A Waste of Money and Time

By Bruce Schneier
New York Times Room for Debate Blog
November 23, 2010

A short history of airport security: We screen for guns and bombs, so the terrorists use box cutters. We confiscate box cutters and corkscrews, so they put explosives in their sneakers. We screen footwear, so they try to use liquids. We confiscate liquids, so they put PETN bombs in their underwear. We roll out full-body scanners, even though they wouldn't have caught the Underwear Bomber, so they put a bomb in a printer cartridge. We ban printer cartridges over 16 ounces -- the level of magical thinking here is amazing -- and they're going to do something else.

This is a stupid game, and we should stop playing it.

It's not even a fair game. It's not that the terrorist picks an attack and we pick a defense, and we see who wins. It's that we pick a defense, and then the terrorists look at our defense and pick an attack designed to get around it. Our security measures only work if we happen to guess the plot correctly. If we get it wrong, we've wasted our money. This isn't security; it's security theater.

There are two basic kinds of terrorists. The are the sloppy planners, like the guy who crashed his plane into the Internal Revenue Service building in Austin. He's going to be sloppy and stupid, and even pre-9/11 airplane security is going to catch him. The second is the well-planned, well-financed, and much rarer sort of plot. Do you really expect the T.S.A. screeners, who are busy confiscating water bottles and making people take off their belts -- and now doing uncomfortable pat-downs -- to stop them?

Of course not. Airport security is the last line of defense, and it's not a very good one. What works is investigation and intelligence: security that works regardless of the terrorist tactic or target. Yes, the target matters too; all this airport security is only effective if the terrorists target airports. If they decide to bomb crowded shopping malls instead, we've wasted our money.

That being said, airplanes require a special level of security for several reasons: they're a favored terrorist target; their failure characteristics mean more deaths than a comparable bomb on a bus or train; they tend to be national symbols; and they often fly to foreign countries where terrorists can operate with more impunity.

But all that can be handled with pre-9/11 security. Exactly two things have made airplane travel safer since 9/11: reinforcing the cockpit door, and convincing passengers they need to fight back. Everything else has been a waste of money. Add screening of checked bags and airport workers and we're done. Take all the rest of the money and spend it on investigation and intelligence.

Immediately after the Christmas Day Underwear Bomber's plot failed, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano called airplane security a success. She was pilloried in the press and quickly backpedaled, but I think it was one of the most sensible things said on the subject. Plane lands safely, terrorist in custody, nobody injured except the terrorist: what more do people want out of a security success?

Look at what succeeded. Because even pre-9/11 security screened for obvious bombs, Abdulmutallab had to construct a far less reliable bomb than he would have otherwise. Instead of using a timer or a plunger or a reliable detonation mechanism, as would any commercial user of PETN, Abdulmutallab had to resort to an ad hoc and much more inefficient detonation mechanism involving a syringe, 20 minutes in the lavatory, and setting his pants on fire. As a result, his actions came to the notice of the other passengers, who subdued him.

Neither the full-body scanners or the enhanced pat-downs are making anyone safer. They're more a result of politicians and government appointees capitulating to a public that demands that "something must be done," even when nothing should be done; and a government bureaucracy that is more concerned about the security of their careers if they fail to secure against the last attack than what happens if they fail anticipate the next one.

earlier essay: The Plan to Quarantine Infected Computers
later essay: The Dangers of a Software Monoculture
categories: Airline Travel, Terrorism
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Photo of Bruce Schneier by Per Ervland.

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