitals. However, not all TSA employees are mentally sound. A TSA employee kidnapped a woman from Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and assaulted her.

This was the action of a disturbed individual, and probably unrelated to the backlash against the TSA’s new policies. Even so, that means the TSA has done more harm than good; TSA has yet to catch a single terrorist during its entire existence.

One reason is that its screeners are ineffective. Adam Savage from the television show Mythbusters accidentally arrived at airport security with two 12-inch razor blades. The TSA did not find them, despite giving him a full-body scan.

Ars Technica posts a video of Savage telling his story, and points out that ”If the TSA thinks you can hijack a plane with saline solution and nail clippers, Savage’s 12″ razor blades are the equivalent of a nuclear bomb. Since the blades weren’t anywhere near Savage’s privates, they likely would have been missed by the pat-down as well.”

At least one argument against full-body scanners does not hold ground: that the radiation dose from repeated scans can cause cancer and other illnesses. The dose of so small, that the odds of dying from the radiation exposure is roughly the same as dying in a terrorist attack. Those odds are less than 1 in 10,000,000. Passengers are over 20 times more likely to be struck by lightning.

As with any government agency, the TSA is highly politicized. The two companies that make the scanners have ramped up their lobbying efforts in recent years, getting political heavyweights such as Linda Daschle (the lobbyist wife of former Sen. Tom Daschle) and Michael Chertoff to promote the scanners on Capitol Hill.

One privacy concern about full-body scans is that the images could be stored and possibly leaked on the Internet. This has already happened at a courthouse in Florida (you can see 100 of the 35,000 leaked images here). But the TSA says that won’t be a problem with their scanners. Common sense says otherwise.

Their machines are unable to store images, yes. But any enterprising screener can modify them. Or he could even snap a picture of a naked image with his cell phone. Fortunately, a recent story about a Denver TSA screener who was caught masturbating is a hoax. But the very fact that it is plausible should give TSA boosters pause.

In fact, flying at 30,000 feet exposes passengers to “3 mrem of radiation, an amount that is 150 times greater than the scanner gives you before you board the same flight.”

That’s about the strongest argument in favor of the scanners. But it is outweighed by the fact that they induce some people to drive instead of fly. Since driving is more dangerous than flying, the scanners are expected, on net, to kill people.

They are not expected to actually save any lives, as security expert Bruce Schneier makes crystal clear.

It is well past time to abolish the TSA. Let airlines and airports determine their own policies. Let them compete on safety; if people think flying is dangerous, they won’t fly. Airlines have everything to lose. The TSA has no such incentive. If anything, its repeated failures are rewarded with budget increases.