On the Ineffectiveness of Airport Security Pat-Downs

I’ve written about it before, but not half as well as this story:

“That search was absolutely useless.” I said. “And just shows how much of all of this is security theatre. You guys are just feeling up passengers for no good effect, which means that you get all the downsides of a search—such as annoyed travellers who feel like they have had their privacy violated—without any of the benefits. I could have hidden half a dozen items on my person that you wouldn’t have had a snowball’s chance in a supernova of finding. That’s what I meant.”

“Sir, are you hiding something?” he said, and as he did, I saw three other security guys coming our way. Oh dear.

“Of course not.” I said. “But if I had wanted to, I could have.”

“Why do you have such a problem with being searched?” another security guy said, presumably the first guy’s supervisor.

“Look, I have absolutely no problem with being searched. But if you’re going to do it, do it properly—the plane is no safer at all after this gentleman half-heartedly stroked me for a couple of seconds” I said.

“How do you mean?” the supervisor asked.

“He was stroking me as if he was trying to get me to sleep with him, not as if he was trying to find anything on me.” I said. “I’ve been searched many, many times, and in this case, I could have hidden things in my socks, taped to my thigh, taped to the small of my back, the insides of my upper arms, under my testicles or anywhere on my buttocks.”

“Why have you been searched so many times?” the supervisor asked sharply.

“I’m a police officer. I help train other police officers. When we search someone, we assume that the person who searches us may have a knife or something else they can use to harm us, so we search properly. And yes, this means that you have to take a firm grip of somebody’s groin, yes, this means that you search even the parts that are less comfortable to have searched, and yes, this means that you’re probably going to incur a couple of sexual harassment accusations along the way.” I nodded at the security guard who had searched me. “This fellow here did by far the most useless search I have ever been subjected to, and if I wanted to, I could have smuggled half a dozen knives onto the flight. I don’t have a problem with being searched at all—in fact, if you guys think it’s necessary, I’d be the first to admit that I look a little bit suspicious before I’ve had my first cup of coffee in the morning—but if you’re going to stroke me gently in front of hundreds of people, you’d better buy me a fucking drink first, is all I am saying.”

The security supervisor was standing there, frozen at my rant.

Posted on November 5, 2012 at 6:19 AM36 Comments


Darryl Daugherty November 5, 2012 6:47 AM

Your life is in the hands of people who couldn’t get a job guarding the parking lot at Walmart.

The fact that no airliners have fallen from the sky on TSA’s incompetent watch is the best available proof that AQ has been defanged.

Captain Obvious November 5, 2012 7:59 AM

TSA Public Sevice Announcement: Strip searches and sodomy now authorized and mandatory. Enjoy your flight.

Arthur November 5, 2012 8:03 AM

So, where’s his outrage about the abuse of process? They’re trying to intimidate him after he refuses to take it like a good little sheep, and the only reason they’re not harassing him further in the end is that he is indeed a cop and that he’s got the badge to prove it.

Jan Schejbal November 5, 2012 8:26 AM

Welcome to the watch list.

He mentions his return flight. I hope he will be allowed on board.

Me November 5, 2012 8:27 AM

Careful, Matt Delito talks a good game but there are things that don’t ring true about being a Met officer so I guess he’s either an ex officer or there is some extrapolation based on his having been a PCSO or a volunteer. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-19519551 this guy did an outstanding job of fooling people.

RonK November 5, 2012 8:31 AM

And somehow, miraculously, we anyway have pretty good flight security even with only security theater protecting us! How interesting!

TSA: We need mega-amount more $$ for better equipment!

Logic: Everything was OK with sub-standard equipment, so that shows that, actually, you don’t need it.

DaveH November 5, 2012 8:34 AM

If you read the entire article, you will see that it is Britian, the author produced his warrant card (police ID for you non-Commonwealth types) as identification, and the supervisor took the guy performing the “search” off for what was likely a good reaming out.

He has a point though, in that the search as it was performed was useless. The question of if the infringment upon liberties from an effective search is “worth it” is another question. I would hazard a guess: no. There are other much more effective and less invasive methods.

Autolykos November 5, 2012 8:54 AM

@RonK: And to take it one step further: If they claim they can’t do their job with the equipment they have, we don’t need THEM, either.

Autolykos November 5, 2012 8:56 AM

@DaveH: Something that does not work can, by definition, not be “worth it”, because it isn’t worth anything.

John David Galt November 5, 2012 9:05 AM

The more stories like this I hear, the more I’m inclined to believe that the real reason for the searches isn’t terrorism at all, it’s to condition the public to put up with outrageous acts by police.

@Arthur: Of course he’s not going to say it’s abuse of process; if he had the scruples to see that it is, he wouldn’t be a cop himself.

DaveH November 5, 2012 9:13 AM

@Autolykos: I said an “effective” search. In other words, the much more in depth and infringing search. I doubt you would find support for the getting the style of search someone being admitted to prision undergoes everytime you want to board an aircraft. Which is what you would need to do to be truly “effective”.

DaveH November 5, 2012 9:15 AM

Bah, I really need to double check (triple actually, as I did double check) my grammar. Sorry all, I don’t intend to come across as a YouTube commenter or something. I have multiple university degrees, I swear.

clintp November 5, 2012 9:50 AM

From one of the comments, from context possibly someone who knows their training: “Also do you think it was appropriate to slate the guy (even though he didn’t help himself I agree) in public rather than have a quiet word with a supervisor to the quality of the search?”

I think the last thing anyone should want is to have a quiet word in private with anyone from the TSA (or its Brit equivalent). Any discussion should be in public and loud enough to be picked up by cell-phone cameras of passers-by. Polite and civil, but very public and obvious. Once you’re out of earshot of the cameras is when the rubber truncheons come out and nobody can prove anything about why you’re on a No-Fly list and walking funny.

The TSA only responds to fault when its stupidity is broadcast.

BrandonA November 5, 2012 9:57 AM

Repeat after me:

TSA security agents are not trained law enforcement officers.

They are not trained to know jack squat about the law, are not trained about the inalienable rights of citizens. They are not schooled about the scope and limits of the state’s power to search. They are not paid enough to be LEOs, and if they were LEOs the cost of the program would be so outrageous that even the most fascist, paranoid, anti-Islamic Senator would balk at backing the program.

DaveH November 5, 2012 10:01 AM


And if they did do “effective” searches as a matter of routine, the price would be astronomical even with the current pay levels, as such searches take more time and effort.

Matt November 5, 2012 10:02 AM

Why are you all ripping on the TSA? The incident described took place in England. TSA had nothing to do with it.

I’m not one to defend TSA (and I would never attack the line employees; they’re just doing their jobs, and the policies are not their decision; it’s the higher-ups that deserve our scorn), but everyone who replied to this article about TSA’s flaws has demonstrated that they are just as careless.

SnallaBolaget November 5, 2012 10:33 AM

You haven’t written about this. This is about a lack of technique, not about airport security itself.
The lack of training is obvious, in the UK (where this incident took place), but especially with the TSA. Useless, undertrained or unqualified people are everywhere, and that’s a whole other issue than airport security itself.

Autolykos November 5, 2012 10:40 AM

@DaveH: And I doubt even that would do much to deter determined attackers (i.e. the ones that don’t care about whether their actions are still economical). After all, we still have lots of weapons, drugs and other banned items in prisons.
@Matt: That story might not be about the TSA, but any argument made there applies to them as well. They use the same methods (judging from their wage, probably even less skilled than the British officers), cost more money for inefficient bureaucracy and technological gizmos and are less concerned about violating the privacy of passengers. In short, they are equally as useless, and at least as damaging.

bcs November 5, 2012 12:09 PM

So the US doesn’t have a monopoly on Douchebag security? I’m not sure if that’s nice to know or not.

Anders November 5, 2012 12:32 PM

Not for nothing, but a half dozen folks could build a bomb on the other side of the “wall” and wire it up with a few batteries and a Timex.

The TSA is a waste of time and money.

TSA_Stops_Unemployment November 5, 2012 12:39 PM

The security show aside…

TSA has provided people jobs who could not find work anywhere else. Ty to the individuals the continue to provide proof using the latest FUD to keep America employed.

Figureitout November 5, 2012 1:21 PM

@Thierry Zolle
–My sentiments too (except this wasn’t TSA). We shouldn’t be egging these people on, they just need someone to scream in their ears to not touch me and f-off. This was also a clear demonstration of one’s ability to “take charge” of a situation; typically requires anger.

grumpy November 5, 2012 1:46 PM

@Matt’s comment “they’re just doing their jobs, and the policies are not their decision” – bullseye wrong. Just following orders can NEVER be an excuse to violate other peoples rights. A government is not some remote, abstract idea, it’s a lot of people doing various stuff at various times, some of them giving orders, others following orders. If any civil servant stays in the job, they should automatically be assumed to support the rules they enforce and the orders they follow. Each and every one of them has to be absolutely accountable for his/her actions or we have a total breakdown of the rule of law. I honestly can’t see democracy working properly any other way. You may disagree but over here in Rightpondia we’ve seen a couple of variations over this theme and it wasn’t pretty.

nycman November 5, 2012 2:23 PM

I would hate to be the person searched by the guy after he was reamed. The remaining passengers on that shift must’ve gotten the full on Level II search. Geez, am I the only one that things doing the ineffective searches is BETTER than doing a real effective search? We all know it’s theater. Likely the security officers know it’s all theater. Their bosses know it’s theater. The politicians know it’s theater. But they all know they have to keep up appearances for nervous Nellie and others afraid of Big Terror. So let them all keep up appearances. So we can get through a little bit faster. Remember, you DON’T want the effective (i.e. very intrusive) search every time you board a flight.

Chromatix November 5, 2012 3:51 PM

Perhaps the point made here is that if a sufficiently thorough search were regularly performed, it would be far too intrusive to be acceptable to the travelling public.

So what we end up with is the worst of several different worlds – the search is already intrusive enough to discomfit the average traveller (never mind a parent with children), while it is also ineffective at genuinely stopping a determined attacker, and meanwhile the public perception of a threat is reinforced by the fact that a search is performed at all – perpetuating the state of terror that the enemy wants in the first place.

As Bruce has pointed out several times before, metal detectors, luggage X-rays, a sturdily locked cockpit door and informed passengers who will actively counter a brewing threat are all that is really required to prevent a successful attack. We already had the first two after Lockerbie, and 9/11 precipitated the latter two.

Yawn November 5, 2012 8:44 PM

Another “story” from the “yeah but I should have said” pile. “Yes” its useless, “No” it didn’t go down like that.

987654 November 6, 2012 12:07 AM

…. it’s also used as a convenient excuse to sexually assault people and get away with it, I noticed.

Autolykos November 6, 2012 4:20 AM

@987654: Like John Galt a little upthread, I’m beginning to suspect that’s the whole point of it.

Tetracycloide November 6, 2012 6:51 AM

You guys are missing the most important line in the story. The officers response to being questioned on the usefulness of the search past performance wise “do you need to be searched again?” that is insane.

Dirk Praet November 6, 2012 4:45 PM

This is actually known as “a Belgian compromise”, i.e. an inefficient solution that nobody is happy with and which despite a stiff price tag is bordering on utter uselessness. It is usually instated to avoid a complete deadlock on a particular matter, in the process misleading the general public that the problem has been solved.

In general, it is accompanied by a tax raise or other form of cashing in on the issue and the final phrasing of the solution deliberately kept as vague as possible so all arguing factions can claim victory and interpret it any way they want. Execution or enforcement in the field most of the time proves impossible because nobody understands what exactly is supposed to be done, who is in charge or what other compromises it is conflicting with.

Once in effect, the formerly disagreeing parties will do everything in their power to preserve the status quo, including demonisation of any third party questioning its usefulness in search of a real solution.

JohnP November 7, 2012 5:52 AM

I think that all airport searches are theater. All they do is slow down airport, make flying inconvenient, and make people look for loopholes in the system to get things they want from point-A to point-B.

I fly internationally to different countries. Boarding in Amsterdam they had 2 lines for security – old style metal detector and new-X-ray thing. It seemed that about 60% of people there were choosing to use the metal detector and pat down. The pat down was next to worthless. He spent time worrying about my belt line. No violation.

Leaving the USA, the pat down was thorough, but still ineffective. I didn’t feel violated. The blue gloves were placed into some chemical testing machine – seems the US was searching for a bomb, not sharp objects.

Sometimes I get the “fast pass” through USA security – that is just the old metal detector and no pat down.

Leaving Prague, the pat down was extremely thorough – my balls were felt by two different people during the pat down. I was violated.

Leaving Turkey, I don’t remember any pat downs. There was a minimal metal detector scan just inside the airport, then another going to the international terminal. It was pretty boring.

All of these checks had different flaws. I don’t have any security training, but I’ve seen a 60-minutes episode on how things are hidden in prisons and brought into prisons by kiestering items. Sometimes the items are unbelievably huge – well beyond what most people would consider possible.

Nothing will be effective until they perform cavity searches or sequester fliers for 24 hrs before a flight and feed foods with lots of roughage.

With the chemical checks, there are lots of ways to get passed them unless a stupid group is involved. Just create a container for the chemicals to be kiestered and prevent the outside from becoming contaminated.

Pleasantly Perplexed November 8, 2012 9:35 AM

I flew back from Europe to the US a few days ago, via Germany. I was very surprised that I was not asked to redo security at the entrance area to US flight gates. Some others were, and it seemed a random selection. Has the TSA-required security screening been relaxed for people boarding in any other EU airport (though they didn’t ask me for my arrival flight boarding passes!)

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