My seventh Wired.com column is on line. Nothing you haven't heard before, except for this part:
I know quite a lot about this. I was a member of the government's Secure Flight Working Group on Privacy and Security. We looked at the TSA's program for matching airplane passengers with the terrorist watch list, and found a complete mess: poorly defined goals, incoherent design criteria, no clear system architecture, inadequate testing. (Our report was on the TSA website, but has recently been removed -- "refreshed" is the word the organization used -- and replaced with an "executive summary" (.doc) that contains none of the report's findings. The TSA did retain two (.doc) rebuttals (.doc), which read like products of the same outline and dismiss our findings by saying that we didn't have access to the requisite information.) Our conclusions match those in two (.pdf) reports (.pdf) by the Government Accountability Office and one (.pdf) by the DHS inspector general.
That's right; the TSA is disappearing our report.
I also wrote an op ed for the Sydney Morning Herald on "weapons" -- like the metal knives distributed with in-flight meals -- aboard aircraft, based on this blog post. Again, nothing you haven't heard before. (And I stole some bits from your comments to the blog posting.)
There is new news, though. The TSA is relaxing the rules for bringing pointy things on aircraft:.
The summary document says the elimination of the ban on metal scissors with a blade of four inches or less and tools of seven inches or less - including screwdrivers, wrenches and pliers - is intended to give airport screeners more time to do new types of random searches.
Passengers are now typically subject to a more intensive, so-called secondary search only if their names match a listing of suspected terrorists or because of anomalies like a last-minute ticket purchase or a one-way trip with no baggage.
The new strategy, which has been tested in Pittsburgh, Indianapolis and Orange County, Calif., will mean that a certain number of passengers, even if they are not identified by these computerized checks, will be pulled aside and subject to an added search lasting about two minutes. Officials said passengers would be selected randomly, without regard to ethnicity or nationality.
What happens next will vary. One day at a certain airport, carry-on bags might be physically searched. On the same day at a different airport, those subject to the random search might have their shoes screened for explosives or be checked with a hand-held metal detector. "By design, a traveler will not experience the same search every time he or she flies," the summary said. "The searches will add an element of unpredictability to the screening process that will be easy for passengers to navigate but difficult for terrorists to manipulate."
The new policy will also change the way pat-down searches are done to check for explosive devices. Screeners will now search the upper and lower torso, the entire arm and legs from the mid-thigh down to the ankle and the back and abdomen, significantly expanding the area checked.
Currently, only the upper torso is checked. Under the revised policy, screeners will still have the option of skipping pat-downs in certain areas "if it is clear there is no threat," like when a person is wearing tight clothing making it obvious that there is nothing hidden. But the default position will be to do the more comprehensive search, in part because of fear that a passenger could be carrying plastic explosives that might not set off a handheld metal detector.
I don't know if they will still make people take laptops out of their cases, make people take off their shoes, or confiscate pocket knives. (Different articles have said different things about the last one.)
This is a good change, and it's long overdue. Airplane terrorism hasn't been the movie-plot threat that everyone worries about for a while.
The most amazing reaction to this is from Corey Caldwell, spokeswoman for the Association of Flight Attendants:
When weapons are allowed back on board an aircraft, the pilots will be able to land the plane safety but the aisles will be running with blood.
How's that for hyperbole?
In Beyond Fear and elsewhere, I've written about the notion of "agenda" and how it informs security trade-offs. From the perspective of the flight attendants, subjecting passengers to onerous screening requirements is a perfectly reasonable trade-off. They're safer -- albeit only slightly -- because of it, and it doesn't cost them anything. The cost is an externality to them: the passengers pay it. Passengers have a broader agenda: safety, but also cost, convenience, time, etc. So it makes perfect sense that the flight attendants object to a security change that the passengers are in favor of.
EDITED TO ADD (12/2): The SFWG report hasn't been removed from the TSA website, just unlinked.
EDITED TO ADD (12/20): The report seems to be gone from the TSA website now, but it's available here.
Posted on December 1, 2005 at 10:14 AM • 56 Comments