BOB on Board

By Bruce Schneier
The Sydney Morning Herald
August 2, 2004

Last Tuesday's bomb scare contains valuable security lessons, both good and bad, about how to achieve security in these dangerous times.

Ninety minutes after taking off from Sydney Airport, a flight attendant on a United Airlines flight bound for Los Angeles found an airsickness bag -- presumably unused -- in a lavatory with the letters "BOB" written on it.

The flight attendant decided that the letters stood for "Bomb On Board" and immediately alerted the captain, who decided the risk was serious enough to turn the plane around and land back in Sydney.

Even a moment's reflection is enough to realise that this is an extreme over-reaction to a non-existent threat. "Bob" is common flight attendant jargon for "babe on board" or "best on board," as in: "Look at that Bob in seat 7A."

United Airlines apparently also uses it for some domestic US flights to mean "Buy on Board" -- meals aren't provided gratis, but if you want one you must buy it.

And even if it weren't, there's absolutely no reason to think that "BOB" is not just someone's name, written on the airsickness bag sometime in the past and left in the lavatory by a passenger who didn't even realise it.

Why in the world would someone decide that out of all the possible meanings that "BOB" scribbled on an airsickness bag could have, its presence on this particular airsickness bag on this particular flight must mean "Bomb On Board"?

And why would the captain concur?

Security works best when people are in charge. I am comforted that the final decision to divert the flight was in the hands of the captain, and not a United Airlines executive who might unduly worry about the $US100,000 the emergency landing ended up costing. The captain is in charge of the plane, and he's the best person to weigh the risk to the lives of the passengers—and his own—against the inconvenience of diverting the aircraft.

More and more our security systems are run by computers and unalterable policies, turning the people at the front lines of security into mere drones. Computers now choose whom to search carefully at airport security. Smart guards in lobbies have been replaced by less-skilled employees who mindlessly check photo IDs. This story serves as a counter-example, and demonstrates the correct way to design a security system.

However: if we are to expect airplane captains and flight attendants to make important security decisions, they need to be properly trained. The flight attendant who discovered the airsickness bag didn't react from reason, but from fear. And that fear was transferred to the captain, who made a bad decision.

Fear won't make anyone more secure. It causes overreactions to false alarms. It entices us to spend ever-increasing amounts of money, and give away ever-increasing civil liberties, while receiving no security in return. It blinds us to the real threats.

Speaking about the person who wrote those three fateful letters on the airsickness bag, Transport Minister John Anderson called him "irresponsible at the least and horrendously selfish and stupid at the worst." Irresponsible for what? For writing his name? For perpetuating common flight-attendant slang? It wasn't the writer who did anything wrong; it was those who reacted to the writing.

We live in scary times, and it's easy to let fear overtake our powers of reason. But precisely because these are scary times, it's important that we not let them.

Prime Minister John Howard praised the crew for their quick reactions, diligence, and observation skills. I'm sorry, but I see no evidence of any of that. All I see are people who have been thrust into an important security role reacting from fear, because they have not been properly trained in how to sensibly evaluate security situations: the risks, the countermeasures, and the trade-offs. Were cooler and more sensible heads in the cockpit, this story would have had a different ending.

Unfortunately, fear begets more fear, and creates a climate where we terrorise ourselves. Now every wacko in the world knows that all he needs to do to ground an international flight is to write "BOB" on an airsickness bag. Somehow, I don't think that's the outcome any of us wanted.

earlier essay: Customers, Passwords, and Web Sites
later essay: Cryptanalysis of MD5 and SHA: Time for a New Standard
categories: Airline Travel, Terrorism
back to Essays and Op Eds

Photo of Bruce Schneier by Per Ervland.

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