Sensible Airline Security

Looks like the DHS and TSA are finally beginning to realize that small pointy things are not a terrorist threat to aviation.

They never were.

Posted on August 17, 2005 at 9:08 AM • 53 Comments

Comments

IO ERRORAugust 17, 2005 9:30 AM

Constant scrutiny and complaints from the public? Or they just ran out of storage space. Just how do you get rid of 100,000 pairs of scissors, anyway?

The interesting part to me is how the airlines seem to be against the change.

Are we really going to have that many people shooting off their bows and arrows at each other in flight? Probably not. But those knives would be real handy in subduing a terrorist intent on taking over the plane and running it into the Sears Tower or something.

Germ PhobiaAugust 17, 2005 9:52 AM

Now, if only the TSA would stop asking me to take off my sneakers when I walk through the metal detector, I'd feel MUCH safer. I'm surprised that health departments haven't chimed in on this one.

Clive RobinsonAugust 17, 2005 10:08 AM

Call me cinical but, I wonder if it is due to the staff cost of these (now usless) measures.

Initially before airlines put in the stronger doors and procedures etc there was a reasonable argument for this sort of measure. But as Bruce has pointed out on several occasions ;) this is long past.

Oh and I wonder if a Judge and other senior dignatories who forgot to check their pockets, but do know which ears to bend have been doing so...

Honestly though I think it's a plain simple cost cutting measure.

Tim VailAugust 17, 2005 10:09 AM

@IO ERROR

Interesting observation about airlines opposing it. I wonder why.

Couple of guesses -- maybe they feel that it would reduce the number of people willing to fly. But, it could actually increase the number of people willing to fly because some people don't like the excessive hassle to get through the airplane checkpoint.

2dmanAugust 17, 2005 10:11 AM

@Germ_Phobia:

Hey, if they don't crack down on the ball-pit at McDonald's, I don't think they'll ever get around to the airport.

Seriously, though, it seems to me, and I travel fairly frequently, that in the last few years, the number of complaints has gone way down. I remember when people would complain vitriolically "I have to take my *shoes* off?" Now, it's humorous for those used to it when someone is caught with their shoes *still*on*.

We've become complacent and adjusted completely. The only remaining evidence that the airport used to be a quicker process is what lives on in old movies. I watch old movies and think, "Wow, those were the good old days." Of course, everyone in the airport has machine guns in the old movies...

-2dman-

JarrodAugust 17, 2005 10:12 AM

I keep hearing people complain about having to remove their shoes, and I've only had to do this once when I left my cell phone in my pocket and set off a metal detector. I've been through the detectors at least a half-dozen times where I was not asked to remove my shoes, and each of those times through busy airports like LAX and O'Hare. I don't know if the TSA just likes me or hates all of you.

JDAugust 17, 2005 10:30 AM

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't recollect them ever stopping you walking on board with a glass soda bottle in your hand. I did it a couple of days ago. Anyone who ever saw a movie saloon fight knows how to turn it into a pretty nasty weapon.

JarrodAugust 17, 2005 10:42 AM

I was prevented from taking a Slurpee on a flight from Oklahoma City. I was told that I could only board with a cup from an airport vendor. Apparently, I might have been able to sneak something on-board in the Slurpee cup that wouldn't have come on board if I bought something from a vendor and poured the Slurpee into it.

Kevin DavidsonAugust 17, 2005 10:59 AM

I see one very bad idea:

"It also suggests exempting several categories of passengers from screening, including federal judges, members of Congress, Cabinet members, state governors, high-ranking military officers and those with high-level security clearances."

If all the "important people" get exempted then who is going to get a first hand view of the stupidity the rest of us go through.

gAugust 17, 2005 11:09 AM

And of course, as Bruce has pointed out so often, there's another problem with exempting certain classes of people. Now all a terrorist cell has to do is work out which of its members are federal judges, members of Congress, Cabinet members, state governors, high-ranking military officers or holders of high-level security clearances, and use them for their operations. :-)

DavidAugust 17, 2005 11:15 AM

@g

No, they just need a fake ID saying they are.

@Kevin Davidson
Now you get it. When the powers give themselves benefits the rest of us don't have, their ivory tower status keeps them from feeling the reality of their bad decisions. It's easy to inconvenience and offend others. Recall, every passenger is a CUSTOMER, but no other industry is so rude to their customers. Not even gun dealers, and certainly not drug dealers.

In the end, cost cutting is a good thing, and it's the most likely explanation. This same "reason" is being used by Hamas, though, in saying that's why Israel is leaving Gaza: it was just too expensive to keep it.

Clive RobinsonAugust 17, 2005 11:41 AM

@Tim Vail

Just a (cynical) gess but could it be with liability?

If another attack with a pointy object occurs, the airlines could not claim in court it was an "unknown risk". Therefore I suspect the level of damages they would suffer would be comensurably higher than they might oterwise be.

As long as the TSA are picking up the tab it's a free liability cover for the airlines

"Money makes the world go around, the world go around"* or at least the airlines flying around it...

* Lisa Manelli singing the song of the same name in the film Cabaret

Chung LeongAugust 17, 2005 11:48 AM

Having a class of VIPs exempted from searches is a bad idea. Now the screeners essentially have one task: looking for forbidden items. The proposal adds a authentication dimension to their job. How would they know, after all, that someone is really a federal judge or member of Congress? If authentication is done by visual inspection of a document, then the system is vulnerable to forgery. If more sophisticated methods are used, airports are spending money on equirpment for the convinence/dignity of of very few people.

Bruce SchneierAugust 17, 2005 11:51 AM

"Having a class of VIPs exempted from searches is a bad idea. Now the screeners essentially have one task: looking for forbidden items. The proposal adds a authentication dimension to their job."

Agreed; excellent point.

BobAugust 17, 2005 11:54 AM

I agree with IO_ERROR's comment above. The mere mention of bows and arrows is ridiculous. As an archer myself, I can only imagine what would happen if I were to take a bow and some arrows on board with the intention of harming someone. I might even be able to get one shot off before I got tackled.

And as a bit of a tangent, why pick on the archers? They should be equally concerned with flintknappers. Flintknapping is the art of turning rocks into "primitive" tools, like arrowheads, knife points, etc. A single flake from a knappable rock, part of the waste from the act of creating an arrowhead, for instance, has a very sharp edge. It isn't metal, so it wouldn't set off a metal detector. And the flakes are incredibly sharp, so much so that a flintknapper usually ends up with holes in his socks (or his legs if he isn't wearing pants) from the waste flakes as he works. Indigenous cultures often used these flakes as tools themselves, as scrapers and knives. Rocks aren't just bludgeons, they can be sharp. And I guarantee that if the good guys have thought of this the bad guys have, too.

It does seem like this is good news, though. Maybe my mother will be able to knit on the plane once more.

Chung LeongAugust 17, 2005 12:02 PM

I had no problem getting through security at JFK with three bottles of vodka in my carry-on. How that's allowed is beyond my understanding. A drunk guy with a broken bottle can be quite dangerous after all.

OrvilleAugust 17, 2005 12:09 PM

"Having a class of VIPs exempted from searches is a bad idea."

I'd go the other way. There should be a rule mandating the worst for a class of VIPs. But I suppose they'd have to give hardship pay to those who have to pat down Hillary Clinton.

ZwackAugust 17, 2005 12:15 PM

@Chung Leong...

Of course you also had some cloth that could have been used as a wick and I'm sure that there was some fire source on the plane...

I'll watch out for the guy with the three Vodka Molotov cocktails next time I'm flying. Probably more of a risk than the Archer sitting next to him.

Z.

JoeAugust 17, 2005 12:28 PM

Well, the problem with the class of VIPs is how to tell who they are. While I don't see a problem with Ted Kennedy saying, "I'm Ted Kennedy. Let me through," I can't believe that people with "high level security clearances" are going to readily identify themselves. "I work for the CIA, let me through." Yeah, that's probably not so much going to happen. So giving all VIPs a document stating they are a VIP isn't really viable.

So assuming a large segment of this group would not wish to readily identify themselves (read: anyone who meets the VIP criteria, but is not a public figure), then what would TSA do, create a white list to go along with the black list? List 1: People to deny access to. List 2: People to allow with no further hassles.

This list then becomes a liability -- it basically creates a list of all people implicitly trusted by the US government, and just puts a target on their backs. Someone visits a foreign country but is mysteriously denied entrance b/c they think he's a spy, or that person is tailed for their entire visit. The list is already out of trusted hands when TSA gives the airlines access to it, so who knows what happens once it's out there.

I can't see how this could possibly be implemented without compromising things the government goes to great lengths to keep secret already.

Nigel SedgwickAugust 17, 2005 1:20 PM

From the Washington Post article:

"which also would allow scissors, ice picks and bows and arrows on flights,"

"The process is designed to stimulate creative thinking and challenge conventional beliefs,"

Please may I add a suggestion. Beware though, it's not quite clear to me whether this is a "super-non-conventional" or just "neo-conventional" suggestion/belief.

Perhaps modest-sized scissors (eg nail scissors or those for knitting/needlework) might just possibly be considered as in a different class from ice picks and bows and arrows.

This is, just in case you have not realised, because fingernails, knitting and needlework are occasionally found in airports and on aeroplanes (or scissors therefore are carried as a matter of course unless exceptional measures are taken). However, mountains, glaciers, and for bows/arrows, wild animals and other usual targets are, generally, rather lacking in airports and on aeroplanes. This is as well as ice picks and bows/arrows being larger, and not carried as a matter of course. Accordingly, these latter and larger items might be put (under continuing compulsion) into checked baggage.

Best regards

TanukiAugust 17, 2005 1:34 PM

It's not the small pointy-things they need to worry about, but the large pointy-things: imagine the devastation that could occur if a terrorist smuggled a Wolverine onto a plane!

ZachAugust 17, 2005 1:53 PM

Germ Phobia:

Based on your name, I don't think I'll convince you of anything, but...

I go barefoot 95-98% of the time, including while flying. I have no problems with fungus, bacteria, or any of the other problems that shod people face. Additionally, some research with google on other people who have chosen a barefoot life shows that there really isn't a risk from going barefoot. (Spend some time at barefooters.org if you want references.)

The reason the health department won't crack down on this practice is that there's no health problem presented. Or do you wear gloves everywhere you go, as well? I, for one, am not in the habit of putting my feet in my mouth, but I often rub my eyes, pick my teeth, or do any number of other things that spread germs from my mouth to inside my body.

ZachAugust 17, 2005 1:57 PM

Er, proofread before posting. Proofread before posting. Proofread...

My last line should of course say, "do any number of other things that spread germs from my *hands* to inside my body."

RossAugust 17, 2005 2:55 PM

I can see it now. "Let me through, I work for the NSA." "Prove it." "You're not cleared to see my ID."

As others said, the "exemption" IDs - which I assume will have to be created - are open to forgery; even if a Bad Guy can't get hold of a legit ID to forge, an accomplice might be able to get hired as an airport security guard and into a position where he can learn what good ones look like and so how to forge them...

QuadroAugust 17, 2005 3:29 PM

It seems to me that all of the big/busy airports don't require passengers to remove their shoes. I'm sorry, Jarrod, but I don't think it's just that they like you. I've only had to take off my shoes once at Philadelphia security, when I got the extra screening. But 50 miles away at Atlantic City, they always X-ray my shoes. Boston, like Philadelphia, didn't require me to remove my shoes, though I was only there once. At Providence, though, they always ask me to take them off. Ft. Lauderdale and (I believe) West Palm Beach in Florida also X-ray shoes. It would be interesting to know what Miami does.

Sky-HoAugust 17, 2005 4:47 PM

Re: Exemption for "important people".

19 May, 05, two armed, NJ private eyes, not approved to carry guns on board commercial aircraft, made it all the way to the gate at PHL, ready to board an aircraft before a ticket agent, using, IMHO the only form of profiling, psychological profiling™, questioned their authentication and called airport police.

In the meantime, they had transited the ticket counter and TSA, while armed.

With the easy acquisition of police shields, ready duplication of letterhead and fake "office" for "verification", I wonder how many times airline security has been breached already.

About shoes.

Thick soles can hide one of the components of a bomb and the magnetometer cannot detect it. From an x-ray, the presence of bomb material can be inferred.

Until "security" (the present administration) starts getting serious, there will always be opportunities to secret bomb materials into a secure zone.

NickAugust 17, 2005 5:29 PM


It's not just the VIP-class, which is bad enough (recall a City Councilman in NYC was allowed through a checkpoint, and he later shot someone) ... but the attendant entourage: 'Sure, Senator, go on through, but your three aides and two interns have to be searched.'

It's a basic social engineering attack, sliding through the gate/turnstile right behind an 'authorized' person.

Ari HeikkinenAugust 17, 2005 9:36 PM

Exempting categories of passengers will only mean that terrorists can avoid security checks by faking their ID.

elegieAugust 17, 2005 9:46 PM

Banning all small sharp objects could be extremely difficult. A past issue of the Crypto-Gram newsletter described how to manufacture a blade using steel epoxy (http://www.schneier.com/crypto-gram-0308.html#7) The necessity of the ban could also be questionable. See the Sept 30, 2001 Crypto-Gram newsletter (http://www.schneier.com/crypto-gram-0109a.html#2) The El Al airline of Israel has some serious security measures. However, they do not prohibit items such as pocketknives.

In Britain, metal utensils have been reintroduced on business class flights. (Economy class has always used plastic utensils.) It is said that metal utensils are less useful now as weapons because of other security measures (armed sky marshals, closed-circuit TV cameras, and secure cockpit doors.) Metal utensils must be provided by the airline and cannot be brought on board by passengers. See http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/...

jammitAugust 17, 2005 11:39 PM

You don't have to take your shoes off anymore? Darn. I've wasted my time fermenting brie in my old tennis shoes just in case I went on a plane. I don't see why pointy things aren't allowed on a plane. I can make a very effective weapon with a newspaper rolled into a cone. Don't ask what can be done with a credit card.

Curt SampsonAugust 18, 2005 12:19 AM

If it is indeed just a cost-saving measure, as someone suggested above, that's still a good thing. It means that somebody is making some sort of cost versus value analysis.

Thomas SprinkmeierAugust 18, 2005 12:53 AM

If airlines don't like these things, why not ban them themselves?

Is there anything stopping airlines from adding another screening gate to weed out things they dont like (but the TSA approves of)?

Call it the "no pointy things airline", make the extra searches a condition on the tickets and set up an additional screening gate.

Or is it that, as long as the TSA is doing the searching, the airlines don't have to pay for the searches or put up with the bad publicity?

DarkFireAugust 18, 2005 5:14 AM

@ Sky Ho

Regarding your comments on El Al... I read a paper a while ago describing their security measures. Despite the fact that they do as you say allow small metal objects on board, their security measures are extremely effective.

It's a shame that 'best practice' conferences seem to be absent from the Intel community.

Hang on... We can't have a conference... ;-)

JohnJAugust 18, 2005 8:41 AM

@Freeman: Actually, the RIAA's customers are the distributors and retailers, not end consumers.

The TSA's sole customer is essentially the US Government. We mere consumers are just the subject of the transactions that the TSA processes. We're literally the merchandise flowing through a distribution center.

Ed T.August 18, 2005 10:36 AM

@Chung:

Even worse than knowing who is a congresscritter or federal judge, how would your average TSA screener be able to identify who had a "top security clearance"? Many, many years ago, I had official permission to know information whose classification was higher than "Top Secret" -- and if I recall, at that time the fact I *had* that permission was itself classified ;-) I suspect the same thing is true nowadays, as well.

Of course, I can see Valerie Plame telling the TSA screener-drone: "No, I don't get searched... I work for the CIA.... oopsie..."

jammitAugust 18, 2005 10:37 AM

I've got it! The ultimate in security. When you board a plane you pass through a metal detector looking for guns. If one isn't found, you're provided with one. We can call it "Gun Air" and the motto is "If you're going down, go down shooting". ;-)

Ed T.August 18, 2005 10:42 AM

@joe,

{quote}
Yeah, that's probably not so much going to happen. So giving all VIPs a document stating they are a VIP isn't really viable.
{/quote}

Isn't that what programs like CLEAR are for?

Ed T.August 18, 2005 10:48 AM

Actually, I am not sure that banning small, pointy things from passenger aircraft is such a bad idea. After all, the 9/11 hijackers used boxcutters (which is basically a razor blade with a handle) to take over the aircraft. And, some of the things they are proposing allowing on board are somewhat scary -- for example, why would someone need to carry a set of throwing stars into the passenger compartment? And, a bow (and more importantly the arrows) would probably be better left in the baggage compartment. I am not sure we need small children (or even adults who have had 1 too many of those little bottles) playing William Tell (or Mighty Mutant Power Ninja) with the apple that came with their on-board meal service.

However, putting an arrow (or a thowing star) through the cell phone of some idiot fellow passenger who can't understand "No cell phone usage while in flight" might not be such a bad idea, after all...

JoeAugust 18, 2005 11:32 AM

@ Ed T.

I assume you're saying that if someone has a clearance, then they should pass through CLEAR ok and get a CLEAR "I'm Not a Terrorist" card. But that means is that the airlines would have to start trusting the CLEAR program, and it appears to me that a lot of people think that is a bad idea (I have too many questions to trust it).

Ed T.August 18, 2005 1:39 PM

@Joe,

Nope, actually I was just being sarcastic. Let me restate it this way:

{dripping sarcasm}
Isn't that what programs like CLEAR are for?
{/dripping sarcasm}

Jim FentonAugust 18, 2005 6:31 PM

The randomness of security rules at airports isn't a problem limited to the US. On a recent flight from "Paris" Beauvais, I was told I couldn't take the cable lock for my laptop on board. I suppose they felt it could be used to strangle someone. Never mind the Ethernet cable that was also in my backpack...

Thomas SprinkmeierAugust 18, 2005 8:29 PM

@Jim,

"The randomness of security rules at airports isn't a problem limited to the US."

I think a little bit of randomness is probably a good thing.

Better than complete predictability, anyway.

Of course, "intelligent randomness" would be better than "silly inconsistency".

One Person Called "Anonymous"August 19, 2005 1:05 AM

JD--
I would advise against breaking the bottoms off of bottles to make weapons. You're really quite likely to just end up tightly gripping a handful of broken glass, assuming the bottle breaks readily, which may not occur. Flying glass upon breaking is also a hazard.

These things are a lot more common in the movies than real life, kind of like exploding cars.

StudentAugust 20, 2005 2:43 AM

I can understand people who do not want to check in their bow and arrows. They are expensive and fragile sport (or hunting) equipment. I have already gotten one mauled by an airline. The risk of somebody being able to use a bow inside an airplane is rather slim, so the ban seems pointless.

BlrflAugust 21, 2005 4:44 PM

@ Ed T.,

Right now how much screening you get is determined by markings on your boarding pass, and the indication that someone doesn't need to be screened would likely be made the same way. The airline systems must be asking some government-run system whether your boarding pass should go unmarked or whether the full-on uber-probe is in order. The same system could give a "no screen" indication without letting on whether the passenger is a Senator, judge or employee of some three-letter agency.

I'm not sure how I feel about creating protected classes when it comes to screening. People with security clearances have been thorough a thorough investigation by the government, and it would make some sense to use the resources that would be spent screening them on people we're not so sure about. (It's worth pointing out that many of the people who've burned the government have been cleared out the proverbial ying-yang. But that's another discussion entirely.) On the other hand, people who breeze through the no-screen line become readily identifiable, and if they're government officials, they'd be good choices for hostages.

In the end, though, it probably doesn't matter which way they go with this. If we're going to be attacked again using our own planes, it will be because someone found and exploited a hole in the system.

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