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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

The TSA Responds To Petition To Abolish The TSA

The White House implemented a petition system in September, and of course the most popular petition was to legalize marijuana. The administration’s response was written by the Drug Czar, so the jist of it was along the lines of “are you kidding? That’s like a major part of my job, man. I got kids to feed.” So the petition was denied because marijuana has no medicinal value, but no word on what that has to do with the price of tea in China, since alcohol and tobacco also have no medicinal value. Similarly, today, the TSA chief responded to a petition to abolish the TSA, and the jist of it was along of the lines of “are you kidding? That’s like a major part of my job, man. I got kids to feed.” So the petition was denied because the TSA keeps the country safe, but no word on what country he’s talking about, since Congress itself pointed out that the TSA has never prevented a terrorist attack, including none of the four major ones attempted since 9/11.


Of course, that the response was a “hell no” is hardly surprising, given that it was written by the TSA. It’s how you would respond if the Internet handed you a petition requesting that your job be eliminated. So the real insight here is that the petition system is just classic misdirection designed to give people a place to vent. If the Obama administration were actually serious about the petitions, it wouldn’t have handed the marijuana one to the Drug Czar and the TSA one to the TSA chief as it did, probably attached to a memo saying “explain why your job matters.” If they were taking the petitions seriously, the response would’ve come from the guy who would actually make those changes: Obama himself, hopefully after actually considering the petition instead of just paying lip service to it.

From The White House

House Of Representatives Calls For TSA Overhaul

Republicans in the House have filed a report called “A Decade Later: A Call For TSA Reform” (PDF), which was co-written by the author of the original bill that created the TSA, John Mica, and who has spoken out before against the ineffective bureaucracy that the agency has become. The report has nothing good to say about the TSA and reams it for having become bloated, having no focus, being reactionary instead of proactive, having never once stopped a terrorist attack, deviating from its original mandate, and not implementing measures that Congress has requested.


Highlights of the report:

  • The TSA is very top-heavy, with about 10,000 of its 65,000 employees being administrators, and another 4,000 working at headquarters
  • Due to low morale, it has an incredibly high turnover rate of 17%; more employees have left the agency than are currently employed there
  • It keeps focusing on hijacking of airplanes, in spite of changes post-9/11 that have rendered them largely impractical: reinforced cockpit doors, air marshals and vigilant passengers
  • Performance is horrendous: since the agency’s inception 10 years ago, more than 25,000 security breaches have occurred
  • It has invested billions in security programs and technologies that eventually proved to be ineffective and are no longer used
  • Its original purpose was to serve as an intelligence gathering and analyzing agency, not as a security guard corporation

  • Contracting out the actual screening service to private firms has been proven to be cheaper and at least as effective, but the TSA refuses to allow the practice
  • It has major leadership problems: top administrators have changed five times in ten years, with long periods in between where there was no TSA chief
  • It employs security theater instead of actual security measures

“Today, TSA‘s screening policies are based in theatrics. They are typical, bureaucratic responses to failed security policies meant to assuage the concerns of the traveling public.

  • It failed to stop the only four major terrorist attacks since 9/11: the shoe bomber and the underwear bomber, who were stopped by passengers; the Times Square bomber, who the TSA allowed to board a plane despite being placed on the “no fly” list, and was eventually apprehended by the Customs and Border Patrol; and the toner cartridge bomb plot, which was foiled by foreign intelligence agencies.

“Since its inception, TSA has hired over 137,000 employees, grown into a mammoth bureaucracy of 65,000 employees, spent almost $57 billion, yet has failed to detect any major terrorist threat since 9/11, including the Shoe Bomber, the Underwear Bomber, the Times Square Bomber, and the Toner Cartridge Bomb Plot. Congress created TSA to be a lean organization that would analyze intelligence and set risk-based security standards for the U.S. transportation system. Today, TSA suffers from bureaucratic morass and mismanagement.”

The report recommends making the agency more independent from the Department of Homeland Security, elevating the oft-ignored role of TSA administrator, shift its role from security force to that of federal regulator and intelligence agency, using more contractors, using common sense and risk analysis in its policy-making procedure, developing a more international role to deal with international terrorists, making performance results public after two years, and submitting to an outside study and recommendations on how to restructure the agency.

From The House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure (PDF), via Slashdot

There’s No Good Reason To Turn Off Electronics During Take-Off And Landing

The New York Times had a blog article a couple of days ago on the sheer pointlessness of the FAA regulation that anything with an on-off switch has to be turned off anytime the airplane is under 10,000 feet. The Atlantic responded with a strong “hear, hear!” Both articles had a lot of response from sheeple shocked at even the questioning of safety regulations, so they both posted responses.

If the rule has a rational purpose (an assumption which is certainly not on firm standing), that purpose has to do with safety. The most common assumption deals with electronic interference, but here’s why that can’t possibly be true:

  • It isn’t enforced. The flight attendants tell you to turn your electronics off, but unlike seat belts, seat backs and bags beings stowed, no one checks to make sure you actually do.
  • Assuming a couple of people on each flight ignore the rule, that means about 1% of travelers do so, which means that in 2010, 7 million people on 11 million flights ignored the rule and nothing happened. Ever.
  • The TSA is worried that a 3.5oz shampoo bottle will take down the plane, but aren’t the least worried about 200 cell phones.
  • The FAA has no actual proof the devices will cause interference — the best they have is a study saying they can’t know either way, — but according to a spokesman, they like to err on the side of caution.
  • Aviation radio frequencies are restricted, and not used by commercial devices.
  • Aviation equipment is shielded from interference, exactly for safety reasons.
  • All pilots have GPS receivers just like yours, in their cockpit.
  • Many pilots have iPads (airlines are moving to digital manuals), noise-cancelling headsets and even cell-phones on during the whole flight.
  • Passengers in private and chartered jets and on Air Force One are never told to shut off their electronic devices, and it has never caused a problem.
  • The only reports of interference are anecdotal (e.g., one pilot claims that while he can’t prove it, an AM radio caused his scopes to go haywire), and they only number under a hundred, despite there being millions and millions of flights.
  • The rule makes people turn off devices that don’t even send or receive wireless transmissions: digital cameras, DVD players, e-readers in airplane mode, etc.
  • Every electronic device has to be approved by the FCC and comply with their rule that the “device may not cause harmful interference” and “must accept any interference received including interference that may cause undesired operation.” We can suppose that consumer electronics and especially airplane components comply with that FCC regulation.


FCC Part 15 Class A / Class B Verification Label


Besides electronic interference, the other reasons you hear about are related to physical safety. Here they are, and their counterarguments, in debate dialog form:

  • The FAA wants you to pay attention to the flight attendants in case of emergency.
  • If this were true, why do they let you read books, play Sudoku, and sleep?
  • Because those people’s attention can be grabbed with a PA announcement; someone watching Transformers on an iPad isn’t at all aware of their surroundings.
  • Neither is a sound sleeper, but in either case, why would Kindles and digital cameras have to be turned off?
  • Because if they’re not turned off, they may cause interference.
  • Even if they did (see above), the rule is not enforced — a dozen people could just forget them on in their luggage.
  • Maybe the plane can tolerate a dozen, but not a hundred.
  • Then why can it tolerate a hundred at 10,001 feet, but not at 9,999? Also, the FAA approves things like voice recorders and electric shavers for use under 10,000 feet — why not a digital camera or an iPhone in airplane mode?
  • If something should happen and your iPad goes flying around the cockpit, it can cause serious injury.
  • So can a hardcover edition of War and Peace. Besides, they don’t make you put your iPad away — you can keep it off and in your hands.
  • Also, if you talk on the phone for 4 hours, the guy sitting next to you might smack you.
  • Airplanes used to come with phones built in to the seat! But regardless, no one wants cell phone use — they want to read their Kindle for the 20 minutes it takes to get to 10,000 feet.

All these possible reasons are speculation, because, aside from the obviously bogus interference argument, the FAA won’t say exactly why they have the rule. But clearly, there is absolutely no good reason for the blanket scope to turn off all electronic devices. And if there is an actually reasonable explanation for the rule, this kind of blanket enforcement hurts the FAA in the same way that exaggerating the dangers of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll hurts parents, preachers and teachers: by taking their credibility away.

The point at which kids realize that pot doesn’t actually turn you into a retard overnight, is the point at which they’ll question every other thing their parents told them. There’s always the 10% that would never dare test their parents, but the other 90% don’t actually turn their phone off — they just put it in airplane mode; and not because of FAA regulations, but because its battery would die mid-flight, searching for signal.

From The New York Times and The Atlantic, via Lifehacker

The TSA Is Working On A Way To Keep Your Shoes On

According to NPR, the head of the Department of Homeland Security said that taking your shoes off at the airport will not be required in the near future. Of course, it could just as easily not be required now: the reason we take our shoes off is because Richard Reid hid bombs in his shoes in 2001. But, in 2009 someone hid a bomb in his underwear and yet somehow, we don’t have to take our underwear off at the airport. It’s worth mentioning that the TSA didn’t catch either bomber, or any other terrorist ever, during its entire existence.

The MagShoe, one of the shoe examining machines the TSA is considering


But, at least now we’ll get to keep our shoes on while some new machine will examine them — you know, just in case someone will try exactly the same thing Richard Reid tried. The NPR article has two excellent quotes about this:

“If we continue to add these reactive patches to an old system, it just bogs down the whole process, and it becomes very inefficient.” – Steve Lott, of the Air Transport Association, a trade group for the airline industry

“I didn’t feel unsafe before. And if somebody wanted to get around these things, they probably could.” – Brian Wolfe, a random traveler

They definitely could sneak 12″ razor blades and stun guns on board — unless they were a 95-year old leukemic woman, of course.

From NPR

TSA: What Cancer?

The head of the TSA is thinking an independent study to figure out if backscatter x-ray body scanners cause cancer, may be unnecessary. Possibly because the only way the TSA can protect us from getting killed by the terrorists is by slowly killing us themselves. But a couple of weeks ago, he agreed to do an independent study of the machine. Then he came across a study by the Department of Homeland Security saying the machines were ok, that there was nothing to see there, and that they have no monetary bias or interest in seeing them deemed safe; this isn’t the cancer you’re looking for. So in light of all that, an independent study would clearly be superfluous.

Backscatter X-Ray Body Scanner


The machine in question is one of two x-ray glasses the TSA uses to visually inspect people. The other is the millimeter wave body scanner (a.k.a., naked body scanner) which everyone is upset about and which the Germans proved to be ridiculously unreliable — because unlike the TSA, ze Germans test things. Both of these scanners are being used to replace the old, friendly metal detectors. And they’re not guaranteed to work even if they were reliable, because if you’re crazy enough to kill yourself to crash a jet, you’re crazy enough to get a bomb surgically implanted inside you, where the scanners can’t see.

So the whole thing is just security theater put on by the TSA to make us feel safe by wasting our time at the airport. The funny thing is that the cancer complaint is theater too, because flying will dose you with much more radiation than a scanner ever will. And the Europeans already banned the backscatter machines, so that alone makes you wonder if they need to be banned. But, if nothing else, given how much of our time the TSA wastes, they deserve some of their own medicine, administered by having to waste time taking their shoes off for an independent study.

Via Propublica

Why No Fly Lists And Naked Body Scanners Don’t Work

Cracked has an interesting article on some safety measures that aren’t making us safer: bike helmets, sunscreen, gated communities, self-exams for breast cancer and of course, the TSA. They focus on two tools from the agency’s complete failure of a toolbox.

The Underwear Bomber wasn't on the no-fly list


The no-fly lists don’t work because even if you’re on one, you can easily get around it with a 150$ fake ID. But beyond that, the lists themselves are broken:

  • Most of the names that are on them are, as famous security expert Bruce Schneier put it, of “people so dangerous they cannot be allowed to fly under any circumstance, yet so innocent we can’t arrest them even under the Patriot Act.”
  • There are about a million people on the list, but the 11 British ones that were going to blow up planes with liquid explosives (which is why we can’t bring liquid containers over 3oz on planes anymore) were not on the list, even though they had been under surveillance for a year. Neither was the Christmas Day underwear bomber, in spite of the fact that his own father called the US government to warn them about him.
  • The cost of maintaining the ineffective list and turning planes around costs us about 100m$ a year.

And we’ve seen before that the naked body scanners are horrendously error-prone, but it turns out that while they pick up things like cell phones, they miss bomb-making components. Even if they did pick them up in your pockets though, they would still completely miss them if you had them inside your body — 160m$ worth of machines thwarted by a large rectum.

From Cracked, via Neatorama

The TSA Molests Another Cancer Victim

As if they’re just daring the public to revolt, last Thursday the Gestapo TSA stopped a woman with breast cancer at security at JFK airport and said they need to examine her “breast area.” She explained that she “was a breast cancer patient and had a bilateral mastectomy in April and had tissue expanders put in to make way for reconstruction at a later date.” She even had an ID card for the tissue expanders, complete with serial numbers and her doctor’s info, but the TSA couldn’t be bothered with those kinds of details. If she wanted to fly, she had to be felt up by a (probably heterosexual) female TSA agent. The whole thing happened in full sight of other passengers. Unlike most people, at least she has a blog via which she could let the world know about it.

If you’re keeping track, the last cancer patient the TSA molested was back in July, when they dislodged a bladder cancer patient’s urostomy bag, thereby soaking him in his own urine. This, after doing the exact same thing to him nine months earlier. And in June, a 95-year old leukemic woman in a wheel chair was patted down because her wet diaper was suspicious. They also do kids once in a while. All in the name of security which they don’t provide, what with not having caught a single terrorist ever, all while missing foot-long razor blades, explosives and a stun gun. And in spite of their astounding incompetence, lightning has killed more Americans in the past 40 years than terrorists. Lightning.

But not to worry, the White House has a petition system where regular people can petition the government to do stuff like abolish the TSA. In fact, someone did that just a couple of weeks ago, but for some odd reason that petition’s web page has been “undergoing maintenance” since its third day of existence, at which point it had gathered over 15,000 signatures. And to bring the point home, even the Congressman who created the TSA might have been one of those signatories, since he thinks the agency is a “complete fiasco.”

From Lori Dorn, via Laughing Squid


So You Want The TSA To Be Gone

Sign this handy petition at the White House’s website entitled “Abolish the TSA, and use its monstrous budget to fund more sophisticated, less intrusive counter-terrorism intelligence.” It reads:

The Transportation Security Administration has been one of the largest, most expensive and most visible blunders of the post-9-11 homeland security reformation. It has violated countless constitutional rights of average Americans, caused miserable and expensive delays in an already-overburdened air travel system, and allowed multiple known instances of harassment, theft, extortion and sexual abuse by its employees. It has failed approximately 70% of undercover efficacy tests, and for all its excesses, has been unable to catch even a single terrorist since its creation. In our current economic situation, we can no longer afford to continue wasting taxpayer dollars on this kafkaesque embarrassment. Let us instead invest in saner, more effective solutions.

Petitions on the site need 5,000 signatures in 30 days to even be looked at, and this one passed the 15,000 mark in two days. Still, the TSA is so entrenched and dismantling it has such high potential to be political suicide, that it will need a lot more than 15,000 signatures to be taken seriously. For example, what if there’s a terrorist attack the day after the TSA is gone? If it’s the day before, no biggie — we all know the TSA is awful at its job and don’t expect it to actually do anything besides make us take our shoes off and throw our water bottles out. But if it’s the day after — post hoc, ergo propter hoc — the attack will have obviously happened because the TSA was gone. The only thing that’ll make the administration take that risk is if not abolishing the TSA is a worse political move. And ignoring a petition with, say… a million signatures would probably be worse.

So go to the petition and sign it. You have to create an account on the White House website, but it takes all of the 30 seconds — a lot less than it does to take your shoes off and put them back on at the airport.

Update (Sept 28th): the petition was created on September 22nd but on the 25th, the webpage changed to one saying that it was undergoing maintenance and to check back shortly. As of the 28th, it’s still down — it looks like the administration is trying to put the kibosh on this before anything happens.

Update (Oct 28th): the petition resurfaced at a different address, and the threshold was upped to 25,000 signatures in 30 days — which it met with 28,000.

From The White House

Even The Creator Of The TSA Wants It Dismantled

You know a kid’s bad when even his parents don’t like him. The congressman that wrote the bill creating the TSA in the aftermath of 9/11, John Mica (R-FL), was interviewed by Reagan’s favorite magazine, Human Events. In it, he calls the agency a “complete fiasco” that grew far beyond what it was intended to do, which is get intelligence and monitor security threats — not pat or chat us down. He points out how in their entire 10-year history, they have not detected even a single threat, and instead just keep playing catch-up with the terrorists:

“Everything they have done has been reactive.  They take shoes off because of [shoe-bomber] Richard Reid, passengers are patted down because of the diaper bomber, and you can’t pack liquids because the British uncovered a plot using liquids”

But on the even-worse side, over that decade the TSA has had its share of scandals:

  • In 2002, TSA officials wasted millions on luxury resorts in the Carribbean, Florida and Colorado, not to mention paying an executive 5.4 million dollars for 9 months of work
  • In 2004, TSA screeners were arrested for stealing all kinds of valuables from passengers’ luggage
  • In 2006, they failed to find 60% of explosives during a security test

This, on top of the numerous complaints about patting down children and disabled elderly, and allowing stun-guns and foot-long razor blades through security. Since every single terrorist in American aviation history was either successful or foiled on the plane by passengers — not by the TSA — we are in effect paying 8 billion dollars per year (all of NASA costs only 18b$) to be forced to take our shoes of, be photographed by naked body scanners or patted down, and sometimes have our stuff stolen. We obviously need some sort of aviation security, but the TSA is not it.

From Human Events, via Slashdot