The Theatrics Of Airport Security

The term ‘security theater’ gets thrown around a lot with respect to the TSA’s policies, but few people know the specifics of why those policies are flawed. One of the few is Bruce Schneier, one of the most well-known security specialists. He was interviewed by Vanity Fair this week, and said that there have only been three useful air security measures taken since 9/11, and they’re probably not what you think:

  • Reinforcing the cockpit doors to prevent hijacking
  • Making sure that every piece of luggage on a plane belongs to someone on the plane
  • Passengers now know to fight back with terrorists

The last one is visibly the most important, since it has already stopped two terrorist attacks: the underwear bomber and the shoe bomber. Prior to 9/11, passengers didn’t fight back because it wasn’t worth it: the worst case scenario was “a week in Havana.” But all the other security measures, which have cost over a trillion dollars in the past decade, are meaningless. For the interview, the author proved how easy it was to get past security with a fake boarding pass he made with Photoshop and a laser printer. As for the other theatrics:

  • Taking shoes off: terrorists will just hide explosives elsewhere, like their underwear, or in their bodies. Focusing on one specific threat makes the terrorists come up with a new kind of attack.
  • Checking hands for explosives: TSA agents will randomly wipe passengers’ hands, hoping would-be terrorists were dumb enough to not wear latex gloves while making a bomb, and also didn’t wash their hands with alcohol after.
  • Full-body scanners: these were a typical TSA reaction to the underwear bomber, who hid plastic explosives in his undies. But all the scanners can see (and not well) is suspicious bulges; if you mold the plastic explosives into a thin sheet and put it over your stomach, its invisible. Or if you hide small amounts of it in a body cavity, like your mouth or nose, and go through security a few times to accumulate enough.
  • No liquids over 3.5oz: the TSA makes an exception for medical liquids, like saline. You can easily fill a saline bottle with liquid explosives and shrink wrap it — the TSA doesn’t open shrink-wrapped packages.


  • Behavioral specialists: agents trained to pick out terrorists from a crowd. The problem is that only 20 out of the 700 million flyers in the last decade were terrorists: picking out the right 0.0000000285% out of the population just by looking at them is impossible.
  • Security checkpoints: besides the specific “measures”, the whole concept of the checkpoint is flawed, since you can easily get around the checkpoint by working at the airport. The pay is low and the turnover is high, so it’s pretty easy to get an airport job.
  • Air marshals: the idea is sound but the execution is terrible. The job consists solely of sitting on an airplane and remaining vigilant in the face of astounding boredom. Turnover is high and training is expensive.
  • Air travel security: even if everything worked ideally and airports and airplanes became positively invincible, that would still accomplish nothing. Terrorists would just move on to less-secure targets, like shopping malls, casinos, mega-churches. This is why the best way to stop terrorists is not through airport screeners that catch them at the last minute, but through old-fashioned police work that catch them well before they even get to the airport; the liquid explosive terrorists were caught this way, as were the Times Square bomber (sorta) and the Manhattan terrorists.

The reason we have security theater to begin with is that while we can never be truly secure, the government has to make us feel like we are, to keep the paralyzing fear of terrorism from grinding our economy to a halt. (Although, if the Israeli economy can deal with that much insecurity, we should be more than ok.) And so they feed opium to the people via visible, inconvenient “security measures” that are merely the police equivalent of placebos. But eventually, the theatrics get old and instead of instilling a sense of safety via smoke, mirrors and willful suspension of disbelief, we increasingly notice how fake the special effects are. And we notice this because the theatrics get more elaborate, more inconvenient and therefore more costly to us — both in terms of time and frustration — while at the same time there’s no rise in benefit to go along with the rise in cost.

Ok, the mistletoe is going too far


After a while, it becomes painfully obvious that the TSA cannot catch terrorists and people start seeing the smoke and mirrors; the underlying message of the show changes from “we’re keeping you safe” to “we’re really just wasting your time to make you feel better”. Given the amount of backlash the TSA has been getting this year, ranging from reports of abuse, to incompetence, to petitions to abolish it, to Congressional calls to overhaul it, it looks like that message has changed and the TSA has officially jumped the shark. In tough economic times, it’s harder to keep shows like that on the air:

We’re spending billions upon billions of dollars doing this—and it is almost entirely pointless. Not only is it not done right, but even if it was done right it would be the wrong thing to do. (Bruce Schneier)

Today, 23% percent of people are refusing to go through body scanners (over 30% for younger people) because they’re more concerned about radiation exposure, invasion of privacy and unreasonable search more than they are about terrorism — and logically so: in the past 40 years, lightning has killed more Americans than terrorists.  So if people are more concerned about their health and civil liberties than they are about getting hit by lightning, then the same should hold true about terrorism.

In the meantime, the TSA continues treading water by insisting it’s still relevant, and trying to be nicer to cancer patients. Although, they still fear cupcakes may be dangerous.


From Variety, NPR and The TSA Blog, via Slashdot and Laughing Squid


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