The Economist Debate on Airplane Security

On The Economist website, I am currently debating Kip Hawley on airplane security. On Tuesday we posted our initial statements, and today (London time) we posted our rebuttals. We have one more round to go.

I’ve set it up to talk about the myriad of harms airport security has caused: loss of trust in government, increased fear, creeping police state, loss of liberty in the “rights free zone,” and so on. Suggestions of what to say next are appreciated.

Posted on March 23, 2012 at 6:33 AM80 Comments


Costas March 23, 2012 7:07 AM

As a European I avoid visiting U.S. as much as I can because of insane airport security and particularly their intrusive inclination towards our privacy-like for example searching laptops . I’ve also visited Israel numerous times where the alertness is similar if not higher than U.S. but they’re handling airport security in a much more efficient and less intrusive way.

Jan Doggen March 23, 2012 7:16 AM

I just do not take a laptop with me to the US. I consider the risk of some ‘official’ confiscating it for arbitrary reasons too high.

I also have the perception (but have not really investigated) that in this area the rules for US and non-US citizens differ (as they do in other parts of US law).

Xristopher March 23, 2012 7:24 AM

It’s amazing to me that, despite the number of times that Mr. Hawley talks about risk management and risk models in his statment, the vast marjoity of the of the TSA’s response to terrorism has been based on anecdotal evidence; which is the antithesis of real risk managemnt.

Lagrandeimage March 23, 2012 8:11 AM

Hello Bruce,

You have very convingly argued that the security measures have not been effective.

Now I was thinking you could include a paragraph on the real incentives behind the security measures: the responsibility dilemna. More precisely, no one in the administration wants to be held responsible if a known security risk is used.

So we get more security checks according to the different movie or real life plots that get tossed around and not as some commenters feel to make us really safer.

An another way of saying it is that airport security is for bringing security to the administration and politicians but not for the public.

The only real solution, as you have argued in many posts, is that we humans learn must learn to live with the fact that there can be a terrorist attack can and will happen from time to time.

The problem with this solution is that we are naturally biased in our appraisal of risks (I presume you have read the excellent Dan Gartner book Risk which is IMO completely coherent with your different positions).

This means that most of the population is not able to live with that risk and will continue to elect politicians that play on the fears of terrorism rather than those who try to make good decisions based on a cost/benefit analysis.

Finally I believe you should anwer the moderator’s question on what your view of a reasonable airport security be.

Actually I feel this boils down to another question: what is the level of security that will satisfy the fear of the general public while being reasonable? I am not sure this is possible…

Clive Robinson March 23, 2012 8:17 AM

@ Bruce,

Suggestions of what to say next are appreciated.

Well first off what is economics about… In essence it is the finacial health of the world, the state, the organisation and the individual.

Thus any point made by either side should be viewed not just from one perspective but them all, especialy as the percieved economics of the individual by some is that of being a frightend individual prepared for the state to pay any cost for their individual safety. However when viewed from the state perspective the state has finite resources (taxes) and each new policy “robs peter to pay paul” and that is not healthy for the state or the individual.

I’ve always found the American psyche a bit warped in that the individual appears to want the “faux security” of the DHS et al whilst rejecting the “real security” of a universal health system. An investigation of that might give rise to some intresting arguments.

I shall have a read of both sides to see what the relative merits of each argument are before getting into specific topics for further debate on what has been currently said.

Philip March 23, 2012 8:40 AM

Bruce, a talking point for your debate: (just as the TSA’s security measures have kept me safe,) the rare dragon amulet I bought ten years ago for $1,000,000 has successfully protected me from any dragon attacks since I purchased it. $100,000 per year might seem like a lot, but it’s a small price to pay for security and peace of mind!

You’ve made great points so far; thank you for being the rare voice of reason in this age of insanity.

PJ March 23, 2012 8:40 AM

Just as an aside, does anyone have any idea of how much of an airline ticket is made up of security costs – pre-9/11 and post 9/11?

David March 23, 2012 8:42 AM

The TSA using airplane terrorism fears to extend its ineffective controls to bus, rail and road travel.
Also, the liquids ban is completely ineffective. Simply have many passengers pass through security with 3 ounce containers and hand them to one person once through.

Stupid Security Questions March 23, 2012 9:22 AM

I think the important point to take away is: You will spend trillions, and you will never prevent 100% of attacks. In fact, the % of attacks you prevent by spending a lot less is the same as the % of attacks you prevent by spending a lot less. The marginal utility of all the really expensive screening practices like body scanners, and the more intrusive practices like shoe removal, is pretty much nil, because a) the cost of changing tactics is very small and b) there will always be other attack methods you haven’t thought of.

For point b), imagine that the liquid plot had not been discovered by intelligence. It was specifically tailored to get around security and it probably would have worked. Now imagine the next threat is a terrorist concealing a bomb inside his body, surgically or otherwise. That’s also specifically tailored to get around security, and it will work, despite the billions you spend on screening, unless your intelligence finds the plot ahead of time.

Clive Robinson March 23, 2012 9:29 AM

With regards to safety it is a broad spectrum as is harm.

We know that flying is perhaps the safest mode of transportation which ever way you measure it and driving on Americas roads in personal SUV’s (that avoid environmental protectio measures) or “pickup trucks” (that avoid reasonable safety checks) is considerably more dangerous.

But there are other things such as “health” to consider, taking fluid away from people increases many health risks from acceptable to unacceptable. The increased risk for DVT, PE, CE minor stroke and heart failure are reasonably well documented as are the risks of not moving around to maintain circulation. But other conditions such as diabetes can be negativly effected and Type II has a very high incidence in Americans over the age of 20 and is close to being a pandemic by 40. And also the risk of fungal infections goes up with the screaning measures where peoples feet come into contact with the spores left by other peoples feet. Likewise respiratory infections including TB rise significantly by having a screeners face within 2ft of a passengers face on the “pat downs”.

All such events actually shorten a passengers life expectancy even if only marginaly, however the economic damage caused by an airport security aquired illness is I suspect quite significant, how many “man hours” are lost by people having to seek medical aid from Doctors or Hospitals and the attendent knock on costs.

All of this is before we say “irradiation”, the body scanners might only be a small part of that which you might expect on a globe spanning intercontinental flight. But they are markedly different, insufficiently tested and at the end of the day an addition to other radiation (be it ionising or not) where we do not know if the bodies respons is linear with dosage or exponential with dosage.

So what is the cost to the individual, the organisations they are part of, the Nation State and the world on their economies and cultures.

Speaking of “scanners” what is the purpose they serve, thay are arguably increadably expensive and very fallible in that they appear to pick up a lot less than the old metal detectors.

Personaly I’ve come to believe they are a “scape goat” for any future attack. That is if someone gets on the plane with a couple of pounds of C4 explosive and detonators etc and sets it off and brings an aircraft down, it is the scanners that failed not the TSA. So in effect they are externalising risk away from TSA incompetance.

Don March 23, 2012 9:31 AM

You should talk about Israel and how there are probably more Terrorists trying to blow their planes up than trying to blow up US planes, yet they have stopped all attempts on their planes without the same ridiculous “security”checks and delays and invasions of privacy that the TSA employs.

Mark March 23, 2012 9:31 AM

You mentioned somewhere in Liars & Outliers that what really scares you is concentrations of power. I agree wholeheartedly. I can still remember when I was allowed to take a pocket knife with me, on my person, aboard a plane. I was safer then. Not because the risk of terrorism was lower. But because now my wonderful government has claimed the right to make me choose between the full body scanner and getting hit in the nuts. A commenter on the debate site mentioned TSA theft, I’ve had that happen. So where the loss of trust in government is concerned, be sure to twist the knife.

Phil Polstra March 23, 2012 9:54 AM

As a info security practitioner and a pilot I am constantly reminded of the ridiculousness of the TSA. Details of my most recent experience traveling back to the US from Blackhat Europe in Amsterdam can be found on my blog at the referenced URL.
Some of the highlights:
1. TSA are bullies of security theater. They use threats to get you to comply with ridiculous requests. Case in point: signs at nude body scanners stating that those who refuse to be scanned will receive a THOROUGH patdown. This has been described as a humiliating and physically painful process by people I know who are forced to endure this violation every time due to their medical conditions. This examination is naturally performed by individuals who have no law enforcement training whatsoever.
2. Why am I being rescreened after coming off an international flight from Europe? I thought these people were our trusted friends? They also have better and less invasive security..
3. Why don’t I have to strip and remove shoes in Europe before going through the same scanners?
4. It isn’t comforting when TSA agents ask me which line I was in so I can face the appropriate direction during post nude body scan interrogation. Really, what would happen if I tried to stop someone from stealing my stuff? Who is watching my stuff while I’m waiting for the scanner and in the scanner?

Andy Barratt March 23, 2012 10:03 AM

Please mention that all this silly airport security theatre is actually exposing people to other risks. Mass backlogs at bag checks means a suicide bomber could kill a lot of people before getting on a plane because of these densely populated queues.

Also how about some politeness from staff, I once saw a guy threatened in Athens airport for not removing his rubber iPad cover…. Really…

Paul March 23, 2012 10:09 AM

In your closing, I think you really need to focus on the topic statement “changes made to airport security since 9/11 have done more harm than good.”

In most cases, the individual harm caused by the changes is small: Wasted hours spent in security lines, (presumably) small extra doses of radiation, the indignity of having someone look at your naked body scan or of an enhanced pat-down, or even the annoyance and frustration of having to take off your shoes and belt. But when you multiply that by six billion, that’s an awful lot of harm.

If there was even a single hijacking or bombing that was definitively prevented by the specific measures that cause all that harm, it might be worth it. But there isn’t.

And the TSA’s reactive security measures (and, more importantly, their personnel) are so specific and so inflexible as to be useless and relatively easy to circumvent.

A case in point: My father is an amputee, with a prosthetic leg. Because the ankle on his prosthesis does not bend, it’s difficult to get a shoe on and off of it. He has asked if he could just take his entire prosthetic leg off and put it through the x-ray scanner, because that’s easier for him. Nope. He has to take the shoe off so they can x-ray just the shoe in case it has a few ounces of explosives hidden in it. The prosthetic leg itself, which could easily conceal several pounds of explosives? That he can wear through the metal detector or body scanner.

onearmedspartan March 23, 2012 10:09 AM

The TSA providing information to local police of traveling Americans is completely against the 4th Amendment. They’re there to fly, obviously not to turn themselves in to police. And obviously they’re unarmed, otherwise they wouldn’t be allowed to fly (and therefore bring attention to themselves).

Why are the airlines hurting so much? Sure, the economy has partly to do with it. But its not gas prices and its not competition nor regulation. People have just chosen not to be molested, and have things stolen from them courtesy of big brother. Which brings me to another point. The TSA stealing from everyday Americans is the perfect crime.
-Americans expose all valuables to the agents by putting jewerly, wallets, laptops, cameras etc. on the belt. (the only exception is cash, but where do most people put cash anyway?! And lets say they hid it on themselves, if its more than 10k they have to report it anyway)
-They know they have authority over people.
-They know the victim will (likely) never know specifically which agent it was, or at what point of the security process it was stolen
-They know TSA has the video tapes so they will likely not release the tape under FOIA.

Let’s face it, the US doesn’t have deep pockets anymore. So with the billions of dollars the US spends on ignorant security, the terrorists have already won.

I’m sure this TSA tool will get his henchmen to click ‘disagree’ millions of times.

DanT March 23, 2012 10:38 AM

Actuarial death caused by TSA lines.

The most convincing argument I can think is the cost in time lost to individuals, that can be aggregated and converted to number of lives lived.

With the over 6 billion safe arrivals since 9/11, there should be hundreds of billions of extra hours spent in unnecessary additional waiting.

This is a huge loss of human life, not counting those who do not fly since it takes about as long to take alternative transportation forms. There are many more buses between NY city and Washington DC now, since it takes as long on the bus as it does to wait in line and then fly.

Fan Li March 23, 2012 10:39 AM

The big problem is that it is difficult to unravel this tangled mess into clearly debatable points.

The Authorities will want to play on your emotions and fears, almost as much as those hawking products: “What is a human life worth to you? And how much more hundreds or thousands of lives? Wouldn’t you rather spend the money to do ‘something’ even if ineffective, rather than do nothing at all?”

So, here we go:

First, show that most of the money is being spent on things that are not just ineffective, but counter-productive and even more dangerous than doing nothing. You don’t need our help there.

Next, agree that human life is worth extraordinary expenses. So why not proportionally allocate funds to combat heart disease, cancer, intoxicated drivers, suicide, etc.? They already know how many lives are lost each year to those things. Take available funds and divide them out accordingly. No fair stating definitively that, “x will prevent z lives lost,” if you don’t have actual data to back it up.

Don’t get caught up in the, “I’d like to hear what technologies Mr. Schneier thinks will work” bait. That’s not really the point.

Snarki, child of Loki March 23, 2012 10:39 AM

How would you detect an AQ sleeper agent in TSA, planting explosives in checked luggage while it’s being inspected outside of public view?

The current TSA setup is making the US more vulnerable to the type of terrorist attack used by Abu Nidal in 1985 against airports in Rome and Vienna.

High powered guns are insanely easy to obtain in the US, simple to bring to an airport, and the TSA gets the “targets” together in a compact mass for ease of massacre. Why, TSAs standard response to a “security breach” is to evacuate a terminal, making an even larger target available, just outside the scanners.

Mark S March 23, 2012 11:15 AM

It is difficult to argue against pro-security statements that are “partly” true. It may well be the case that an additional layer of security has improved the situation, or that by making it hard to repeat previously successful or near-successful attacks we push terrorists into more Rube Goldberg style attacks. Maybe.

Answering that is difficult, because it comes down to INDIVIDUAL cost-benefit balances, and we know that how individuals weigh risk is not mathematical or logical, but intuitive or fear-based.

Some of Mr Hawley’s positions are pure farce: for example, there have been no elephant attacks in MA since I joined my current singing group – you may thank me at your leisure. 🙂

If the facts are available to you, I think it would be interesting to cite actual costs, both domestic and foreign. How many trips canceled or postponed, how many flights missed, how many additional road-miles (less safe) than air-miles (safer). How many missed flights, or unnecessary trips at destinations to purchase toiletries?

I’m curious how the TSA (and the other Homeland Security procedures) have affected our international prospects. How many tourists have selected other destinations? How many guests at academic or professional conferences have failed to arrive? (And how many speakers?) How many international students are attending schools in other nations, in part because of the vagaries of our airline security, pre-approvals, investigations?

Another very difficult position to argue, is to what degree are we displacing people from airplanes because airline security is being used for purposes other than airline security? It’s hard to defend people with warrants as being worthy of equal access to air travel – but if people who have legal issues also want to travel, we’re displacing THEM into less safe modes of travel. And, by less safe, I mean that more cars on roads endanger us all in direct and indirect ways.

There is also the danger to the public in the creation of data banks on passengers – we can never trust that such data is used properly (as you know: conversion, inaccuracy, theft of data).

Poor Mr Hawley. He probably has fewer friends to call upon than you do in this debate. 🙂

NE Patriot March 23, 2012 11:19 AM

Hi Bruce;
You mention the erosion of trust in government and the TSA, the suppression of civil liberties, and the like, but you didn’t put a price tag on those issues. Your logic is tight, but whenever I see on the news that authorities are tightening security, and the accompanying man on the street interviews where the public says things like “it’s a hassle, but if it’s in the name of security, I’m all for it”, I know the battle is being lost. Intellectual arguments on civil liberties are well and good, but middle America doesn’t go for erudite arguments. (Look at the numbers of people who think Sarah Palin and Rick Santorum are worth believing in if you don’t buy that argument.)
We know why the DHS implementation of security measures is a bad thing. How do you make that case to the electorate in a way that gets votes?

Z.Lozinski March 23, 2012 11:22 AM

As several commenters have pointed out, much of the emphasis on airport security is about risk management not for the passengers, but for politicians and the screening services such as the TSA.

How did we get here?

I grew up in the UK when the IRA regularly bombed the mainland as well as Northern Ireland. My parents grew up in a world where the WW2 superpowers caused a fair amount of destruction. In both cases there was not the irrational “we must protect ourselves against every conceivable risk” but more the “keep calm and carry on” now reproduced on WW2 era merchandise. In two generations it seems we have lost the understanding that bad things happen, and that we both try and minimise them, while not allowing the demon of the day (Hitler, the IRA, AQ etc.) to ruin our lives both by their actions, and the response they cause.

How do we fix that? It would make Kip Hawley’s life easier too, as he would be dealing with an informed citizenry.

I can’t help feeling that the knee-jerk reaction of the media is partly to blame for how we got ourselves into this mess.

T Overhauser March 23, 2012 11:22 AM

It has been said by previous commenters, and is certainly true for me, I avoid air travel now due to what I feel are inappropriate intrusions by airport and TSA employees. I live in a smaller metropolitan area and know people who now work for TSA; they could not maintain their jobs at other public employer sites due to poor preformance. Now they work for TSA.

RSaunders March 23, 2012 11:56 AM

I’m in agreement with Paul. The key to the closing should be quantifiable assessment. I know you don’t have the data, time, or space to do it for the Economist, but that is no excuse for it not to have been done.

The US contains plenty of independent government labs and university research institutes full of folks with the highest security clearances. National Security is not a reason we can’t know the cost benefit ratio for the TSA’s measures. While it wouldn’t convince the conspiracy theorists, a peer-reviewed journal article in an established scientific publication would at least put some facts into the conversation.

Hawley is arguing past you, pointing that intelligence found the liquid bombers. Confiscating liquids is quicker and cheaper than testing them, so the liquid ban isn’t about catching terrorists, it is about preventing attacks economically. The TSA’s own actions reflect that they are considering costs, from their perspective. We need a neutral assessment to see if the TSA is 50% waste or 85% waste. The proposition doesn’t require they be 99% waste, so it can’t be disproved even by a success (if they have one someday).

Shaftway March 23, 2012 11:58 AM

Kip keeps lumping in intelligence with “airport security”. As I see it, airport security begins when you take the freeway off-ramp to the airport and ends when you’re back on the freeway.

From March 23, paragraph 17 he starts by talking about AHH. He goes on to trumpet this case as an example of the victory of airport security throughout the rest of his statement, but he also alludes to the fact that this person was caught by intelligence gathering, not the TSA, and not “airport security”.

In paragraph 21 he outright lumps intelligence gathering (which happened pre-9/11) with post 9/11 airport security.

The liquid bomb is also a particular good counter-example. The TSA had prior, specific knowledge of a threat, and dismissed it. It wasn’t until intelligence agencies caught people who were about to act (and really it wasn’t until the media made a big deal of it), that the TSA decided to follow that measure. That alone is a pretty good indicator that TSA procedures are less about preventing threats and more about showing that they’re preventing plots from being repeated.

“Never again” is particularly apt. You can execute pretty much anything you want. The TSA is just targetting never again.

Seth Schoen March 23, 2012 12:25 PM

It may be somewhat too deep in the weeds in this context, but I think the ID checks issue is still amazingly ridiculous, even years later.

At JFK on Wednesday afternoon, a TSA agent was spending almost one minute for every passenger meticulously checking that the name on their ID matched the name on their boarding pass. He would go back and forth and back and forth between the ID, the person’s face, the boarding pass, circling every fact on the boarding pass separately, getting the traveler to state their name and destination aloud, then circling them again. Then he checked that the IDs had been overprinted with UV-sensitive ink, including IDs that he didn’t recognize like random foreign passports for which he had to ask the traveler’s help (!) locating particular data fields.

Then he signed the boarding pass at the bottom, including his badge number.

Of course, he didn’t authenticate the boarding pass or any of its contents at all, and the gate agents didn’t even look at the circled data fields or signature or collect the boarding pass from the traveler. In fact, the gate agents themselves didn’t even authenticate the boarding pass qua document: they just held it as quickly as possible against a 2D barcode reader and listened for the “ding”, then returned it to the traveler.

Even the gate agents don’t know what the boarding pass should look like because it can be self-printed, or issued by a counter or gate agent at any airport in the world where that airline or any of its codeshare partners has a presence. And they don’t know whether it should be signed by a TSA agent because, thousands of times per day, the passenger is connecting (or on standby, or bumped from a flight) and never presented the onward flight boarding pass to TSA at all.

This is the same protocol that you and others criticized years ago, except it’s gotten slower because the agents have added more steps to the process. Now I have a boarding pass with a TSA agent’s ornate signature, which nobody but myself has ever even seen.

Guy Bailey March 23, 2012 1:05 PM

I want to reiterate part of Mark S’s comment:

The most insidious harm done by the TSA is that it makes the safest form of travel grossly inconvenient and unpleasant.

There is an cost in lives every time someone chooses to drive to their destination rather than fly.

Further still, this inconvenient and unpleasant experience encourages some to not travel at all, which arguably diminishes everyone’s quality of life. This effect is especially pronounced for many of those that already have diminished quality of life, e.g. the disabled, the elderly, etc.

The TSA’s security measures kill some, and degrade everyone.

Mike E March 23, 2012 1:15 PM

You are correct when you say that we have wasted $$ on funding the TSA. I think that you have missed the most important factor in how and why the TSA is ineffective: We are focused on explosives and knives. “Weapons” of physical violence. Let me ask a question of this group- Why are none of the “aware” people here thinking about non-violent weapons? They are the most effective weapons are they not?

Let me give an example: A woman, dressed professionally, carrying a laptop computer, and a small overnight bag enters the airport, checks-in with the airline, checks her overnight bag and proceeds through security with her laptop. The security check point scans her and her bag and they find nothing. Because this woman meets some arbitrary TSA criteria, she is separated for a hand search of her person and her bag, which she successfully clears. No weapons here. She boards her plane, travels to Atlanta where she changes planes for a flight to Chicago, where she transfers again for a flight to somewhere else. This business woman raises no suspicion, as she blends-in with the sea of other business travellers, yet as she boards her flight to “somewhere else”, airport workers and some travellers at her origination and in Atlanta are beginning to feel ill. The woman is sweating as she takes her seat in coach, and everyone assumes it is just the stagnate air of the parked aircraft. They think nothing of her as they read their magazine and wait to depart. As the plane climbs into the night sky over Chicago, the woman begins to feel discomfort in her stomach, perhaps she has the flu? As her flight continues, her deepening sickness is mirrored in the airports and hotels in Atlanta and Chicago, as well as in airports and cities around the country. People begin to get violently ill and die in large numbers. By the time the authorities realize that a biological attack has occurred, half of the population is dead or dying. How did this happen? Was the woman a terrorist? Perhaps not. Perhaps she was targeted by a terrorist who served her a contaminated coffee that morning as she waited in her hotel to go to the airport. Potentially millions killed by a single infected person who may not know they are the attack vector and we have no means of detection. No scanner, detector, or sexualized search could ever find that weapon. Our enemies already know this. We call ourselves secure, thanks to the TSA, but we are not secure at all.

Even in finding weapons of violence, I recently went through the ATL airport and TSA elected to take my wallet from me to “scan again”. They refused to let me remain in eye contact with my wallet. When they returned, they handed it to me and sent me on my way with no explanation. As I was putting my shoes back on a few feet away, I heard the man next to me say “oops, oh crap” and he quickly shoved a (rather large) pocket knife into his bag that had been clipped inside his pants at the belt-line. The TSA “borrowed” my wallet and money, and at the same time, allowed a pocket knife to enter the “Secure Area”. And my taxes paid for them to put me at risk.

Clive Robinson March 23, 2012 1:15 PM

@ Bruce,

As others have said the counter argument is emotive not factual.

Sometimes you have to fight fire with fire.

Take a leaf out of the Tea bag and go on about the money out of the “working persons wage”

Use expressions like “for a true American paying their taxes honestly on the average wage of XX Dollars the TSA cost each and every one of them YY dollars out of their pocket that they cannot spend on food or growing the economy”.

Also dig into the manufacturing history of those scanners I suspect that quite a large part of them are made abroad “at the expense of honest American jobs”

Imply that certain ex administration persons are making wast amounts of money from honest American workers and hiding it in tax free accounts and Mr Hawly is fully cognizant of that.

At the end of the day “the Great American Dream” has gone sour, people are wondering who’s stolen the money out of their pockets and lives, showing a causal link to the TSA under Mr H etc without return will kill his emotional pleas as the words will just look like that of a con artist.

Bill J. March 23, 2012 1:23 PM

I drove an old Buick for many years through North Georgia deer country and never hit a deer. And my car was never stolen. Guess that proves without doubt that deer whistles and The Club both work.

Ben Sauer March 23, 2012 3:23 PM

6 Billion People wasting an average of an extra 10 minutes of their lives is a billion wasted hours. The average person lives somewhere around 80 years so we’re talking about 1500 people’s lives worth of time spent in extra airport security.

jeg3 March 23, 2012 3:52 PM

Get together with Mathbabe and do a statistical analysis. Which in my guess the TSA efforts are mostly theatre and an affront to American values. likely to be as effective as teacher evaluations:

In reality terrorist can any target and not just airports, are we to turn America into one big prison? Wait we are already heading in that direction.

James Morgan March 23, 2012 4:01 PM

“Airport security” is much more than the TSA and checkpoints; it has to be a connected network that links global intelligence, law enforcement, military and private-sector counter-terrorism resources.

Kip Hawley is trying to redefine the debate as an all or nothing proposition. He’s trying to conflate the discussion on whether the TSA is being wasteful and harmful with the larger issue of counter-terrorism. While I can’t speak to his motives it comes off to me as disingenuous.
The hyperbolic analogy would be a doctor proscribing to a cancer patient a fairly normal set of drugs and chemo but with the addition that they get punch in the face each morning. When the patient complains that he wishes he could spend less on getting assaulted and more on traditional treatments the doctor replies “Cancer treatment is much more than just being punched in the face; it has to be connected to chemo and other measures.”
Well thanks doc, but I’m betting that if we created a Venn diagram of “Effective cancer treatment” and “Being punched in the face” the two circles would overlap a great deal.

I’m left with the feeling that Kip Hawley’s statement really means “Airport security” is much more than the TSA and checkpoints; because TSA and checkpoints don’t really contribute to “Airport security”, therefor I need to justify TSA and checkpoints on the backs of other people’s work.

No One March 23, 2012 4:51 PM

I like Ben Sauer’s line of reasoning, personally. How many man-hours get lost to the post-9/11 security theater? How many deaths does that equate to as a result?

Not only is your anti-terrorism-rock not preventing terrorism, it’s actually slowly killing as many people as the terrorism it’s meant to prevent…

Jim Huggins March 23, 2012 5:33 PM

I just posted a remark on the moderator’s rebuttal. If you want to talk about actual harm done by TSA, you might refer to the RAND report that estimates the number of deaths attributable to TSA’s new policies — because of people deliberately choosing to drive rather than fly, combined with the much higher incidence of fatalities in automobile travel rather than air travel.

Michael March 23, 2012 6:05 PM

I’m a computer software professional, and will not travel to the US, even if asked to do so by my employer. Roving (inland) TSA squads, intrusive security at airports, detentions, laptop scans, and am I right in thinking that I’d have DNA or finger prints taken on entry?

Land of the free? Don’t make me laugh.

Jeremy March 23, 2012 6:24 PM

Bruce, you asked what to say next. Based on the two arguments you have already given, I would say you have already won. So rather than continue to repeat your comments, might I suggest you request readers who agree with you to engage in political action to end the TSA? Ask them to sign a “We the People” petition on the White House’s web site and request they vote out politicians who refuse to end the TSA. Popular opinion is behind you at the moment, so I suggest that now it the time for real action.

Adrian March 23, 2012 6:30 PM

Some costs:

Not being able to lock luggage makes us more susceptible to theft.

Identity requirements (Secure Flight) make us more susceptible to identity fraud because we’re required to disclose PII to the airlines. A huge cache of of names, addresses, phone numbers, birthdates, and credit card numbers is a juicy target for criminals and is ripe for abuse. That makes me less secure. Do you know how often I’ve found a dropped drivers license at airports since all this ID nonsense began?

Unknown risks due to radiation from the x-ray backscatter machines. While the dosages may be low (as measured, when measured), the safety guidelines were largely decided by the industry and the TSA and required the FDA to back off the long standing policy that no x-ray radiation was justified unless there was a medical benefit. Also, there is a lack of study on the effects of focused x-ray radiation, such as the effects on the corneas.

Are the air marshals fair game in the debate? Aren’t I more at risk from being the victim of a crime committed by an air marshal than I am to benefit from the chance of the air marshal stopping or even deterring criminal action?

James March 23, 2012 6:53 PM

I have practical problems with the TSA in terms of inconvenience and irritation. But I think my main problem is philosophical in a way; it is that the ongoing management of airport security checks seems to have an irreversible quality. Where is the mechanism which scales back the response as the threat level falls? It doesn’t seem to exist.

X March 23, 2012 6:59 PM

Before this TSA security theater, a person could smuggle a small quantity of explosive quite easily through a metal detector. It might or might not have been enough to take out a plane, or hurt anyone further away than a few feet.

Now they can wheel a cart, loaded with a ton, as in 2000 lbs, of explosives up to the security line where all those people are standing.

I seem to recall stories of security outside high schools, and the lines waiting to get in, and folks getting shot while waiting in line…

If you get a chance to call this guy out, you ought to bring up how these X-ray scanners MOVE. How hardware fails over time. And what happens when this hardware fails? Will someone get all that radiation in one spot? Will it be fatal? Will the TSA personnel realize what is happening? Or will they just keep killing passengers one after another?

Fuse March 23, 2012 8:19 PM

Bruce, I believe your plans for the next round are convincing. May I suggest that in addition to the harms you list, you also include some quantifiable harms, or at least harms that have the potential to be quantified.

I no longer fly. I refuse to be sexually assaulted (being viewed naked without consent is a form of sexual assault, just as surely as the TSA officer touching my genitals is sexual assault). Due to this entirely reasonable position, I am about to board a (rather expensive) train for a two-day trek across the country which could have been accomplished in a six hour flight. (Well, six hours, plus 3 waiting around the airport for “security”.) I spent more time planning and not working, as not flying increased the complexity of the trip. I am incurring increased rental car costs due to arriving in a less ideal location. For this upcoming trip, I could quantify the harm precisely, in hours and dollars.

Other personal harms, some quantifiable, some not, which can be extrapolated to the harms of the many:

  • I incur an increased time and monetary cost to travel.
  • My risk of dying has increased due to the increase in using less safe modes of transportation.
  • My constitutional rights have been violated. My right to the navigable airspace has been made contingent on waiving my right to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures.
  • Opportunity cost. My tax dollars are wasted on the TSA rather than diverted to an area where they could be effective.
  • Economic harm – I may lose my job if alternate travel arrangements (i.e. rail) aren’t approved by my employer, which requires travel.
  • Economic harm to the airline industry – I avoid air travel entirely. I prefer to spend my leisure dollars elsewhere.
  • Economic harm – Lost tourism dollars. My overseas relatives refuse to visit due in part to the intrusive “security.” Someone aptly said that foreigners are obviously not wanted in the US.

The TSA is a large, expensive organization which inconveniences millions of people. If only we could say it set a precedent — it seems to be just the latest in a string of poorly-justified experiments on the American people. What terrifies me more than the abstract possibility of being blown up on a plane, is that the TSA had the potential to be a well-run organization. If they were, there’d be no hope of them ever disbanding, and no hope of reclaiming my stolen constitutional rights. In this way, it is a blessing that they are such an ineffective joke, as it leaves open the possibility their incompetence will be noticed and they will be dissolved. I am actually terrified that they will someday get their act together, and people will then settle into a state of ignorant tolerance.

There may be a slight domestic economic benefit, in that I’m visiting domestic leisure destinations instead of those abroad. But if things get much worse here, I’m leaving the country and going home. (No hyperbole. Seriously considering. This “Land of the Free” business is a joke.)

John David Galt March 23, 2012 9:51 PM

[Cross-posted to The Economist’s own comment section.]

Dear Sir,
Schneier’s main point is right on: attacks on airliners are no longer an important vulnerability, if they ever were. All of the attempts since 9/11 have been thwarted by the other passengers, acting to defend themselves just as they did on Flight 93.

But I would go further. I believe that even the security regime that was in place before 9/11, which used metal detectors to try to prevent anyone from flying with a weapon, did more harm than good, and in fact led directly to the success of the 9/11 attacks. I offer these points in favor.

  1. Before 9/11, the main perceived threat to airliners was hijackers who would force the pilot to fly to some unintended destination and hold the crew and passengers for ransom. But to my knowledge, the last person ever to try this was “D.B. Cooper”, who parachuted out of the plane somewhere over northern California in 1978 and is believed to have died in the fall.

What ended this threat was neither the metal detectors, nor SWAT teams and tactics, nor even the “Cooper vane” that was deployed after that attack. No, it was the cooperation of banks and law enforcement agencies worldwide, which has made it impossible for the hijacker to collect his ransom payment without having police waiting for him on the spot. Indeed, I don’t believe there has been a kidnapping for ransom anywhere in the rich world since then, for the same reason.

  1. “Gun free zones” anywhere are invitations to crime. Setting foot in one is like painting a target on your own head. Crime statistics bear this out. Even though the passengers aboard the three planes that hit the bad guys’ targets on 9/11 believed they were merely being hijacked for ransom, they would never have been cowed by three or four men per plane holding box cutters if the rest of the passengers hadn’t been systematically disarmed before boarding.
  2. And of course, the main effects of TSA’s new security regime has been to persuade millions of people, like myself, to drive rather than fly (both because TSA agents can steal your paid-for flight, without liability, just because they think you disagree with them; and because their baggage inspectors are well known, both for stealing valuables from people’s luggage and for having destroyed any gadget they don’t understand). The switch to driving has cost, and continues to cost, thousands of lives per year in increased accident risk. But I and many others would rather pay that price than put ourselves in the hands of the un-answerable Keystone Gestapo.

Abolish the TSA while we still have some semblance of a free country to go back to. Until that happens, the terrorists have won.

Snarki, child of Loki March 23, 2012 10:23 PM

@JD Galt:
I’m quite sure there were hijackings after DB Cooper, going into the mid-80’s.

BUT, I do recall that at one point the hijacker was shot and killed by an detective that happened to be on the plane. After that, the hijackings STOPPED.

TSA security only has to be good enough to get terrorists to redirect to softer targets, although saying so out loud would be political suicide. Those ‘softer targets’ exist in abundance, while it’s trivial to get insanely powerful guns to stage such attacks.

Probably the correct approach is to ramp down obvoius TSA security in a major way, greatly increase intelligence and other non-obvious security (cameras, plain-clothes agents, etc) to create a ‘honeypot’.

But since the TSA’s main function is political butt-covering, nothing sensible will be done until AQ completely infiltrates TSA and stages a major attack.

Figureitout March 24, 2012 12:25 AM


As tempting as it may be to go emotive, (Clive hinted here, it’s one of my personal favorite debate strategies, it strikes a chord in humans) maintain your current strategy, your winning right now by 74%.

The arguments put forward by Kip are “evasive”, PR-like, and just overall not convincing.

A senior intelligence official once told me that AHH was one of a hundred guys like him. They are not done yet. However you decide to vote here, I respectfully suggest that at some point we need to come together and find a common way forward.
–Sounds like a resignation to me..?

One last thing, here’s a great quote from a PopSci article that bcs posted a little while back, there are no radioactive detectors in airports; which would be close to #1 threat to mitigate in my opinion.

“There are no radiation detectors in airports,” Taylor says. “Except for one pilot project, and I can’t tell you which airport that’s at.”

As the skycap weighs the box, I scan the “prohibited items” sign. You can’t take paints, flammable materials or water on a commercial airplane. But sure enough, radioactive materials are not listed.

We land in Reno and make our way toward the baggage claim. “I hope that box held up,” Taylor says, as we approach the carousel. “And if it didn’t, I hope they give us back the radioactive goodies scattered all over the airplane.” Soon the box appears, adorned with a bright strip of tape and a note inside explaining that the package has been opened and inspected by the TSA. “They had no idea,” Taylor says, smiling, “what they were looking at.”

Will March 24, 2012 12:59 AM

Most people have a hard time understanding large numbers like the TSA’s 8 billion dollar budget, so I think its useful to point out other things that amount of money could be used for. For instance its about the same as the FBI budget.
Or its enough to give $40,000 to 200,000 people per year. If you used it to pay for medical expenses its easy to see it saving a lot more lives than the TSA.

salach March 24, 2012 4:19 AM

An attack on an airplane is a major event with far-reaching effects on all the world, while car accidents, as far as the rest of the world is affected, are not. Sad to say it, but is is our lousy nature as humans.

From the TSA’s point of view – once its your responsibility to protect aviation you need to do SOMETHING.

The name of the game is putting the volume control at a reasonable level. Not turning it down to zero (you hear nothing) and not putting it on ten (making you practically deaf – so you also hear nothing). Once you figure in the economics – putting the volume control at 3-4 is the way to go.

Airport & aviation SHOULD be there, but MUST not be exterme, rendering it useless, while causing a lot of damage.

Ari Maniatis March 24, 2012 4:25 AM


  1. You are quite mistaken. There have been a number of other hijackings and attempted hijackings. None since 2000 since of course any hijackers now know that they could not count on compliant crew and passengers, nor could they ever convince pilots to open the cockpit door.
  2. Your pro gun stance betrays a uniquely American aberration. I think you will find that there are few other countries in the world with such a large population who believe that they are safer around a whole lot of devices which are capable of causing death. Whether your constitution is responsible for this sentiment, or is used as a convenient excuse, I am not sure. But I think you will find people in many other parts of the world smile politely [1] when Americans tell us that they feel so much safer in a society where the entire population is armed and capable of causing death or serious injury at just the squeeze of a trigger.

[1] Smiling politely is the best thing to do when you come across an armed citizen yelling about their rights.

Adam March 24, 2012 11:09 AM

TSA’s actions are subsidizing and ‘normalizing’ intrusion in other places, such as the use of nudatrons at the superbowl, and nudatrons with recording turned on at a (Florida courthouse?)

Asa J March 24, 2012 11:50 AM

Were you uninvited from the Government Oversight Hearing on the TSA scheduled 3/26/12? Or did something come up where you cancelled?

RSaunders March 24, 2012 12:08 PM


ID checks are two-part theatre. The Airlines like them because it prevents a secondary market in airline tickets. Let’s say you buy a discounted ticket to go someplace on vacation and something comes up at work. The airline considers your ticket non-refundable, so they keep your money. You could just sell it on Craigslist, where you’d be a lot cheaper than the airline’s last-minute fares, except the TSA Safe Flight system prevents that.

Why would the TSA do this for airlines? So that the airline industry lobby doesn’t call them out for being a waste of money. Plus, a double benefit from the TSA agenda, it reinforces that “everyone in the industry” agrees with the notion of a secret list of people too dangerous to fly or consider “innocent until proven guilty” but not dangerous enough to arrest or detain. This secret list is something the TSA does, that they claim is worth doing, that’s pretty hard to go along with unless you’re reaping a big business benefit. Thanks airlines, you’re putting your profits ahead of your customers, again.

kashmarek March 24, 2012 2:01 PM

If someone has already mentioned this, forgive me…

TSA is not there for security reasons. They are there for security theater. The purpose is to keep the attention of the general public focused on TSA so they don’t notice what else is going on. TSA is a necessary and real distraction to mask all behind the scenes activity (when no longer needed it will be eliminated). The real problem begins when someone announces they are eliminating TSA and you should be worried about what is going to happen next.

Sean March 24, 2012 2:07 PM

I whistle all the time to prevent white elephant attacks.

It’s proven effective ever since childhood when I was introduced to the devastating effects of a white elephant attack by a rather cruel uncle who loves pranks and practical jokes. His detailed story on being slung around on the end of a white elephant’s trunk before being battered against trees just short of fatal bodily damage before being squeezed for hours on end beneath its feet convinced me that I never wanted to suffer that fate. I’ve been whistling ever since.

Thank you Uncle Ron and also thank you Uncle Sam for reinforcing the need to be ever vigilant against this awful potential disaster.

Erin March 24, 2012 2:47 PM

I’m amazed you haven’t mentioned the possibility of a terrorist attacking a security checkpoint. The lines waiting for the checkpoints are so long and the area there is so crowded…

The other thing I think needs to be brought up is the question “What is the intent of terrorism?” The intent of terrorism is not to kill people. It is to create terror and destroy liberty. Based on that understanding, it seems that the TSA has assisted the terrorists in succeeding with their goal.

Erin March 24, 2012 3:04 PM

One more issue — I don’t know how this fits in, but one of the worst things in my opinion is that you can’t turn back once you reach the security checkpoint. So, if I were to go to the airport without knowing about the backspatter x-ray or getting groped, and I found out when I reached the checkpoint, I would be breaking the law to say that those options were outside what I was willing to go through. That is a direct breach of my rights.

tOM March 24, 2012 3:30 PM

I think you should address the human cost of no-fly lists which have resulted in many people being stranded in land-locked countries, including Americans and Canadians. If someone is “suspicious”, why not just up the security on them?

Jony Rosenne March 24, 2012 4:57 PM

Don’t forget Mumbai. For real security, the TSA should extend its reach to all the coasts of the US and check every fishing boat and yacht.

Ken March 24, 2012 7:01 PM

The no-fly list bothers me. If someone is suspected of being dangerous to allow to fly, then subject them to the infamous “more intrusive secondary search”. If this search finds them clean, they should be permitted to fly. No one should be forbidden from flying just because of their name without evidence.
I fear that the purpose of the no-fly list is to prevent transport of something that no secondary search no matter how intrusive could hope to discover and confiscate, namely the ideas the person carries inside their head. By thwarting transportation, it slows the dissemination of those ideas. Complicated ideas are often better communicated in person rather than over a medium.
I am repulsed by a government that would seek to prevent the spread of ideas under the guise from preventing terrorism.

Geoff Bailey March 24, 2012 8:48 PM

(Context: I live in Australia.) For what it’s worth, one of the factors that puts me off every time I contemplate visiting America is the purported intrusiveness and unreasonableness of the TSA’s actions. (It is possible that I may be getting Customs and TSA confused, but since I would aim to fly domestically once there then I feel it still applies.)

There are other factors, admittedly, but they have dwindled and that has increased as time goes on. So there is, in tiny part, economic and social harm being done due to me staying here instead of visiting friends and places of interest in the USA. I cannot reasonably say how to extrapolate this.

I like the suggestions that have already been made about turning the loss of people’s time into lifespans. For an average lifespan of 80 years (an overestimate in order to be conservative), an hour’s wait represents a little over 1.4 micromorts.

Another already-made suggestion that I think is worth focusing on is the increased harm due to people using other methods of travel instead of flying (by inferrence deterred from flying by the TSA’s policies). That includes death statistics from road accidents, but also general costs of pollution, etc.

I feel that the debate so far has done a reasonable job of establishing that little-to-no good has been achieved by the TSA, but to address the topic it is necessary to additionally show that harm has been done. While I agree in the significant harm of the possible suggestions that Bruce listed above, they end up being somewhat nebulous. The two facets I mentioned above at least seem somewhat quantifiable, which may help add weight to this side of the debate.

One final remark: I feel that Kip has attempted to make a point that has not been conveyed adequately or has been misinterpreted. (I am happy to concede that the misinterpretation may be mine.) With the liquid explosives plot, the point is not that the TSA had anything to do with catching the planners; rather, it is that the measures that they introduced in response (the highly unpopular liquids rule) made attempts to use that idea much more difficult for hypothetical terrorists. Although the main plotters had been caught before they could implement this attack (or so I gather), the information had most likely already been disseminated and there was an expectation that further attempts would be made with this attack vector in mind.

This is the good that he is trying to say was done: A known potential attack — that was believed to be quite likely to be attempted — was made more difficult to achieve by crude and imperfect methods, thereby providing the crucial factor of time for a better defense to be put in place (as he suggests is now done, or at least possible).

QnJ1Y2U March 24, 2012 11:14 PM


You’re correct that Hawley is attempting to make a point about defending against liquid-based explosives, but we’d have to be very generous to allow any claim that he had actually made the point.

Bypassing the ‘baggie’ defense (Hawley’s term for the liquid size restrictions) is trivial – just search this blog for ‘saline’ for an example. Hawley’s only argument for how the baggie has improved anything is an unsubstantiated “it works”.

Geoff Bailey March 25, 2012 12:28 AM

@QnJ1Y2U: Sure; I’m not intending to make any claims as to whether the point that I attribute to him is defensible. Merely that the comments in response to that topic have been aimed at a different facet that does not address what I saw as his intended argument. There’s not much point demolishing a claim that is not being advanced.

eastside March 25, 2012 1:46 AM

Ask why theft from checked baggage is still so rampant. One of the contributors to the volume of carry-on luggage is that putting portable electronics or camera gear into your checked baggage is asking to be ripped off.

Then there’s the obvious follow-on question of, hey if criminals can take stuff OUT of bags, might they also put things in?

Jim March 25, 2012 3:25 PM

Man, I read what that guy is writing. The thing is that he is such a liar. Liar liar liar pants on fire. I wouldn’t want to try to debate him in a civilized way.

His real motive is just to bamboozle the citizenry into accepting more restrictions on our liberties, fact.

Scott March 25, 2012 4:39 PM

If the TSA had scared terrorists away from targeting planes, then we would have seen attacks of comparable difficulty and damage at some other media-friendly targets.

There are many such targets, but not many stories about the terrorists who’ve attacked them.

Thanks for fighting the good fight.

Jonathan Wilson March 25, 2012 8:14 PM

Normal people will always be very scared about events with big consequences that they have no control over (such as an earthquake or a hurricane or a terrorist attack)

And anytime these events happen, there will be demands to do something so that it cant happen again. Or more specifically governments want to be seen to be doing something.

For example after Katrina the government needed to be seen to be fixing the problems (e.g. inadequate flood barriers, useless government agencies like FEMA). People didn’t care if the problems were being fixed so much as they cared that it LOOKED like something was being done to stop thins being so bad next time.

Its the same with the TSA and airport security, what matters is that they are seen to be doing something about the problem (and that means any time a new
“threat” appears, they have to make further changes to counter this new threat, no matter whether the threat is genuine or not)

Puffy March 26, 2012 7:19 AM

Erin: I’m amazed you haven’t mentioned the possibility of a terrorist attacking a security checkpoint.

It hasn’t been mentioned because this debate is, well, about airplane security.

But yeah, if you take a step back you realise there’s plenty of other crowded targets. In today’s day and age the airplane hijacking has become a sort of craze, a cliche. I don’t really see why a terrorist with two braincells would still target airplanes.

AJ Finch March 26, 2012 10:44 AM

I just don’t fly anymore. It’s sad, but I’m not prepared to subject myself to bullying by my government and its employees.

QnJ1Y2U March 26, 2012 12:07 PM

Here’s a specific way we could better spend part of that eight billion dollars a year:

From the article: According to some estimates, between 180,000 and 400,000 rape kits remain untested nationwide … The kits … can cost $1,200 to $1,500 to test.

Basically, instead of spending money solving real crimes, we’re spending it trying to prevent imagined crimes.

TNA March 27, 2012 4:22 AM

There is a way to estimate the number of attacks (commited by a bad man with a bit of intelligence) against airports which have been avoided by airport security measures.
It is proportional to the number of attack commited in such country by someone who has flew-in few days before: he would have avoided airport attacks because of the security measures.
That assumes the attacker is a foreign man, and that you can find bomb constituent (like liquids) inside said country.

BDJ March 28, 2012 5:00 PM

“The single greatest threat to aviation was hydrogen-peroxide-based liquid explosives smuggled on board planes.”

I can’t imagine there has been any point in history when hydrogen-peroxide liquid explosives have been a greater threat to aviation than poor maintenance, overworked airline/airport employees, wind patterns at airports, or any other issue that has caused crashes, emergency landings, delays, etc.

David Harmon March 30, 2012 8:07 AM

I’ve got two suggestions for “what to talk about next”.

1) “Follow the money” — figure out and reveal who’s actually benefiting from the spurious measures.

2) … with a special focus on the aggregate value of both the resale of “officially” confiscated items, and the routine thefts from passenger luggage.

rmulligan April 1, 2012 9:01 PM

It is time to gain some quantifiable facts and present them to Washington. Let’s start with the machines: What are the specs for safely operation the machines? Are they calibrated, how often? By who? Is there an independent audit to id compliance. What are the ramifications if the machines are not operated correctly. Are the operators trained and retested on a regular basis. Has an independent scientific study been done to evaluate the safety? What about a survey of random population of flyers to gain a clearer understanding of the ramifications on them personally after going through the process, if any. We need numbers and people to speak from a scientific perspective. The emotional perspective is out there and lets keep that up and continue to couple with logic and reason.

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