Me on Airport Security

Last week, I spoke at an airport security conference hosted by EPIC: The Stripping of Freedom: A Careful Scan of TSA Security Procedures. Here's the video of my half-hour talk.

Posted on January 14, 2011 at 2:11 PM • 16 Comments

Comments

Paul ParkinsonJanuary 14, 2011 3:01 PM

Hi Bruce,

Is there a transcript of you piece anywhere? I'd love to be able to read this rather than be tied to my PC to watch it at CSPAN.

Cheers

Paul

LisaJanuary 14, 2011 3:42 PM

Excellent speech! Bruce did a wonderful job explaining this issue. The only thing that I think he should have done was talk about "cost-benefit risk analysis" more directly when it comes to terrorism, instead of indirectly.

If you have "X" amount of $$ dollars to spend, how many terrorist related causalities "Y" can you prevent. In that context, spending money on investigation, sniffer dogs, behaviour screening, etc. will be much more cost effective and save more lives than full-body scanners.

I heard mention that increased airport security has encourage more people to drive instead, and that has resulted in many more traffic deaths on the road than those terrorist deaths the airport screening would have prevented. It would be nice to see some hard numbers and analysis on this.


Everything else in society involves cost-benefit and risk analysis, why not terrorism?

On a side note, after seeing the video, I think that Bruce would look much more handsome, if he had short hair and cut off his ponytail. ;^)

Richard Steven HackJanuary 14, 2011 5:52 PM

Just watched the whole talk - very well done! Kudos to Bruce.

That said, one point I don't agree with, at least not entirely - when he said, "Terrorism is hard". Given the terrorists we have, he's probably correct. Given the terrorists we COULD have, I'd say that isn't correct. As I've said here before, most terrorists aren't terribly competent (neither was I when I tried it.) Whether that's because of the terrorist mindset or whether that's because most terrorists don't get professional training of the sort that the military, especially special ops guys like SEALS, or law enforcement, get is not clear.

But I do believe that if we had a slightly higher grade of terrorist in the world, and more importantly, if we had terrorists who really had an overall PLAN to destabilize the US - rather than the random "let's just do something to the US" type we have - things would be different in this country.

Bruce talks about the reaction to terrorism as being "We need to do something, this is something, let's do it". Well, on the terrorist side, this is precisely the terrorist motivational mindset. They say, "The actions of the US are intolerable, we have to do something, this is something, let's do it."

So they come up with some scheme sans overall strategic thinking and execute it. Which is WHY, as Bruce correctly notes, terrorism is rare. It's rare because there usually is no overall strategic plan behind it.

Random terrorism is not terrorism. Chronic, continuous terrorism, of the sort some countries like Turkey and Italy have experienced in the past, is much more effective at destabilizing countries. Single, large-scale terrorist events like 9/11 can be useful to produce systemic changes in countries, as it has here. But lower-level chronic terrorism would be much more effective in that regard - at least until the population becomes inured to it, as has happened in some countries.

So in some sense, while Bruce may be correct that "terrorism is hard", it's only that way because the terrorists have made it so by 1) not thinking about their strategy, and 2) concentrating on single, difficult to implement large-scale events rather than smaller, more easily implemented chronic events.

That could change at any time. The rise of things like the Mumbai assault and the suggestion that terrorists are now considering such assaults is an indication that it may be changing, however slowly.

Large-scale events like 9/11 are effective in a sort of "shock and awe" manner. But chronic, more probable, less rare, more individually targeted terrorist events can be equally effective in producing a general terror effect on a large population.

As an example, look at the "Zebra" killings in San Francisco years ago. A small handful of black men who committed just a few random shootings managed to scare the entire city population. I remember those days, and those attacks did impact the attention of the population. Because the nature of the attacks was that you could never know whether that black man approaching you on the street - in a suit no less - was carrying a gun.

So it would be unwise to assume that just because "terrorism is hard" NOW that it will remain so.

However clearly it will always still be statistically rare, as Bruce clearly demonstrated with his "X airplane deaths per billion boardings" statistic.

And the recommendation of deciding to not be terrorized still stands as the correct response. Unfortunately this is ALSO as "hard" as terrorism is to implement in a general population.

Jonathan LefflerJanuary 14, 2011 6:55 PM

Driving to Iceland is an interesting concept - it requires an amphibious vehicle, I suppose.

RSXJanuary 15, 2011 12:54 AM

I dont want to sound like a dingbat, but there's a question that's been on my mind: Who funds the TSA? Is it the airline companies and airport fees, or does it come out of Joe Taxpayer?

I have this..really sneaking suspicion that Joe is footing the bill. If it was the airlines paying them, you can bet they would be raising hell just based on the theory that airlines are losing business because of unsatisfactory performances and reputation of the internet-hate-machine.
If taxes are paying it, that typically means minimal oversight and no real repercussion at the end of the day if something goes wrong..Its not like anyone at the top is being turned upside down and shaken for whatever's in their pockets, Joe pays his salary either way.
My first instinct? I never wanted to fly before and I definitely dont want to fly now. Given the opportunity, I would seek alternate means of transportation, which would mean an equal loss to the airline companies. Didnt some of them just go out of business not too long ago?

Dirk PraetJanuary 15, 2011 4:03 PM

Great speech and spot-on.

@ Lisa : geeks with ponytails do it better. Ask any girl at my local pub 8-)

Dr. I. Needtob AtheJanuary 15, 2011 7:48 PM

What was with that facial expression of yours during the introduction by Lillie Coney? It's as if you were disturbed or puzzled by something she said.

LisaJanuary 16, 2011 2:19 PM

@Dirk: maybe only in their own minds!

Most women consider bald/balding men to look much more handsome with short hair (and no ponytail).

Name one bald/balding action hero who looks good with a ponytail? You don't see ponytails on Bruce Willis or Captain Picard.

Clive RobinsonJanuary 16, 2011 3:48 PM

@ Lisa,

"Name one bald/balding action hero who looks good with a ponytail?"

That depends on what you call "good"... and has been observed in the past "beauty is in the eye of the beholder".

However there are one or two "action hero's" who have sported a pony tail often whilst doing martial arts style/content movies. Possibly they are going for the ronin look.

However one theory as to why men of a certain age grow a pony tail (despite all the jibes) is that, when they look at their comb / hairbrush in the morning and start thinking "Oh no it's starting to fall out!" or "Oh my G*d it's grey!"... They work on the "last gasp" principle and let their hair grow while they still have the ability or grow a beard or both (oddly though where hair does start to sprout ear / nose it gets the chop ;)

Another theory blames women and the male menopause. Women have long hair untill a certain age when their peers drop less than subtle hint's it's "above the collar time". Men however are told from about six years onwards to "get your hair cut", and this continues through out their life.

That is women especialy are for ever telling men it's "short hair" that looks atractive... However it is noticable that long hair appears on "toy boys" which women of a certain age find not attractive but "sexy"...So when men hit the "male menopause" are you realy surprised when they "do what women appear to want" "not what women say they like" and thus amongst other things let their hair grow?

However there are a group of men who have always had long hair and they tend to follow an ethos from the sixties or seventies (hippy/rock).

The scary thing is the first of the "baby boomers" are now hitting "65" which is retirement age in the UK. However a lot of the boomers have been retired for atleast 15years and to the annoyance of many men of a certain age (40's who are going to have to work into their 70's) the "boomers" look younger than they do...

So are you that surprised that they grow their hair, go out and buy sports cars, motor bikes and certain electric guitars?

Dirk PraetJanuary 16, 2011 5:49 PM

@ Clive

The simplest explanation is that the geek condition dictates permanent defiance of mainstream opinion, even if it means shooting yourself in the foot.

Bob StaudenmaierMarch 9, 2011 4:55 AM

I can't get anything out of that CSPAN library page; neither transcript nor video.

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