Skipping to the Head of the Security Line

By Sarah Nassauer
The Wall Street Journal
December 18, 2009

BT Group PLC Chief Security Technology Officer Bruce Schneier logs long hours trudging through airports to attend conferences and speaking engagements on a wide range of security issues. By his own count, he will take 170 flights this year.

Mr. Schneier relishes pointing out flaws in institutions' security plans--sometimes testing the boundaries himself--and has been a critic of post-9/11 security measures like those at airports. He recently spoke to The Wall Street Journal about "airport-land" rules, skipping to the head of the security line and getting your sandwich taken by the U.S. Transport Security Administration.

WSJ: What's your well-honed security routine to get through the line quickly and fairly painlessly?

Mr. Schneier: The rule is to never ever beep and to know what's expected and to do it before they ask. … Never have anything in your pockets when you go into the metal detectors. Take off your jacket and hat and any sweater that buttons. Take your liquids out of your suitcase. Take your computer out of its bag. These are things that if you don't do, they will stop you and make you do it, and if you can do it faster before they tell you, you can get through quicker.

WSJ: You sound like you're a plan-ahead type of guy. Do you always wear easy-on, easy-off shoes and carefully pack all your toiletries?

Mr. Schneier: I don't worry about the shoes. I take them off and if I have to unlace them, I unlace them, so what. I've been lacing my shoes for decades now. Of course all of my liquids are in a plastic bag and it's easy to grab and easy to throw on the conveyor belt. These days they don't always complain if you keep your liquids in your bag, but better safe than sorry.

WSJ: What about when TSA wants to do something like take away the sandwich that you packed. Do you have any recourse in that situation?

Mr. Schneier: You don't. I mean, you can fight. You can ask for a supervisor. You can argue with them, but in the end they're going to win. You have absolutely no power and they know it. If you fight too much, they'll call the police. You might win, but you're going to miss your flight. And you might get your name on a list of people to search all the time. I mean this isn't a fair system. This isn't a just system. You just have to accept that.

WSJ: One of the things that can be most frustrating when you are traveling for business is seeing 15 families of 6 in front of you. What do you do?

Mr. Schneier: If you are a frequent traveler you can often use the frequent traveler lines which bypasses a lot of the amateurs. If you are actually in a rush it's perfectly reasonable to say to the family in front of you 'can I jump ahead?' and they will always say yes and you will never slow them down. Don't abuse that privilege, but if you are in a rush, ask nicely and you can get to the head of the line.

WSJ: You've never had someone tell you no?

Mr. Schneier: Occasionally, but it's rare. People just tend not to be rude. Again, don't abuse the privilege otherwise no one will ever say yes again to anybody.

WSJ: Are you of fan of registered traveler programs like the now defunct Clear as a speedier alternative?

Mr. Schneier: The registered traveler programs are great. The idea of paying some money and getting through airport security quicker is a perfectly reasonable thing to do. As a security measure, as a pre-screening measure, it's a waste of time.

WSJ: Why?

Mr. Schneier: Prescreening assumes that you have a list of the bad guys and can check if someone is not on that list. That's not a realistic assumption and when you have an easy way through security and a hard way through security, you invite the bad guys to take the easy way.

WSJ: Which parts of the airport screening process do you think are worth the hassle?

Mr. Schneier: Pre-9/11 screening is probably worth it, although I've seen good arguments that it isn't. There have been exactly two things since 9/11 that have improved airplane security: Reinforcing the cockpit doors and convincing passengers they have to fight back. Everything else has been a waste of time and money.

WSJ: Everything else should get the boot?

Mr. Schneier: Yep, because the way to think of it is airports are the last line of defense. And they're not a very good one. The goal is to catch the terrorist before they get to the airport. It's a waste of money if all we do is force the terrorist to make a minor change in their tactic or target.

WSJ: You have cleared airport security with a fake boarding pass, right?

Mr. Schneier: I have entered airport security with a fake boarding pass. But there is no law that says you can't do that. You will not find a law anywhere in the United States or in state law code that says you can't do that.

WSJ: Have you ever been caught when you are flaunting a TSA regulation?

Mr. Schneier: Of course not. But what does caught mean? I've gone through with bottles of liquid of 12 ounces. They found it, they looked at it. They let me through, so was I caught? Because there are no actual rules it's hard to use this normal rule-based language. Lots of people get through with knives. … The TSA doesn't notice them and they go through. All the time this happens. I get emailed all the time people saying look what happened. Did they break the law? Of course not. TSA is sloppy. But that's not necessarily bad. But sure, there are lots of things that just sort of happen.

WSJ: So you are saying that you've never gone through security with anything that, if found, is worth putting you in jail for in and of itself.

Mr. Schneier: That would seem like a mistake. But in a sense that sort of exposes the stupidity of the rules. If I try to go through airport security with a gun and TSA finds it they are going to call the police because a gun is dangerous. If I try to go through airport security with a bottle of liquid, which the TSA also claims is dangerous -- if they find it, they are going to fling it in a trashcan near where they all work all day and send me on my way. Either that bottle is dangerous, in which case call the police, or it's harmless, in which case let me have it. This middle notion sort of fundamentally makes no sense. They take it away, yet they know that it's not dangerous so they don't care that they are going to spend the day next to it.

WSJ: How do you stay stress free when you are in a difficult situation in the security line?

Mr. Schneier: You realize that your stress will do nothing to improve the situation. Stress is when you are trying to control something that you can't control. When you understand that airport security is arbitrary -- doesn't make sense -- then it's easier just to go with the flow. And the only way you get through is to go with the flow. And that's not just with security, that's airports. You know when you are in airport-land, you're in airport-land. And you follow airport-land's rules.

earlier story: Schneier: Steps to Combat File-Sharing Are Misguided
later story: Bruce Schneier on TSA Absurdity and the Need for Resilience
back to News and Interviews

Photo of Bruce Schneier by Per Ervland.

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