Testing for Explosives in the Chicago Subway

Chicago is doing random explosives screenings at random L stops in the Chicago area. Compliance is voluntary:

Police made no arrests but one rider refused to submit to the screening and left the station without incident, Maloney said.

[...]

Passengers can decline the screening, but will not be allowed to board a train at that station. Riders can leave that station and board a train at a different station.

I have to wonder what would happen if someone who looks Arab refused to be screened. And what possible value this procedure has. Anyone who has a bomb in their bag would see the screening point well before approaching it, and be able to walk to the next stop without potentially arousing suspicion.

Posted on November 7, 2014 at 9:59 AM • 57 Comments

Comments

A Nonny BunnyNovember 7, 2014 10:45 AM

> Anyone who has a bomb in their bag would see the screening point well before
> approaching it, and be able to walk to the next stop without potentially
> arousing suspicion.

Or just blow up the screening point, with all the people queuing up to get past, I imagine it'd make a decent target.

ebNovember 7, 2014 10:54 AM

They do this same kind of thing - they call it a 'bag check' on the NYC subways. I always say 'no, thank you', leave that entrance, and go to the other entrance and usually get on at the same station.

It started on the subways and has apparently moved to the commuter trains as well: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/07/21/nyregion/21cnd-security.html?pagewanted=all
although I haven't seen it there (I ride these as well). I've only ever been stopped at the subway entrances.

I find it distressing.

TimmysonNovember 7, 2014 11:01 AM

Is this perhaps a pilot project to gauge the public response and false-positive rate for detecting explosives?

Lewis FrancisNovember 7, 2014 11:06 AM

Was tagged by one of these in the DC area, got my choice of security theater swag for my trouble, all printed with the DC Metro koan "If you see something, say something": cap, mousepad, tote bag or mini sanitizer bottle.

65535November 7, 2014 11:09 AM

The TSA do the same swab cloth test on hands of airline passengers on both domestic and foreign flights. From what I can guess they use combination of profiling and statistics. They almost always choose single passengers and young males.

I have wondered when TSA screener rubs a person’s [hand] skin with the cloth swap they are not only testing for explosives but gathering DNA to profile the passenger by rubbing off a tiny layer of skin cells on to the cloth [the TSA have the victims ID, plane ticket, time, date and location plus any video footage taken in the airport].

parrotNovember 7, 2014 11:24 AM

Could be profiling in its own right. They could integrate this program into their surveillance systems. Anyone refusing to get screened get's assigned a human eyeball or two to watch their activities for the rest of the hour/day/whatever. That's certainly within reach of current technology and bureaucracy.

WmNovember 7, 2014 11:29 AM

These check points are not to secure the subway, but to hire people to run these check points for the purpose of buying their vote.

AnoniNovember 7, 2014 11:43 AM

Lewis has an interesting point up above. If these security drones offered swag for swiping, especially if it was something consumable, most folks would be delighted to participate. Heck, most folks will give up their password for a candybar. For a mousepad or morning coffee I could see them giving up their DNA...

DilbertNovember 7, 2014 12:10 PM

@Timmyson

I consider this conditioning... we're being trained to accept the erosion of our rights.

Oh, this is just a drill! We're just practicing in case "bad things" happen, then we'll be able to protect you. You wouldn't want a terrorist to be able to blow you up would you? This is "security"... we're here to keep you safe.

We give up a little here, accept a little poking there, don't worry about these scanners, they're perfectly safe. And they'll "protect you" from the "bad guys".

Sorry for the rant... I'm just sick of all this theater.

WaelNovember 7, 2014 12:26 PM

I agree with the conditioning statement by @Dilbert.

Does not protect against suicide bombers, does it? However, this is the expected direction since this speech[1]

I have to wonder what would happen if someone who looks Arab refused to be screened.
Instant upgrade of transportation method; a one way flight to a nice secluded resort (Gitmo)... Room and waterBoard included.

[1] It should jump to 2:20. If not, then that's where the directive was announced.
Comedian Steve Bridges died at the age of 48... RIP, such a talent!

EricNovember 7, 2014 12:30 PM


I was getting on the subway with my bicycle one evening after work, and one of the transit police wanted to know what was in my pannier. When I told him it was dirty clothes, he seemed to lose interest.

CraigNovember 7, 2014 1:09 PM

What possible value? Several:

  1. Test the public's tolerance for security intrusion into their daily routine.
  2. Practice for the police. You know, in case they are going to do this more often.
  3. Identify people to watch more closely. Someone refuses? Figure out which cell phone is theirs and ask the NSA to keep an eye on them.
The drug war is winding down, and the police need some new way to justify their staffing levels.

CallMeLateForSupperNovember 7, 2014 1:13 PM

The tech. is paid for ("$3.5 million federal anti-terrorism grant"). Might as well use it. No doubt this new toy has a learning curve. Wouldn't want all those swabbers to be untrained when the bad guys "do a double back-flip and land in our rear"[1].

Think I'll open a "swabs" manufactury. Get in on the ground floor, doncha know, because business is bound to be brisk after a few more cities get their cut from the federal trough.

As a poster already said, above, it is security theatre. And the system is fatally flawed, I believe.

[1] General U.S. Grant

GretchenNovember 7, 2014 1:33 PM

Perhaps it is being done as a calibration for a non-invasive screening method being conducted at the same time in the same location? 100% cooperation would not be necesary to get a valid statistical sample to compare with another method. This may not be all that sinister.

Alan EvansNovember 7, 2014 2:44 PM

It's all part of getting the citizenry used to being controlled by various police and para-military groups. And in the process weeding out "trouble makers" for special treatment. That's the main value, for example, of airport screening. Very similar to the growth of the police state in Germany in the 1930s.

JasonNovember 7, 2014 3:01 PM

Imagine how it will play out if someone refuses to be screened, walks to the next station, then goes on a rampage there. Suddenly, screening will be everywhere because the only reason he did it was because he was allowed to say no.

I know the screening is for bombs, but I'm sure they're looking for all weapons

LoeloNovember 7, 2014 3:20 PM

The goal is obviously to habituate the consumer to being searched during their daily routine.

JeremyNovember 7, 2014 4:24 PM

It's my understanding that the screening is used to detect the residue of bomb-making material, not only the bombs themselves.

Could the purpose of the screening be to uncover a (perhaps nacent) bomb plot by looking for individuals moving around Chicago who have come into contact with bomb-making material? If there were credible intelligence of a plot, this could be an attempt to identify those who have been in close contact with the bomb makers.

This is, of course, hypothetical. But many of the critical comments above are predicated on this being an attempt to stop a bomb from being carried aboard a train. It may be more complicated than that, or it may be as short-sighted and ineffective as the comments suggest.

Cheers,
Jeremy

Casual FridayNovember 7, 2014 4:41 PM

"Passengers can decline the screening, but will not be allowed to board a train at that station."

Would you like sacrifice your freedom of movement or your right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure? Neither? Oh sorry, even though the people seem to believe the loss of liberty is worse than the threat of terror we just can't leave people alone to act on their own free will. How about letting us opt out of using our own tax dollars to support our own oppression? No, sorry.

I know trains have been targets for terror many times, but this just won't be effective, so they shouldn't bother.

whprattNovember 7, 2014 5:59 PM

What are you all so worried about?
Couple this with asset forfeiture and we could have the best funded security forces in the free world!

ScaredNovember 7, 2014 6:02 PM

@ Dilbert

"I consider this conditioning... we're being trained to accept the erosion of our rights"

Spot on.
In the city where I live the police is exchanging their Lincoln Town car cruisers for huge SUVs with kangaroo bars and all. Looks a lot like an armored personnel carrier, which is the obvious next step.

At work we now have to submit to a yearly health screening, or the insurance premium goes up. It's disguised as a discount (exactly equal to a premium increase), because it's probably not legal otherwise (yet). Every other week there's a new policy where you have to click on a link to agree, or else....!

Semi EvilNovember 7, 2014 7:45 PM

The explosive swabbing is so useless. This is all to train people to accept searches and nothing more.

A few years back I was at an airport and they started doing this crap. I could've simply left the area but I decided to make them "randomly" select me just to see if I could. Stood slightly away from the crowd, looked around fairly randomly but didn't act especially agitated. Avoided looking at anybody or talking to anybody. Sure enough, right on schedule, here comes an agent with a swabbing machine.

A little harmless fun at someone who didn't even get the joke of course, but if I had been a distraction for someone else who actually had ill intent--well, you know the drill. Of course, such a person would have had to have made it past the initial security screening in the first place, and we all know just how absolutely impenetrable that wall of protection of our freedom is.

BritishBruceNovember 8, 2014 5:46 AM

It's probably about drugs etc. rather than bombs. If you agree - and many people are not good at standing up to authority, and that's assuming they even realize they are not legally required to comply with the request -, you've just consented to a search, and evidence that would otherwise have been inadmissible in court has suddenly become fair game.

Just my guess.

LisaNovember 8, 2014 6:37 AM

What a great way to inconvience and strip rights and privacy from the masses who use public transportation.

While making sure that the 1% who use limos, private planes, personal yachts, etc. are not affected.

HermanNovember 8, 2014 8:16 AM

I'm wondering what 'someone who looks Arab' means.

I'm living in the UAE and the people around me are all shades of gray and by the end of summer I am more gray than most, despite having to wear titanium dioxide sunscreen to protect my sensitive caucasian skin.

If western plods want to screen people, then they got to use old fashioned police work and should not be bamboozled by simplistic profiling.

albertNovember 8, 2014 11:37 AM

"Security theater"! An excellent term; never saw that one 'til now. Many reasons have been proposed for this 'trial', and all are, to some degree, true. For some folks, it's a job, for others, 'security', still others, an 'acclimation' or 'conditioning' process. It depends where you are in the system.
.
I hate to be pragmatic, but the highly unlikely prospect of saving a few lives isn't worth hundreds of millions of dollars. This is the opinion of the folks running things.
.
As a drug search, it's an even more absurd policy. The DNA swab concept, however, is brilliant. Well done, @65535. 'Profiling for surveillance' is brilliant as well (thanks, @parrot).
.
As for the 'looks like an Arab' idea, long ago a terrorist group said something to the effect of: 'Our people will look just like your people'. This is trivially easy to do.
.
Kudos to all for your thoughtful comments.
.
In closing, I'd like to point out that our draconian 'security' policies only serve to heighten discontent, frustration, and hate among the populace. It's one of many positive-feedback loops in our society. 'Positive' feedback loops always have 'negative' consequences. Our fearful leaders are actually promoting the kind of behaviour they're trying to prevent. A fascist nation is not a pleasant place for _anyone_ to live, not even the 1%. The endgame is razor-wired compounds, armed bodyguards, and military patrols everywhere.
.
I gotta go...

Another KevinNovember 8, 2014 11:40 AM

@Semi Evil:
I recall once having a discussion with an authoritarian family member in which I was complaining about how often I "looked suspicious" and had extra security measures applied. He scolded me for "looking suspicious" and said that I really needed to learn to look normal - and that otherwise I deserved criminal punishment. Apparently in his mind, "looking suspicious" was morally equivalent to turning in a false alarm - because it distracts the attention of the security forces from the "real" bad guys. So he's urged me to shave my beard, or adopt a business suit instead of the jeans and work shirt I ordinarily wear on planes, or carry a briefcase instead of a backpack, and so on - to protect the rest of society! And in fact, when I mentioned at one point that the most recent hassle had been over my walking cane, which wasn't exactly a choice at the time (I was recovering from a badly sprained knee), he opined that "we require a minimum standard of physical fitness for pilots, we ought to for passengers, so that we wouldn't have these problems!" and chided me for not having canceled my trip under the circumstances!

A favorite argument of his: "You gave up that right when you..." (Uhm, which part of "inalienable" didn't you understand?)

It appears that most of his political party agrees with his sentiments. I think we're heading for a society where every subject must lie in the assigned Procrustean bed or be treated as a criminal. Lack of privacy implies that you no longer have the right to be different from your neighbors. (Prefer biriyani and pillao to burgers and fries? Traitor! Rather spend Sunday climbing a mountain than watching a football game? You're probably one of those greenies who's going to wreck the economy! )

MrCNovember 8, 2014 11:50 AM

"I consider this conditioning... we're being trained to accept the erosion of our rights."

Dilbert hit the nail on the head.

FNovember 8, 2014 12:06 PM

In addition to profiling, there are all sorts of reasons why someone would have nitrogen compounds on their hands/bags/etc.

E.g., maybe they have a heart condition and have been handling nitroglycerin. Maybe they have recently visited a perfectly legal shooting range, and have powder residue on their bag. Maybe they are a chemist or work on construction sites, or .....


As a test for violent attacks, this approach has serious problems with both false negatives and false positives.

anonNovember 8, 2014 12:30 PM

Unfortunately, I hit all their profiling markers ... I'm young, single, male and I wear a full beard. I'm also what you might call "racially ambiguous". I can pretty much pass for any ethnic background except for caucasian and east asian. So whether cops are profiling black people, border patrol is profiling hispanic people or the feds are profiling Arabs ... I always get caught in their sieve of tyranny.

The funny thing is ... every now and then a radical thought pops up in my mind as a conditioned response to being regularly humiliated in public by the people who I lovingly call "pigs".

"The best way to make a person untrustworthy is to not trust him and to let him know that he isn't trusted" ... forgive me for not crediting this quote, my memory fails me.

thevoidNovember 8, 2014 2:53 PM

@hermann

indeed! in my city a few years ago there was some story making rounds on the
news about 'arabs' apparently up to no good. turns out they were hispanic. in
fact, the first person killed in america for 9-11 'revenge' was actually a
sikh-- an indian.

thevoidNovember 8, 2014 3:05 PM

@Another Kevin

interesting that you bring up the 'authoritarian' type, when just a few days ago
some of us were having a conversation on this subject. my first post is here:

https://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2014/10/friday_squid_bl_448.html#c6682256

you may be VERY interested in that work.

from the page i reference in that comment:

The feedback I?ve gotten from those who have read The Authoritarians enables me to give you the major reason why you might want to do so too. ?It ties things together for me,? people have said, ?You can see how so many things all fit together.? ?It explains the things about conservatives that didn?t make any sense to me,? others have commented. And the one that always brings a smile to my face, ?Now at last I understand my brother-in-law? (or grandmother, uncle, woman in my car pool, Congressman, etc.).

Corey CopelandNovember 8, 2014 6:51 PM

A few years ago I was at the Denver Amtrak station..They asked to look through my bag so I let they! THE funny part was when I was in the men's bathroom at the stand-up stall..looked over..and one of the guys was at the stand-up stall next to me..glaring at me! I think they were looking for drugs...

SkepticalNovember 8, 2014 7:58 PM


And what possible value this procedure has. Anyone who has a bomb in their bag would see the screening point well before approaching it, and be able to walk to the next stop without potentially arousing suspicion.

In theory, the value may lie in reducing the attraction of the transit system as a target by increasing the uncertainty of the success of a planned terrorist operation.

In other words, under this theory, the deterrence has greatest effect in what one could term the target selection, recon, or rehearsal phases of a terrorist operation, not in the attack phase.

This does not apply to every terrorist threat, but a terrorist group that places a high premium on predictable success may be especially sensitive to measures that introduce greater uncertainty (NB uncertainty, not simply an altered probability), and will select a different target.

In addition, one must also remember that the appearance of random checkpoints will be far more salient to at least some proportion of terrorists than they might be to a statistician. The terrorist planning an attack may be in a state of mind that finds meaning in the checkpoints, particularly if he encounters one at some stage, which a statistician might not. And indeed, it's entirely possible that the terrorist may be correct in doing so.

This would be a tactic that only incrementally increases security of a possible target, of course. Whether using it is a sound decision depends on the actual costs (including the inconvenience and intrusion for travelers) and an assessment of actual terrorist threats that would tell us much more about any benefits.

But I wouldn't dismiss it immediately as mere theater.

WaelNovember 8, 2014 9:35 PM

I think this would be less objectionable and more effective. Funny thing Bruce said: "within the next year or two!"

Within the next year or two, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security will instantly know everything about your body, clothes, and luggage with a new laser-based molecular scanner fired from 164 feet (50 meters) away. From traces of drugs or gun powder on your clothes to what you had for breakfast to the adrenaline level in your body -- agents will be able to get any information they want without even touching you.

@Bruce,
Nine years ago, you predicted this

JoeNovember 9, 2014 6:19 AM

"Chicago is doing random explosives screenings at random L stops in the Chicago area. Compliance is voluntary... Passengers can decline the screening, but will not be allowed to board a train at that station."

I'm sorry, this is not "voluntary" at all. It is coercive when a passenger must give up his 4th Amendment rights in order to use a public service.

SkepticalNovember 9, 2014 10:06 AM


@Joe: I'm sorry, this is not "voluntary" at all. It is coercive when a passenger must give up his 4th Amendment rights in order to use a public service.

This issue was litigated years ago when New York City instituted a policy of checkpoints at a changing selection of subway stations. In New York City's case, the checkpoint itself would use a random process for selecting travelers for additional screening - no discretion permitted. For example, the officers would be told to select every 5th person.

I haven't read the article about Chicago's practice, but New York City's practice involved more than swabbing a hand or shirt for explosives residue. Instead the officers would inspect any large container that could hold an explosives device. The inspection was very limited - the traveler would be asked to open his backpack, for example, and shift items around so that the officer could see what was inside. The officer was not permitted to read any material visible, nor to conduct a search for other contraband.

The practice was challenged in federal court. It was found to be constitutional by the trial court, and the decision was upheld on appeal.

Remember that the 4th Amendment's touchstone is reasonableness.

albertNovember 9, 2014 10:55 AM

@Skeptical
"...reducing the attraction of the transit system..." Added to the list of possible reasons. Who knows, they don't even need to be logical, let alone practical. :)
.
"..reasonable.." It's 'reasonable' to randomly search citizens backpacks because they're big enough to hold a bomb? Hardly. All this accomplishes is marginalizing the 4th Amendment. Thanks to courts for enabling these sorts of policies. Mark my words, it's only going to get worse.

.
@Another Kevin:
I have 'authoritarian family members' in my family as well, although we use a slightly less polite term for them. These folks don't realize how dangerous our society is becoming, until _they_ get caught up in it. Even if your AFM is part of the 1%, it doesn't matter. History shows that in sufficiently paranoid societies, _no one_ is above suspicion and consequent persecution.
.
Saw a doc on TV last night about North Korea. The similarities with Nazi Germany were beyond striking. Very unsettling.
.
I gotta go...

francisNovember 9, 2014 1:33 PM

I wouldn't have a problem with this if the subway were privately owned and operated but the CTA is an Illinois independent governmental agency and therefore 4th amendment protections should apply. So this is unconstitutional and someone with standing should sue. Outrageous. It seems no one cares about freedom.

Wesley ParishNovember 10, 2014 5:11 AM

I too find someone who looks Arab to be impossibly vague.

To wit, Europe is constituted of two different lineages: one, the Mediterranean, descends from populations that were forced south into refuges in Italy and the Hispanic Peninsular and the Adriatic and Agean Seas during the Last Glacial Maximum. The other descends from populations who went north after the Last Glacial Maximum ended, and stayed in regions where there was a heavy cloud cover during most of the year, so their skins bleached to preserve its Vitamin D-gathering ability.

Arabs are merely a population of Mediterraneans who never left the Mediterranean and associated regions such as the Levant, Mesopotamia, etc. I've mistaken Egyptians for Spanish, have been mistaken for North African (Algerian) or Italian, have mistaken Turks for Italians, etc ...

This sounds like a mechanism to alienate en masse; ergo, a device to achieve the ends it sets out to prevent. Prostitution for chastity indeed!

RSaundersNovember 10, 2014 10:25 AM

@Wm, I think that's only part of it. Like the DC "See Something Say Something" campaign, this little bit of security theatre is all about showing the mass transit users that the system is safe. Random, unpredictable procedures are offered as one of the best ways to disrupt an adversary's planning. With that as justification, these behaviors give the appearance of safety where there actually is safety (the odds of a subway station being bombed while you are in it are vanishingly small). They just don't add safety, the "plan update work factor" is too low, just walk a few more blocks to another station or blow up the security queue. They could probably get the same effect more cheaply, with fewer false-positives, by using fake swabs and testers. And just as many jobs, win-win.

And before folks complain that nobody makes fake security testers, the search term "fake security" on Amazon give 20 pages of products.

MeNovember 10, 2014 10:54 AM

I have to say that the idea of checkpoints for trains is just stupid.

For planes, you have a modicum of reason, the planes are not accessible once airborne for most people (Ukrainian rebels not included).

For trains, there is basically no way to secure the thousands of miles of track. Securing the checkpoint therefore, secures NOTHING.

lolNovember 10, 2014 11:19 AM

@Semi Evil:

"The explosive swabbing is so useless. This is all to train people to accept searches and nothing more."

I agree. Some of the chemicals that will trigger those swabs are found in common household cleaning products. Better not clean your bathroom the day you try to take the train (or a plane..) Its almost as pointless as swabbing currency for cocaine.

WaelNovember 10, 2014 11:54 AM

@Me,

A poor man had nothing left in his house but the main door. He sold the furniture, the windows and everything else. One day while he was sitting down cursing is misfortune; a thief unhooked the house door and ran away with it. The owner chased him for a mile or so. They both got tired, so the thief stuck the door in the ground in the middle of nowhere and sat behind it. The owner
kept knocking hard on the door saying: "Open the door you coward"...

For trains, there is basically no way to secure the thousands of miles of track. Securing the checkpoint therefore, secures NOTHING.
If done properly, it secures an entrance to a house with no walls. As such, it shouldn't be the only "security control"...

AlanSNovember 10, 2014 12:00 PM

@ Skeptical "The practice was challenged in federal court. It was found to be constitutional by the trial court, and the decision was upheld on appeal."

See my earlier post on Schlanger's critique of intelligence legalism and The Problem With Legalism in the Surveillance State

Those who answer charges of surveillance abuse by emphasizing the constitutionality of the contested conduct—which is to say, nearly every federal official who has defended the NSA in recent months—are essentially arguing that constitutional law sets not individual rights minimums, but rather the correct civil liberties policy.

Lawyers Are Not Civil Libertarians....Tocqueville’s much older observations about lawyers remain apropos–not of all lawyers, but of the legal profession most generally: “If they prize freedom much, they generally value legality still more. They are less afraid of tyranny than of arbitrary power, and provided the legislature undertakes of itself to deprive men of their independence, they are not dissatisfied.”

AnuraNovember 10, 2014 1:14 PM

As it's been said before on this blog, securing one area only moves the target elswhere. If you can't attack the subways directly, you attack crowds entering the subway or the tracks tracks (which you can get into through service enterences), or other targets entirely: buses, office buildings, clubs, or just crowded streets. Security theater doesn't make you safer, only figuring out how to prevent terrorism in the first place makes you safer.

Sancho_PNovember 10, 2014 3:15 PM

@ Anura

“... only figuring out how to prevent terrorism in the first place makes you safer.”

Preventing terrorism does not increase business, on the contrary.
You know we need 6 % each year only to survive, and 8 to 12 % to live.

Preventing terrorism is not an option.
We can not go backwards, unfortunately.

NewYorkerNovember 13, 2014 11:08 AM

Good to see someone else calling out this bit of security theater. I see this on my subway line in NYC. It is exactly as Bruce describes. I can see the checkpoint from about 50 meters away. The next train stop is, oh, a 5 minute walk away. The last time they had this checkpoint at my stop I simply walked to the next stop to see if it was manned. Of course it wasn't.

uh, MikeNovember 14, 2014 11:27 PM

@Joe, I agree, rights are rights. I recall Lessig's _Code_ where he outlines the ways to leverage non-governmental agencies to regulate behavior.

Perhaps the training for the inspectors includes targeting people who are unlikely to effectively defend their rights.

"Let me search you or you can't use this public transportation system." Only if the system itself can be used as a weapon. Not likely with something that runs on rails.

Stan DuppFebruary 23, 2016 10:37 PM

Uh, how is this time-stamped 2014? It just started happening over this past weekend. You blog time stamp security must suck a bit, ya?

Stan DuppFebruary 23, 2016 10:49 PM

The screenings are for material findings, the swipe does not find bombs, it just finds material residue.

ianfFebruary 26, 2016 9:37 AM


@ Wael (while searching for something else in that thread of yore…)

[…] misfortune; a thief unhooked the house door and ran away with it. The owner chased him for a mile or so. They both got tired, so the thief stuck the door in the ground in the middle of nowhere and sat behind it. The owner kept knocking hard on the door saying: "Open the door you coward"...

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