Striking a Balance on Airport Security

2010-11-16 23:44:30 by chort

There has been a lot of press and grass-roots coverage of the TSA recently, specifically revolving around the increased usage of backscatter x-ray devices and more invasive physical inspections. Various DHS and TSA officials have made statements to the effect that they're sympathetic to the complaints, but the new measures are "necessary" and they're "striking a balance" between constitutional rights and security.

When I hear someone say "strike a balance" I visualize a see-saw, or a scale of justice, where the two sides are equally weighted in order to balance them. If we were to take the comments by Janet Napolitano and John Pistole at face value, we might reasonably think they're trying to find a middle ground somewhere between completely acceptable (say, passing through a magnetometer) and totally unacceptable (like cavity searches). The problem is that there is no balance. The scale is so far tilted to the side of violating constitutional rights that even a former Director of TSA Security Operations, Mo McGowan, actually admitted these measures violate the 4th amendment.

According to some surveys, such as this one by CBS, many US residents support the explicit body-scanners. Unfortunately it seems that people are forming their judgements on vague fears and empty promises, rather than any rational process.

Let's start with the assertion that we are gaining security with these new measures, let alone whether the measures are "necessary". It hasn't been definitively stated anywhere (that I've seen) that the backscatter x-ray machines can reliably detect PETN, or even if they would have spotted the shoebomb or underpants bomb.

It should also be noted that neither of those plots were successful; They weren't stopped by airport security though, they were stopped by alert passengers. In fact, that makes 3 times where passengers have foiled terrorist attempts since the plane crashed into the pentagon, and none (reported) stopped at a security checkpoint. The plot to blow up cargo planes was stopped by cooperative allies and good intelligence, not by screening.

Even if we accept that invasive screening may prevent some attempts on airplanes, does that actually make the public at large safer? As those familiar with cyber (ugh) crime know, persistent attackers don't give up, they simply find another way. In the case of terrorists their aims are quite general: Incite terror in the general populace, and cause significant economic disruptions.

While targeting airplanes is a good way to cause a large number of casualties, perhaps more importantly the repeated attempts have succeeded in causing drastic interruptions of air-commerce. There are plenty of softer targets that can be exploited to cause a similar number of casualties, so we shouldn't feel any safer if terrorists are diverted from attacking aircraft.

So what is the cost that we're paying in exchange for all of this? First there's the fantastic cost of the machines themselves (I've seen $100,000-200,000 per machine), and then all the training costs, and finally the cost for the operators. That's the least of our worries. As previously noted, it's now generally accepted that we forfeit rights against unreasonable search and seizer. What is the point of living in a country were we have a broad range of freedoms if we have to give them up in order to do ordinary things?

If we continue down the slippery slope of trading rights for "security" we will soon end up in a similar situation as the totalitarian countries US politicians so love to decry. Why is it OK for government agents to conduct sanctioned molestation--let's be honest here, if any of the "enhanced" pat-downs were conducted in a work-place, there would be lawsuits and probably criminal charges--just for wanting to travel from point-A to point-B?

Why should we believe that the government won't retain or copy images from the backscatter x-ray machines, when the FBI and NSA have already abused their surveillance mandates in rampant and entirely predicted ways? The government has not shown that it will use it's expanded privileges responsibly.

So what then, we simply sit back and let ourselves be attacked? To a certain degree, yes. The consequences of living in a free society are that occasionally people exploit their freedoms to cause harm to others. It's inevitable. However the number of people effected by this, and the degree to which they're effected is vanishingly small.

I'd really like to see people stand up and say they would rather live under a totalitarian regime, where their every action is suspect, in order to be "safe". How many people do you think would really be in favor of that?

That being said, there are steps that can be taken. Let's make sure they're intelligent steps. We shouldn't just act on whims and vague insinuations. We can actually evaluate risks systematically, asses which require the most urgent action, and what countermeasures will have the best blend of results for the cost. This isn't paying lip-service to "striking a balance", it's actually quantifying the trade-offs. How do we do that? Risk analysis.

Jon Harper has written a good article for the Cato Institute. It does a really good job of explaining how risks should be evaluated and it's well worth the read. I do take exception to his conclusion that airport security should be privatized, though.

The problem with going back to airports being responsible for their own security is that they did a lousy job of it. There was no incentive to do well, and in fact there are reports that red team evaluations were called off at certain airports because the security teams failed so consistently. Security is a cost for the airports, so they'll bid it for the bottom dollar.

Each airport will gamble that an attack is unlikely to happen at their location, and even if it does what choice to travelers have? The airports have no motivation to attempt to prevent very unlikely, but very damaging attacks. They will only be concerned with common occurrences (like long lines, unruly passengers, etc).

Once we properly asses the risk, then we can start enacting changes. If it's actually worth investing heavily in additional airport security, we should go with a model that is proven to work when subjected to determined and persistent threats. The model most frequently pointed to is Israel's. In fact there was an article on this topic posted last December. Do yourself a favor and read the article, but the summary is that Israeli airport security is optimized for speed and relies heavily on behavior analysis. Their track-record of effectiveness is difficult to argue with, and their travelers don't suffer the constant inconveniences US travelers have come to accept with resignation.

Don't allow yourself to be lulled by comforting talk from people you have no reason to trust. Don't act out of fear. Make rational decisions about the issues that effect you and your descendants for the foreseeable future. Don't fall into the trap of gradually giving away your rights in exchange for a belief that you're safer from something that's already highly unlikely to happen. Say no to security theater.

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