Entries Tagged "air travel"

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Terrorist False Alarm at JFK Airport Demonstrates How Unprepared We Really Are

The detailed accounts of the terrorist-shooter false-alarm at Kennedy Airport in New York last week illustrate how completely and totally unprepared the airport authorities are for any real such event.

I have two reactions to this. On the one hand, this is a movie-plot threat — the sort of overly specific terrorist scenario that doesn’t make sense to defend against. On the other hand, police around the world need training in these types of scenarios in general. Panic can easily cause more deaths than terrorists themselves, and we need to think about what responsibilities police and other security guards have in these situations.

Posted on August 19, 2016 at 2:23 PMView Comments

Good Article on Airport Security

The New York Times wrote a good piece comparing airport security around the world, and pointing out that moving the security perimeter doesn’t make any difference if the attack can occur just outside the perimeter. Mark Stewart has the good quote:

“Perhaps the most cost-effective measure is policing and intelligence — to stop them before they reach the target,” Mr. Stewart said.

Sounds like something I would say.

Posted on July 6, 2016 at 9:45 AMView Comments

Security Analysis of TSA PreCheck

Interesting research: Mark G. Stewart and John Mueller, “Risk-based passenger screening: risk and economic assessment of TSA PreCheck increased security at reduced cost?

Executive Summary: The Transportation Security Administration’s PreCheck program is risk-based screening that allows passengers assessed as low risk to be directed to expedited, or PreCheck, screening. We begin by modelling the overall system of aviation security by considering all layers of security designed to deter or disrupt a terrorist plot to down an airliner with a passenger-borne bomb. Our analysis suggests that these measures reduce the risk of such an attack by at least 98%. Assuming that the accuracy of Secure Flight may be less than 100% when identifying low and high risk passengers, we then assess the effect of enhanced and expedited (or regular and PreCheck) screening on deterrence and disruption rates. We also evaluate programs that randomly redirect passengers from the PreCheck to the regular lines (random exclusion) and ones that redirect some passengers from regular to PreCheck lines (managed inclusion). We find that, if 50% of passengers are cleared for PreCheck, the additional risk reduction (benefit) due to PreCheck is 0.021% for attacks by lone wolves, and 0.056% for ones by terrorist organisations. If 75% of passengers rather than 50% go through PreCheck, these numbers are 0.017% and 0.044%, still providing a benefit in risk reduction. Under most realistic combinations of parameter values PreCheck actually increases risk reduction, perhaps up to 1%, while under the worst assumptions, it lowers risk reduction only by some 0.1%. Extensive sensitivity analyses suggests that, overall, PreCheck is most likely to have an increase in overall benefit.

The report also finds that adding random exclusion and managed inclusion to the PreCheck program has little effect on the risk reducing capability of PreCheck one way or the other. For example, if 10% of non-PreCheck passengers are randomly sent to the PreCheck line, the program still is delivers a benefit in risk reduction, and provides an additional savings for TSA of $11 million per year by reducing screening costs — while at the same time improving security outcomes.

There are also other co-benefits, and these are very substantial. Reducing checkpoint queuing times improves in the passenger experience, which would lead to higher airline revenues, can exceed several billion dollars per year. TSA PreCheck thus seems likely to bring considerable efficiencies to the screening process and great benefits to passengers, airports, and airlines while actually enhancing security a bit.

Posted on June 28, 2016 at 2:10 PMView Comments

Arresting People for Walking Away from Airport Security

A proposed law in Albany, NY, would make it a crime to walk away from airport screening.

Aside from wondering why county lawmakers are getting involved with what should be national policy, you have to ask: what are these people thinking?

They’re thinking in stories, of course. They have a movie plot in their heads, and they are imaging how this measure solves it.

The law is intended to cover what Apple described as a soft spot in the current system that allows passengers to walk away without boarding their flights if security staff flags them for additional scrutiny.

That could include would-be terrorists probing for weaknesses, Apple said, adding that his deputies currently have no legal grounds to question such a person.

Does anyone have any idea what stories these people have in their heads? What sorts of security weaknesses are exposed by walking up to airport security and then walking away?

Posted on May 31, 2016 at 6:35 AMView Comments

Detecting Explosives

Really interesting article on the difficulties involved with explosive detection at airport security checkpoints.

Abstract: The mid-air bombing of a Somali passenger jet in February was a wake-up call for security agencies and those working in the field of explosive detection. It was also a reminder that terrorist groups from Yemen to Syria to East Africa continue to explore innovative ways to get bombs onto passenger jets by trying to beat detection systems or recruit insiders. The layered state-of-the-art detection systems that are now in place at most airports in the developed world make it very hard for terrorists to sneak bombs onto planes, but the international aviation sector remains vulnerable because many airports in the developing world either have not deployed these technologies or have not provided rigorous training for operators. Technologies and security measures will need to improve to stay one step ahead of innovative terrorists. Given the pattern of recent Islamic State attacks, there is a strong argument for extending state-of-the-art explosive detection systems beyond the aviation sector to locations such as sports arenas and music venues.

I disagree with his conclusions — the last sentence above — but the technical information on explosives detection technology is really interesting.

Posted on May 20, 2016 at 2:06 PMView Comments

Economist Detained for Doing Math on an Airplane

An economics professor was detained when he was spotted doing math on an airplane:

On Thursday evening, a 40-year-old man ­– with dark, curly hair, olive skin and an exotic foreign accent –­ boarded a plane. It was a regional jet making a short, uneventful hop from Philadelphia to nearby Syracuse.

Or so dozens of unsuspecting passengers thought.

The curly-haired man tried to keep to himself, intently if inscrutably scribbling on a notepad he’d brought aboard. His seatmate, a blond-haired, 30-something woman sporting flip-flops and a red tote bag, looked him over. He was wearing navy Diesel jeans and a red Lacoste sweater — a look he would later describe as “simple elegance” — but something about him didn’t seem right to her.

She decided to try out some small talk.

Is Syracuse home? She asked.

No, he replied curtly.

He similarly deflected further questions. He appeared laser-focused ­– perhaps too laser-focused ­– on the task at hand, those strange scribblings.

Rebuffed, the woman began reading her book. Or pretending to read, anyway. Shortly after boarding had finished, she flagged down a flight attendant and handed that crew-member a note of her own.

This story ended better than some. Economics professor Guido Menzio (yes, he’s Italian) was taken off the plane, questioned, cleared, and allowed to board with the rest of his passengers two hours later.

This is a result of our stupid “see something, say something” culture. As I repeatedly say: “If you ask amateurs to act as front-line security personnel, you shouldn’t be surprised when you get amateur security.”

On the other hand, “Algebra, of course, does have Arabic origins plus math is used to make bombs.” Plus, this fine joke from 2003:

At Heathrow Airport today, an individual, later discovered to be a school teacher, was arrested trying to board a flight while in possession of a compass, a protractor, and a graphical calculator.

Authorities believe she is a member of the notorious al-Gebra movement. She is being charged with carrying weapons of math instruction.

AP story. Slashdot thread.

Seriously, though, I worry that this kind of thing will happen to me. I’m older, and I’m not very Semitic looking, but I am curt to my seatmates and intently focused on what I am doing — which sometimes involves looking at web pages about, and writing about, security and terrorism. I’m sure I’m vaguely suspicious.

EDITED TO ADD: Last month a student was removed from an airplane for speaking Arabic.

Posted on May 9, 2016 at 1:15 PMView Comments

Memphis Airport Inadvertently Gets Security Right

A local newspaper recently tested airport security at Memphis Airport:

Our crew sat for 30 minutes in the passenger drop-off area Tuesday without a word from anyone, and that raised a number of eyebrows.

Certainly raised mine. Here’s my question: why is that a bad thing? If you’re worried about a car bomb, why do you think length of time sitting curbside correlates with likelihood of detonation? Were I a car bomber sitting in the front seat, I would detonate my bomb pretty damned quick.

Anyway, the airport was 100% correct in its reply:

The next day, the airport told FOX13 they take a customer-friendly “hassle free” approach.

I’m certainly in favor of that. Useless security theater that adds to the hassle of traveling without actually making us any safer doesn’t help anyone.

Unfortunately, the airport is now reviewing its procedures, because fear wins:

CEO Scott Brockman sent FOX13 a statement saying in part “We will continue to review our policies and procedures and implement any necessary changes in order to ensure the safety of the traveling public.”

EDITED TO ADD (4/12): The airport PR person commented below. “Jim Turner of the Cato Institute” is actually Jim Harper.

Posted on March 25, 2016 at 12:26 PMView Comments

Bringing Frozen Liquids through Airport Security

Gizmodo reports that UK airport security confiscates frozen liquids:

“He told me that it wasn’t allowed so I asked under what grounds, given it is not a liquid. When he said I couldn’t take it I asked if he knew that for sure or just assumed. He grabbed his supervisor and the supervisor told me that ‘the government does not classify that as a solid’. I decided to leave it at that point. I expect they’re probably wrong to take it from me. They’d probably not seen it before, didn’t know the rules, and being a bit of an eccentric request, decided to act on the side of caution. They didn’t spend the time to look it up.”

As it happens, I have a comparable recent experience. Last week, I tried to bring through a small cooler containing, among other things, a bag of ice. I expected to have to dump the ice at the security checkpoint and refill it inside the airport, but the TSA official looked at it and let it through. Turns out that frozen liquids are fine. I confirmed this with TSA officials at two other airports this week.

One of the TSA officials even told me that what he was officially told is that liquid explosives don’t freeze.

So there you go. The US policy is more sensible. And anyone landing in the UK from the US will have to go through security before any onward flight, so there’s no chance at flouting the UK rules that way.

And while we’re on the general subject, I am continually amazed by how lax the liquid rules are here in the US. Yesterday I went through airport security at SFO with an opened 5-ounce bottle of hot sauce in my carry-on. The screener flagged it; it was obvious on the x-ray. Another screener searched my bag, found it and looked at it, and then let me keep it.

And, in general, I never bother taking my liquids out of my suitcase anymore. I don’t have to when I am in the PreCheck lane, but no one seems to care in the regular lane either. It is different in the UK.

EDITED TO ADD (10/13): According to a 2009 TSA blog post, frozen ice (not semi-melted) is allowed.

Hannibal Burgess routine about the TSA liquids rules.

Posted on September 22, 2015 at 1:22 PMView Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.