Schneier on Security
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December 12, 2011
First-Person Account of a TSA Airport Screener
This is a few years old, but I seem not to have blogged it before.
Posted on December 12, 2011 at 6:09 AM
• 25 Comments
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You can pretty much skip the entire piece and go directly to the bottom of the page where it lists a number of do's and don'ts.
TSA workers should not complain about the abuse and hostility they're getting from their target audience. Under the TSA mission statement and the way it's being executed, that's exactly what they signed up for. It's like a (non-drafted) soldier being deployed on a battlefield complaining he's being shot at by the enemy.
I think her point was that the government takeover of security has done no better and at expense to the taxpayer. They are still looking for dangerous items (i.e. something like a gummie bear that could be fashioned into a shiv) instead of dangerous people. The only point that I think isn't made is that some of us don't think the federal government has a right to search individuals without just cause. Of course, a private airline would have right to not let me board their airplane if I don't subject myself to their own security.
Dirk, no one should be subject to "abuse and hostility".
One of the tips from the article is "DON'T block traffic by repacking your belongings on the conveyor belt."
I'm going to check that everything that I put in the bins is still in the bins ASAP. I'm not going to walk away and give anyone an excuse to say 'you must have lost it after you left'. I will also put my shoes on so I don't stub my toes or step on anything and cut my feet.
"Dirk, no one should be subject to "abuse and hostility"."
Whether it should or should not happen ... when you deal with the general public, you get "abuse and hostility".
Even more so when you are enforcing rules that are useless and arbitrary (6 fluid oz is bad, but 2 containers of 3 fluid oz is good).
Add to that the ability to force someone to miss their flight (and related issues such as lodging and transportation) and you have serious issues.
And what is this articles approach? A list of things that you should do to make the TSA's job easier. I can understand that. It is being written from the point of view of an ex-TSA worker.
But it really isn't reasonable to expect the 300 million people in the USofA to change their behaviours to suit the whims of a few thousand people writing the rules for the TSA "agents" to follow.
And contrary to the statement by the trainer in that article, the TSA is not the "last line". As been demonstrated multiple times, the real "last line" is the people on the flight.
The TSA has yet to catch a single terrorist.
I think you missed the point.
While I agree with what you're saying, it's the standard case of shooting the messenger. The TSA employees actually performing the searches and the like, have no control over the administrative policies and procedures that they have to follow.
Sure, the public can take their anger out on the TSA, however taking it out on an individual employee who has no control over the system is totally inexcusable.
"First-Person Account" !!
I hope TSA staff screening rules are being tightened to prevent more of these dangerous intellectuals being hired.
On the first page, she tells a story of a mother traveling with 4 children to a funeral. The family had an uncertain date of return. The pattern (5 tickets, one-way, purchased within a week of the flight) triggered a red flag in a computer, so the woman and four children were herded into the Special Treatment Area.
Does the system not allow agents to articulate that a mother with 4 children does not meet the pattern seen in previous attacks? (The 9/11 attacks involved multiple adult men together on a last-minute 1-way ticket purchase.)
Poorly crafted rules creating more problems than they solve. Almost like the old saying about programming and regular expressions:
Some people, when confronted with a problem, think "I know, I'll use regular expressions." Now they have two problems.
It's not that regular expressions are a problem, but that poorly-crafted and ill-used regular expressions are a problem.
Poorly-crafted rules for flagging dangerous passengers (and poorly-crafted methods for doing second-level filtering on those who have been flagged) are most of the problem.
Don't know if anyone noticed, but Bruce is quoted on page 5, in the criticism of the TSA section.
"Our checkpoints are designed to catch the sloppy and the stupid," says technology consultant Bruce Schneier. Real terrorists, he contends, are too patient and clever to be caught by such artless routines as a liquids ban.
I'm curious whether this direct-quote and paraphrase accurately represent Bruce's ideas. It is followed by this sentence
Whether or not Schneier is correct, it's hard to argue with his assertion that the ultimate solution will be found in technology such as the sophisticated 3-D X-ray machines and explosives sniffers that are in place at only a handful of airports.
Perhaps this is accurate, or perhaps not.
Technology can help, but good technology with poorly-written rules for use isn't an improvement.
"While I agree with what you're saying, it's the standard case of shooting the messenger. The TSA employees actually performing the searches and the like, have no control over the administrative policies and procedures that they have to follow."
This is a long way to say "They're just doing their job." I think history shows the worth of that excuse.
@Dirk Praet: "Under the TSA mission statement and the way it's being executed, that's exactly what they signed up for. It's like a (non-drafted) soldier being deployed on a battlefield complaining he's being shot at by the enemy."
The TSA see themselves as front-line soldiers in the (unending) Global War on Terror. The traveling public are the Enemy, assumed to be terrorists until (dubious reactive) screening "clears" them. That approach goes a long way toward explaining the attitude and behavior some (though not all) screeners display toward passengers. Combine that with secrecy, lack of accountability, and management who consider themselves infallible, and you've got a pretty good summary of the TSA as a Stasi or KGB wannabee, waging war against the citizens of its own country in a misguided attempt to protect the Homeland.
@Chris: "Sure, the public can take their anger out on the TSA, however taking it out on an individual employee who has no control over the system is totally inexcusable."
The problem is the public CAN'T take their anger out on the leaders of the TSA who make the arbitrary rules. Sequestered behind locked doors, they are impervious to any criticism, even from Congress. They enjoy unlimited arbitrary authority and are accountable only to themselves.
I suspect that they even regard the anger, frustration, and disdain so many people have for their agency as a beneficial validation of their effectiveness. They apparently equate security with intrusive hassle. So they view all the anger and complaints as conclusive proof that they're doing a good job of intrusively hassling passengers, which means they're providing highly effective security. And as it's also a War they're fighting, the outrage proves they're keeping the enemy (i.e., the traveling public) confused and upset, which also validates their effectiveness.
The inevitable result is that passengers will take out their anger and frustration on the low-level flunkies who (inconsistently and arbitrarily) inflict the unfathomable reactive indignity du jour as ordered. There is no other outlet, since the TSA doesn't care what we think and members of Congress are too terrified of being blamed for "weakening security" or branded "soft on terrorism" to do anything.
Some screeners can deal professionally and courteously with their thankless task of inflicting indignity on passengers who revile them and their agency. But others react by taking advantage of their license to act like petty tyrants. They're not supposed to do that (as their Chief Propagandist Blogger Bob incessantly reminds us), but TSA leadership has shown they fully tolerate "unprofessional" behavior and consistently stand behind screeners when there's a confrontation. The bullies who show "abuse and hostility" to passengers fully deserve to get back what they dish out, especially since the TSA clearly tolerates the bullying.
The TSA seems to have done everything possible to EARN the disdain of the public. I can only conclude that's the intent of their top leadership, who apparently believe that "effective security" requires the "enemy" to hate and fear their agency. That may be appropriate for a security apparatus in North Korea or the former East Germany. But it's clearly not what Americans should tolerate. Unfortunately, the decisions of what we must tolerate have been made in secret by unaccountable arrogant officials. The only thing we really can do about it is to refuse to fly. But that's not a practical solution.
The thing that slides by is the implication that confiscating 4oz bottles of shampoo and swiss army knives actually improves security. She comments about worrying about "you never know if an elderly person in a wheelchair is a dupe for a saboteur." which perpetuates the aura of fear and paranoia: *everyone* is a suspect, and but for the tireless groping, probing and xray'ing of the TSA, planes would be being blown out of the skies like something in a video game. Even she noticed that the London attack wasn't foiled by the alertness and intrusiveness of the screeners, but by by good old-fashioned detective work.
"A businessman who is about to miss his because of this kerfuffle looks at me and mutters, "When are you guys going to start using your brains?" -- to which I can only say "indeed".
Treating people doing jobs that cause issues for other people (such as TSA staff and telemarketers), poorly does serve a purpose. The people running these groups need to pay more money to get people to take these jobs which provides disincentive to doing these things.
@anonymous - or more likely, they move down the food chain until they get people who are prepared to put up with it for the money!
"While I agree with what you're saying, it's the standard case of shooting the messenger. The TSA employees actually performing the searches and the like, have no control over the administrative policies and procedures that they have to follow.
Sure, the public can take their anger out on the TSA, however taking it out on an individual employee who has no control over the system is totally inexcusable."
I disagree. The individual TSA employees make the TSA possible. If working for the TSA leads to depression as everybody treats you with hostility, the TSA will have an increasingly difficult time recruiting and eventually will have to shut down. At the very least, they will have to start recruiting increasingly under-qualified people leading to more incidents leading to lower public support and eventually a shut-down. Low moral at the TSA can get us the public the victory we deserve.
We shouldn't blame the TSA employees because they are only doing their job?
Refresh my memory: How did that line of defense go over at Nuremberg again?
And before you say "Oh you can't compare genocide with the TSA", let me remind you of the 6-100 dead a year from cancer thanks to those scanners. That's the current expectation. A few years ago it was zero. I don't know anyone who believes it will actually turn out to be within an order of magnitude of that 6-100 number. Or even within two.
Refresh my memory: How did that line of defense go over at Nuremberg again?
IIRC the judges were not too impressed with the defendants' pleas that gassing Jews was the then company policy and that after all they had to make a living too under particularly challenging circumstances.
Short: everybody is ultimately accountable for his or her actions, whether under orders or not.
You asked if this quote is accurate:
"'Our checkpoints are designed to catch the sloppy and the stupid,' says technology consultant Bruce Schneier. Real terrorists, he contends, are too patient and clever to be caught by such artless routines as a liquids ban."
That's definitely me. I've said that sort of thing many times in the past. The next sentence I'm less sure about:
"Whether or not Schneier is correct, it's hard to argue with his assertion that the ultimate solution will be found in technology such as the sophisticated 3-D X-ray machines and explosives sniffers that are in place at only a handful of airports."
I don't think that's the ultimate solution.
"Technology can help, but good technology with poorly-written rules for use isn't an improvement."
Very true. So much of what fails at TSA checkpoints are failures of procedure. Or -- at least -- the substitution of procedure for intelligence.
"... the substitution of procedure for intelligence."
The risk/benefit analysis (from the screener's point of view) makes slavish adherence to procedure the only sensible choice.
Unless we fix the "something went wrong therefore we must blame somebody" mentality this will never change.
Because some bad men attacked us ten years ago, we created a nanny security state in which poorly trained bottom rung employees of a vast security apparatus are given god-like powers over those poor schlubs who find themselves in need of a plane ride.
Nothing degrades this nation more than the cowardly ways in which we responded to a one-day flurry of terror. Out of fear of terrorism, we opened the doors wide to fascism.
Now that we all know that the system marks "group of people buying 1-way tickets in the last minute", any terrorist group worth their salt would switch to round-way tickets.
Remember: every time you make a typo, the errorists win.
My political opponent is soft on terror with his 4oz limit - I propose a 3.9 oz limit to defend our glorious nation.
... repeat ....
Over the last 2 years I have had my billfold emptied ($700 missing) by the TSA treated with brute force all because I have metal in my body. TSA employees are not screened allowing thieves and the like to do their criminal deeds on an unsuspecting public. I've learned to refuse any form of private screening since it is used to steal money or medicines and the only response from the TSA is their agents didn't do it. Private screening areas don't have cameras so it's your word against theirs. The worst airports for nasty TSA employees are CLT, HST, and DCA. And, yes don't expect the TSA to reimburse you for medical expenses due to the physical damage that the agents cause.
Apart from anything else, of course, round-trip tickets can often (rather absurdly) be cheaper than one way - at which point, of course, any terrorist will be happy to book for whatever return date makes it cheapest: it's not as if the airline can exact posthumous retribution for violating their crazy fare rules post-attack!
If they could just take on board that every single pair of nail clippers and bottle of shampoo seized represents a *failure* of their screening process - a false-positive indication which has wasted resources which could otherwise have been used sensibly - they might be more efficient and less hated.
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