Airport Security Study

Surprising nobody, a new study concludes that airport security isn't helping:

A team at the Harvard School of Public Health could not find any studies showing whether the time-consuming process of X-raying carry-on luggage prevents hijackings or attacks.

They also found no evidence to suggest that making passengers take off their shoes and confiscating small items prevented any incidents.

[...]

The researchers said it would be interesting to apply medical standards to airport security. Screening programs for illnesses like cancer are usually not broadly instituted unless they have been shown to work.

Note the defense by the TSA:

"Even without clear evidence of the accuracy of testing, the Transportation Security Administration defended its measures by reporting that more than 13 million prohibited items were intercepted in one year," the researchers added. "Most of these illegal items were lighters."

This is where the TSA has it completely backwards. The goal isn't to confiscate prohibited items. The goal is to prevent terrorism on airplanes. When the TSA confiscates millions of lighters from innocent people, that's a security failure. The TSA is reacting to non-threats. The TSA is reacting to false alarms. Now you can argue that this level of failures is necessary to make people safer, but it's certainly not evidence that people are safer.

For example, does anyone think that the TSA's vigilance regarding pies is anything other than a joke?

Here's the actual paper from the British Medical Journal:

Of course, we are not proposing that money spent on unconfirmed but politically comforting efforts to identify and seize water bottles and skin moisturisers should be diverted to research on cancer or malaria vaccines. But what would the National Screening Committee recommend on airport screening? Like mammography in the 1980s, or prostate specific antigen testing and computer tomography for detecting lung cancer more recently, we would like to open airport security screening to public and academic debate. Rigorously evaluating the current system is just the first step to building a future airport security programme that is more user friendly and cost effective, and that ultimately protects passengers from realistic threats.

I talked about airport security at length with Kip Hawley, the head of the TSA, here.

Posted on December 27, 2007 at 6:28 AM • 61 Comments

Comments

RoyDecember 27, 2007 7:23 AM

Evidence-based policy versus faith-based? I'm surprised homeopaths and new-agers haven't tried milking this cash cow.

Curt SampsonDecember 27, 2007 8:28 AM

From the article:

-----
A dozen Thanksgiving pies were confiscated last year at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport. They were all donated to the airport's USO lounge, which serves traveling soldiers.
-----

What the right hand taketh away, the left hand giveth. The TSA protects us from some movie-plot threats only to enable others. Rather than plant IEDs in Iraq, hoping I chance across one of the few unarmored Humvees left, I can now take my IEP to the airport, knowing it will be confiscated and taken directly to my target.

cjs@cynic.net

SpiderDecember 27, 2007 8:41 AM

Bruce,

Although interesting, I think the appropriate area of study to use for security is game theory, rather than medicine.

Niyaz PKDecember 27, 2007 9:06 AM

What do terrorists want? May be some of them want to "terrorize" our world.
But most of them want to hit their enemies in a noticeable way. That is why terrorists are now even targeting technology [Terrorist Hackers.. :) ].

Now the problem with airport security is that terrorists are clearly winning here. Airport security measures are costly. Very costly. The terrorists are able to reduce these large funds from our hand.

I dont propose to scrape all these security measures. But as stated, we must start debates on the issue.

AndyDecember 27, 2007 9:31 AM

Bruce,

There is a far cry between a study finding that there has been no study on efficacy, and a study which measures lack of efficacy. You link to the former, but your teaser asserts the latter.

derfDecember 27, 2007 10:29 AM

"The goal isn't to confiscate prohibited items. The goal is to prevent terrorism on airplanes."

I disagree completely. The TSA's purpose is to inconvenience, harass, and get Americans used to dictatorship-style shakedowns while providing absolutely no real, measurable deterrence to terrorism. In addition, the TSA helps fund itself by stealing "prohibited" items and selling them on eBay.

Michael AshDecember 27, 2007 10:35 AM

While it's true that this study doesn't prove its uselessness, in the absence of proof of success, it should be assumed useless until proven otherwise.

I don't think the TSA necessarily has it backwards, it's just that their goals are not what they should be, and they will refute by any means necessary a conclusion which would lead to a change in how they work.

Not A Happy CamperDecember 27, 2007 11:22 AM

The TSA doesn't steal confiscated items to sell on eBay. The term is 'armed robbery', and the fact that they use eBay to fence their swag makes this a RICO predicate. I'd say round them all up and prosecute them for racketeering.

AngieDecember 27, 2007 11:32 AM

I don't understand. If it is possible to determine that a pie does not contain explosives to the point where it is safe to give it to the USO to be eaten, then what is the point of confiscating it?

JimDecember 27, 2007 11:35 AM

"A team at the Harvard School of Public Health could not find any studies showing whether the time-consuming process of X-raying carry-on luggage prevents hijackings or attacks."

maybe they could get a grant to conduct a study into why there are no studies.

Spy GuyDecember 27, 2007 11:42 AM

You analysis is not surprising. As typical with the U.S. we reacted to the events of 911 and the measures we put in place as a stop gap became the end product. There was little if any strategic thinking about these issue. We suffer from being reactionaries and that will seal our fate!

Michael AshDecember 27, 2007 11:54 AM

@Angie

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. You can't very well start breaking the rules just because they don't make sense!

anonymous canuckDecember 27, 2007 12:11 PM

@Angie - it seems to me that this makes about as much sense as having a list of people who are too dangerous to let fly, yet not dangerous enough to arrest on the spot.

AlexDecember 27, 2007 1:07 PM

The whole problem with being a TSA "shoe sniffer" is that your whole existence is based on the idea of finding bad guys. Problem is that there are a vanishingly small number of actual bad guys trying to get on planes to hijack them these days. I won't do the numbers, but I would guess that probably only the smallest fraction of TSA screeners will ever find a hijacker, ever in their entire career.

You can't be vigilant, 40 hours a week, for something you never find, or even know that someone has found.

So the TSA makes them spend time on confusing and useless rules like gels and lighters and the like. The screeners have something to do and something to find every now and then just to keep them from waving everyone through.

lighterguyDecember 27, 2007 1:15 PM

8 flights in the past year, got a lighter past security each time. Sometimes even in my pants pocket.

Good job TSA. Wonder how many lighters you DIDN'T confiscate.

Nomen PublicusDecember 27, 2007 1:18 PM

In summary, the TSA do a pointless job, badly. Unless that is, the job is collecting lighters.

I'm sorry, but one day some suicidal idiot will walk past an airport security checkpoint (not difficult at all as we have seen in recent effectiveness reports) get on a plane and blow it up.

What will the reaction of the US government be? More of the same? Strip searches for everybody? Or denial and locking up everybody who might know what really happened?

DubyaDecember 27, 2007 1:27 PM

>> Rigorously evaluating the current
>> system is just the first step to
>> building a future airport security
>> programme that is more user
>> friendly and cost effective

Questioning the actions of this administration is tantamount to treason.

Plus this guy can't even spell "program."

nobodyDecember 27, 2007 2:08 PM

"Surprising nobody, ..."

Yeah... I wasn't suprised. Don't you know nobody reads your blog regularly enough to have seen this coming?

M.HarrisDecember 27, 2007 3:16 PM

Dubya, it is actually correctly spelled programme in nearly every English-speaking nation other than the United States.

RobDecember 27, 2007 3:52 PM

My new Zippo Lighter was stolen from them with no fluid in it and in its original package. Prior to the flight they told me it was a acceptable because lighters with no fluid in their original packages were acceptable. Someone stole it because it was worth $100.00.

andrewDecember 27, 2007 3:55 PM

After going through security, I entered the area with chairs to put my shoes back on and put my stuff back into my bags. On the SAME public table that I rested my bags on was a whole plastic tub of confiscated items, just sitting there unattended. I could have reached over and grabbed some shampoos, but I didn't want to end up in a secret prison. I had to laugh though.

Rionn Fears MalechemDecember 27, 2007 4:01 PM

This is from the pie article
--
A dozen Thanksgiving pies were confiscated last year at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport. They were all donated to the airport's USO lounge, which serves traveling soldiers.
--
That, ah, sounds like a bad idea, right? "Aha, I see you have contraband! Well, we'll feed it to soldiers ... that'll show you!"

AlexDecember 27, 2007 4:05 PM

I heard somewhere (so it must be true) that the TSA reversed itself on lighters because it was having to pay too much for disposal of hazardous materials.

DubyaDecember 27, 2007 4:22 PM

> we'll feed it to soldiers ... that'll
> show you!"

That is rich, truly wonderful.

But why stop with confiscated pies? With all the pocketknives, nail clippers, shampoo, toothpaste, aftershave and water bottles, surely we can outfit all our troops with first class toiletry kits.

We could probably even find some way for Halliburton to profit from it if we put our best minds on it...

Joel AckermanDecember 27, 2007 4:29 PM

> I can now take my IEP to the airport
IEP? What a great new acronym.

May I use that in next year's movie-plot contest? Three ounces of whipped cream in a baggie...

Hard to rationalize TSA's existenceDecember 27, 2007 4:32 PM

As a government make work project, FDR's WPA concept of building of the highways at least gave the USA some tangible assets or improvements. TSA doesn't offer any real benefits other than keeping some people employed in an economic downturn cycle.

If we wanted a real security system, we would model one after Israel. El Al is the world's safest airline. They focus on finding bad "people", not shampoo or lighters.

As a make work project to help those that can only be marginally employed, why not place the TSA personnel on the Mexican border? You could have someone standing every 100 feet, equipped with a screening device to inconvenience the border crossers, and checking photo IDs.

Dave ZDecember 27, 2007 6:26 PM

If there was a real threat, the terrorists would have blown up in the security waiting line. Instead, they have us doing their jobs for them.

TSA is a jokeDecember 27, 2007 6:48 PM

Too many times I have been stopped for nailclippers, a pocket knife, or even a "larger than acceptable" tube of toothpaste.

"In the interest of national security...." right....

Letting the pilots carry guns is much more effective than this.

Regrettably, as with most US government programs, this one is staffed with a lot of people, I assume unionized, and will be difficult to dismantle. It will die only with a paradigm changing event.

Hard to rationalize TSA's existenceDecember 27, 2007 6:49 PM

@ Alan

Isn't there a river on the border?

Yep. Hasn't stopped illegals. It obviously needs the attention to detail the TSA so obviously has in abundance.

Frank Ch. EiglerDecember 27, 2007 8:56 PM

> Surprising nobody, a new study concludes that airport security isn't helping [...]

Bruce, you either made a dumb error or are being dishonest. @Andy is being too kind.

> The goal is to prevent terrorism on airplanes.

And the number of terrorism occurrences on TSA-filtered airplanes has been ... ?

AnonymousDecember 27, 2007 10:30 PM

>> The goal is to prevent terrorism on airplanes.

>>>And the number of terrorism occurrences on TSA-filtered airplanes has been ... ?

The same as the number of terrorism occurrences on airplanes that also carried white, blonde-haired 5-year-old girls.

Correlation is not causation.

My Brain is SquishyDecember 27, 2007 10:31 PM

>> The goal is to prevent terrorism on airplanes.

>>>And the number of terrorism occurrences on TSA-filtered airplanes has been ... ?

The same as the number of terrorism occurrences on airplanes that also carried white, blonde-haired 5-year-old girls.

Correlation is not causation.

GeorgeDecember 27, 2007 10:34 PM

"A dozen Thanksgiving pies were confiscated last year at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport. They were all donated to the airport's USO lounge, which serves traveling soldiers."

Let's see.... the pies are a dangerous threat to aviation, so the TSA must confiscate them to protect airplanes from the terrorist threat. But it's acceptable to donate those same dangerous pies for consumption by the soldiers who protect the United States from the terrorist threat.

I realize I'm nowhere near as intelligent as Kip Hawley, but to my little pea-brain this makes no sense. Could someone possibly explain what I'm missing, preferably in appropriate monosyllabic words?

Your being unfair to jokesDecember 28, 2007 7:03 AM

@TSA is a joke: Hypothetically pilots on airliners are armed. But since TSA would rather have a plane brought down than lose 1 micron of control over the law abiding citizenry, they have made the hoops so ridiculous for pilots to jump through that none of them are armed.

For example: you have to answer 20 pages+ of questions on your medical, emotional and political background to see if you have the "right stuff" to carry a gun (over the course of 3 days at your own expense in a facility that makes gitmo look easy to commute to). One of the things that will DISQUALIFY you from carrying a gun as a pilot is - sit down or you may hurt yourself - having been in the military! Thats right - if you ever served in the US military (and who ever heard of a pilot having been in the military) then you are too violent a person to be allowed to carry a gun. (Maybe thats why they feed exploding pies to soldiers? Eliminate the competition?)

Because remember - TSA just wants people to be safe and there is NO WAY for the pilot to hurt anyone on the plane or the ground if he does not have a gun. Or a pie.

BenDecember 28, 2007 8:22 AM

Does the fact the the pies are automatically conviscated, and therefore not presumably screened, mean that deadly potential "pies of terror" are being donated to US Military personnel? Someone should do something about this. Those pies could be acting as a covert channel to deliver a terrorist payload, disguised as mom's apple pie but in fact containing instant death. You people should be punished for even talkng about this. I'm surprised that hundreds, if not thousands of Americans have not been killed all ready. It is time to beat the pie terror, and make the air as safe for Americans as our road system.

AntimediaDecember 28, 2007 11:54 AM

"This is where the TSA has it completely backwards. The goal isn't to confiscate prohibited items. The goal is to prevent terrorism on airplanes. When the TSA confiscates millions of lighters from innocent people, that's a security failure. The TSA is reacting to non-threats."

Let's put this reasoning to the test.

This is where the security industry has it completely backwards. The goal isn't to prevent viruses from passing the gateway. The goal is to prevent viruses on desktops. When the security industry stops millions of viruses from getting past the gateway, that's a security failure. The security industry is reacting to non-threats.

It seems there's a serious flaw in your logic.

The point is, how do you define what the threats are, not at what point in the process do stop them from getting in. (Obviously, the earlier in the process they can be stopped, the less of a threat they pose.) The research that needs to be done regards the potential threats, the nature of the risk they pose and then, and only then, the appropriate actions to take to mitigate those risks.

If lighters pose a significant risk (and I have no idea if they do or not) then it doesn't matter how many "innocent" people (interesting use of that emotion-trigger) have them confiscated any more than it matters how many "innocent" desktop users have viruses "confiscated" from their USB drives or other devices when they connect to the network.

I suspect your political bias is blinding you to the obvious.

ryanDecember 28, 2007 12:43 PM

When was the last time that anyone can re-call terrorists use of a TSA controlled airliner to successfully attack a U.S. target? My records show 9-11-01.

BuddyDecember 28, 2007 12:45 PM

>> The goal is to prevent terrorism on airplanes.
>>>And the number of terrorism occurrences on TSA-filtered airplanes has been ... ?

Reminds me of an ancient corny joke:
Dude leaning against lamp post snapping fingers. Buddy comes along....

B: Whatcha doin?
D: Keeping the elephants away.
B: Elephants? There're no elephants in a 1000 miles of here!
D: Doin' a good job, ain't I!

Michael AshDecember 28, 2007 12:55 PM

@Antimedia

Your analogy is flawed. Lighters are not analogous to viruses. A virus is a deliberately malicious piece of data with no useful purpose, and this is not true of lighters.

A better analogy would be a program which checks for viruses in e-mails and deletes "bad" e-mails. When confronted with a claim that the virus checker is ineffectual, the makers of the program respond that their filter has blocked ten million e-mails so far this year. But of course this is completely missing the point; the goal is not to block e-mails, it is to block viruses. Likewise, the TSA's goal should not be to block lighters, it should be to block people with malicious intent. Refuting claims of uselessness by showing the great number of confiscated lighters is to miss the point entirely.

ryanDecember 28, 2007 2:08 PM

So, Buddy.


If TSA Filtering attempts to stop terrorism on planes is akin to snapping your fingers to keep elephants away, then what would you argue keeping the terrorists from successfully employing such a plot to destroy U.S. targets? They have arbitrarily chosen to no longer take advantage of viable attack vector? Or might they have deemed that attack vector no longer viable due to the stepped security employed by the TSA? A criminal will take the shortest path, if it is available. We have simply taken that particular path away.

ilcylicDecember 28, 2007 4:32 PM

@ryan: You think any hijacker could take over a plane these days? It's not the TSA keeping planes safe, it's the passengers.

SmithyDecember 28, 2007 5:31 PM

@ryan: It could be that the amount of planning required to repeat a previously unknown tactic again successfully, is less than the amount of planning required to concoct a different tactic.

(argh, that sentence should be taken out and shot... does it need that comma, or not.)

I think that removing a particular criminal tactic from the list of viable ones may cause more inconvenience due to extra security procedures than the convenience provided by not being 1 in x million who get blown to bits by terrorist attack.

Based on statistics, it's safer to be a terrorist target, than it is to fly in the space shuttle (2 in 114?). (Yeah, we really need a safer space rocket than shuttle)

AntimediaDecember 28, 2007 7:37 PM

@Michael Ash - even using your "better" analogy, it is an absolute certainty that *some* viruses will have been stopped. Therefore, the program is effective. It may not be *efficient*, but it *is* effective.

The point Bruce was trying to make (and that you are trying to support) is that confiscating lighters in in*effective* not in*efficient*. Bruce labels the lighter program a "failure" because "innocent" people lose their lighters. But, just as in your "better" analogy, if confiscating 10 million lighters stops one attack, then it is, by definition, not a failure. There may be better ways. There may be more efficient ways, but that doesn't make this program a failure.

Your reasoning is just as flawed as his, which is why changing the analogy to your "better" one changes nothing at all.

I made no comment on the NSA's response, because their response is irrelevant to the question at hand; namely, does confiscating lighters at airports prevent terrorist acts on airplanes. I can't answer that question, because I don't have the data to determine the answer. Neither do you and neither does Bruce. The government may. We don't know. What we do know is we cannot label it a failure simply because it may be inefficient.

Big BoyDecember 28, 2007 9:14 PM

I just returned from Europe. None of the 300 passengers on my flight (and none of those on any other flight from any European airport that I've flown out of this year) had to remove their shoes. No one checked their shoes. They just walked on with flip-flops, Nikes, 3" heels, and lots of heavy boots (it is winter). Conservatively, 30,000 people fly to major US airports from Europe on 100 planes any one of which could go "BOOM" at any time. And no one cares.

But, TSA looks so good making those flying from Amarillo to DFW soil their sox on the filthy carpet as they hand over their shoes for inspection. Ever heard of a terrorist from Amarillo? Me neither.

The terrorists have won every time the US Government spends another useless dollar on the fools at TSA Hq. and their second-grade plots to confiscate more shampoo.

Michael AshDecember 29, 2007 11:19 PM

@Antimedia

You say that with my better analogy there is an absolute certainty that some viruses have been stopped. How have you determined this? There was nothing in my description which indicated anything of the kind. A "virus filter" which deleted nothing but legitimate, virus-free e-mails would fit my description perfectly.

"What we do know is we cannot label it a failure simply because it may be inefficient."

As I stated earlier, in the absence of any evidence that these measures are effective in any way, it is reasonable to assume that they are not until such time as this evidence may be produced.

e-jitDecember 30, 2007 3:48 PM

The first time I travelled (from the UK) after the new "security" measures were introduced, back in 2001 or 2, I was immediately impressed by the new attack mode the new measures opened up: with a large body of folk (effectively a crowd) queueing to get to the "security" check-points, the terrorist now had an easy target that was outside the "secure" area. A suicide bomber needed only join the queue, wait until about central in the crowd and trigger an instant hit. Badly thought out "security" measures can create new security risks.

Still, these days I'm looking forward to the terrorists who eventually work out how to make a clothes bomb. Maybe a garment made from gun cotton would do the trick. Then we could all look forward to the joys of naked travel.

Peter GalbavyJanuary 2, 2008 6:16 AM

Anyone who believes that the objective of the TSA (and similar efforts in other countries) are there to prevent terrorist attacks is living in media-brainwashed-land.

The objective of the TSA and associated agencies is to provide channels for the diversion of public money to private interests while maintaining a level of shepherding control over the the sheeple.

KDKJanuary 2, 2008 8:08 AM

After reading all of this whining, and incrediblily boring compaining, I have come to the conclusion that Americans certainly don't think beyond their own self-centered world. Although I agree that many of the SOP's (standard operating procedures) are short sighted to say the least, certainly one cannot help but agree that security of flight is better now than before 911. I guess it's just a natural, although ridiculous, by- product of being the richest, most free people in the world. Quit complaining and be thankful for the ability to fly anywhere for a reasonalble price and expect to arrive safely.

Christopher DavisJanuary 2, 2008 1:18 PM

@KDK: Yes, flying is more secure now than it was before the September 11th attacks. We have reinforced cockpit doors, and the crew and passengers are no longer told to (or willing to) "sit back and wait for the negotiation team".

Those are actual security improvements. Taking someone's 4oz tube of toothpaste? Not so much.

Michael AshJanuary 2, 2008 5:35 PM

@KDK

Yes, safety is better than it was. But not by a whole lot. The biggest improvement was the attitude change of the airline passengers, and that wasn't due to a policy change at all.

I have every right to object to the TSA wasting my money in order to convenience me. We could have better security for less money and more convenience if anyone wanted to provide it. If you think that it's ridiculous to complain about wasting huge amounts of time and money just to provide poor security which is somewhat improved over the previous poorer security, I'd like to know just what you think is reasonable to complain about.

darkuncleJanuary 4, 2008 12:44 PM

@antimedia:

lighters are not the threat we're defending against, any more than pies, toothpaste or bottled water.

The confiscations represent nothing more than a diversion of time, attention and money from actual threats. It's an excuse to create and perpetuate an expensive new bureacracy that spends a lot of taxpayer money employing the marginally competent (nobody else is willing to work for what they'll pay), managed by the terminally obtuse, in order for gov't officials to be able to say "but at least we were doing something" when the next attack happens.

Anybody who thinks confiscating these items has anything whatsoever to do with improving security doesn't have the first clue about security.

AllaiyahJune 23, 2008 10:19 PM

What does the airport DO with all the stuff they confiscate? I have a paranoid friend who swears it's a conspiracy all the airports agreed to to make money reselling confiscated goods on eBay & getting free food for employee lunches. I just wonder how all this is legal, how many people back out of travel AT the airport after refusing to part with their wares, & how the airport ships all the confiscated materials back to the proper owners.

ChrisMarch 10, 2009 6:34 PM

Brilliant article. Under the logic that created the TSA, the government should be paying to screen me for ovarian and breast cancer (never mind that I am a guy - fact is these cancers kill more than 5,000 people a decade). If they happen to find something benign that looks suspiscious (say an organ where my ovaries should be) they should remove it.

Leave a comment

Allowed HTML: <a href="URL"> • <em> <cite> <i> • <strong> <b> • <sub> <sup> • <ul> <ol> <li> • <blockquote> <pre>

Photo of Bruce Schneier by Per Ervland.

Schneier on Security is a personal website. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Co3 Systems, Inc..