Entries Tagged "security theater"

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Airport Screeners Still Aren't Any Good

They may be great at keeping you from taking your bottle of water onto the plane, but when it comes to catching actual bombs and guns they’re not very good:

Screeners at Newark Liberty International Airport, one of the starting points for the Sept. 11 hijackers, failed 20 of 22 security tests conducted by undercover U.S. agents last week, missing concealed bombs and guns at checkpoints throughout the major air hub’s three terminals, according to federal security officials.

[…]

One of the security officials familiar with last week’s tests said Newark screeners missed fake explosive devices hidden under bottles of water in carry-on luggage, taped beneath an agent’s clothing and concealed under a leg bandage another tester wore.

The official said screeners also failed to use handheld metal-detector wands when required, missed an explosive device during a pat-down and failed to properly hand-check suspicious carry-on bags. Supervisors also were cited for failing to properly monitor checkpoint screeners, the official said. “We just totally missed everything,” the official said.

As I’ve written before, this is actually a very hard problem to solve:

Airport screeners have a difficult job, primarily because the human brain isn’t naturally adapted to the task. We’re wired for visual pattern matching, and are great at picking out something we know to look for — for example, a lion in a sea of tall grass.

But we’re much less adept at detecting random exceptions in uniform data. Faced with an endless stream of identical objects, the brain quickly concludes that everything is identical and there’s no point in paying attention. By the time the exception comes around, the brain simply doesn’t notice it. This psychological phenomenon isn’t just a problem in airport screening: It’s been identified in inspections of all kinds, and is why casinos move their dealers around so often. The tasks are simply mind-numbing.

To make matters worse, the smuggler can try to exploit the system. He can position the weapons in his baggage just so. He can try to disguise them by adding other metal items to distract the screeners. He can disassemble bomb parts so they look nothing like bombs. Against a bored screener, he has the upper hand.

But perversely, even a mediocre success rate here is probably good enough:

Remember the point of passenger screening. We’re not trying to catch the clever, organized, well-funded terrorists. We’re trying to catch the amateurs and the incompetent. We’re trying to catch the unstable. We’re trying to catch the copycats. These are all legitimate threats, and we’re smart to defend against them. Against the professionals, we’re just trying to add enough uncertainty into the system that they’ll choose other targets instead.

[…]

What that means is that a basic cursory screening is good enough. If I were investing in security, I would fund significant research into computer-assisted screening equipment for both checked and carry-on bags, but wouldn’t spend a lot of money on invasive screening procedures and secondary screening. I would much rather have well-trained security personnel wandering around the airport, both in and out of uniform, looking for suspicious actions.

Remember this truism: We can’t keep weapons out of prisons. We can’t possibly keep them out of airports.

Posted on October 31, 2006 at 12:52 PMView Comments

Perceived Risk vs. Actual Risk

Good essay on perceived vs. actual risk. The hook is Mayor Daley of Chicago demanding a no-fly-zone over Chicago in the wake of the New York City airplane crash.

Other politicians (with the spectacular and notable exception of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg) and self-appointed “experts” are jumping on the tragic accident — repeat, accident — in New York to sound off again about the “danger” of light aircraft, and how they must be regulated, restricted, banned.

OK, for all of those ranting about “threats” from GA aircraft, we’ll believe that you’re really serious about controlling “threats” when you call for:

  • Banning all vans within cities. A small panel van was used in the first World Trade Center attack. The bomb, which weighed 1,500 pounds, killed six and injured 1,042.
  • Banning all box trucks from cities. Timothy McVeigh’s rented Ryder truck carried a 5,000-pound bomb that killed 168 in Oklahoma City.
  • Banning all semi-trailer trucks. They can carry bombs weighing more than 50,000 pounds.
  • Banning newspapers on subways. That’s how the terrorists hid packages of sarin nerve gas in the Tokyo subway system. They killed 12.
  • Banning backpacks on all buses and subways. That’s how the terrorists got the bombs into the London subway system. They killed 52.
  • Banning all cell phones on trains. That’s how they detonated the bombs in backpacks placed on commuter trains in Madrid. They killed 191.
  • Banning all small pleasure boats on public waterways. That’s how terrorists attacked the USS Cole, killing 17.
  • Banning all heavy or bulky clothing in all public places. That’s how suicide bombers hide their murderous charges. Thousands killed.

Number of people killed by a terrorist attack using a GA aircraft? Zero.

Number of people injured by a terrorist attack using a GA aircraft? Zero.

Property damage from a terrorist attack using a GA aircraft? None.

So Mr. Mayor (and Mr. Governor, Ms. Senator, Mr. Congressman, and Mr. “Expert”), if you’re truly serious about “protecting” the public, advocate all of the bans I’ve listed above. Using the “logic” you apply to general aviation aircraft, you’re forced to conclude that newspapers, winter coats, cell phones, backpacks, trucks, and boats all pose much greater risks to the public.

So be consistent in your logic. If you are dead set on restricting a personal transportation system that carries more passengers than any single airline, reaches more American cities than all the airlines combined, provides employment for 1.3 million American citizens and $160 billion in business “to protect the public,” then restrict or control every other transportation system that the terrorists have demonstrated they can use to kill.

And, on the same topic, why it doesn’t make sense to ban small aircraft from cities as a terrorism defense.

Posted on October 23, 2006 at 10:01 AMView Comments

Airport Security Confiscates Rock

They already take away scissors. Can paper be far behind?

Here’s the story:

In retrospect, I suppose I could have put the grapefruit-sized specimen inside my sock, swung it around my head like a mace, charged the cabin and attempted to hijack the flight. This, of course, never occurred to me until the zealous inspector declared my rock a “dual-use” item.

“What, pray tell, is a dual-use item?” I asked. I’m afraid I chuckled just a little, causing her to glare, withhold a satisfactory answer and call her supervisor. He hefted my rock, scrutinized it for a moment, and agreed that my specimen was indeed a dual-use item, meaning a potential low-tech weapon. During those uneasy moments when I thought I would be detained, I wondered if a doctor’s stethoscope would also be declared a dual-use item, since it could be used to strangle a pilot.

We can’t keep weapons out of prisons. We can’t possibly keep them out of airports.

Posted on October 10, 2006 at 11:53 AMView Comments

The Onion on TSA's Liquid Ban

“New Air-Travel Guidelines”:

Elaine Siegel, Sales Representative
“Thank God. I don’t think I’d be able to make one more flight from New York to Chicago with a mouthful of shampoo.”

Alex Hunter, Surveyor
“The ban was a necessary precaution. We have to be willing to make these kinds of sacrifices if we’re going to prevent scientifically impossible terrorist attacks.”

Ed Johansen, Systems Analyst
“By giving passengers renewed access to these gels, lotions, and shampoos, we run the risk of creating a very dangerous and highly evasive super-slippery terrorist able to avoid all manners of restraint.”

Posted on October 1, 2006 at 9:41 AMView Comments

U.S. Visa Application Questions

People applying for a visa to enter the United States have to answer these questions (among others):

Have you ever been arrested of convicted for any offense or crime, even through subject of a pardon, amnesty or other similar legal action? Have you ever unlawfully distributed or sold a controlled substance (drug), or been a prostitute or procurer for prostitutes?

[…]

Did you seek to enter the United States to engage in export control violations, subversive or terrorist activities, or any other unlawful purpose? Are you a member or representative of a terrorist organization as currently designated by the U.S. Secretary of State? Have you ever participated in persecutions directed by the Nazi government or Germany; or have you ever participated in genocide?

Certainly, anyone who is a terrorist or drug dealer wouldn’t worry about lying on his visa application. So, what’s the point of these questions? I used to think it was so that if someone is convicted of one of these activities he can also be convicted of visa-application fraud…but I’m not sure that explanation makes any sense.

Anyone have any better ideas? What is the security benefit of asking these questions?

Posted on September 25, 2006 at 7:26 AM

More Than 10 Ways to Avoid the Next 9/11

From yesterday’s New York Times, “Ten Ways to Avoid the Next 9/11”:

If we are fortunate, we will open our newspapers this morning knowing that there have been no major terrorist attacks on American soil in nearly five years. Did we just get lucky?

The Op-Ed page asked 10 people with experience in security and counterterrorism to answer the following question: What is one major reason the United States has not suffered a major attack since 2001, and what is the one thing you would recommend the nation do in order to avoid attacks in the future?

Actually, they asked more than 10, myself included. But some of us were cut because they didn’t have enough space. This was my essay:

Despite what you see in the movies and on television, it’s actually very difficult to execute a major terrorist act. It’s hard to organize, plan, and execute an attack, and it’s all too easy to slip up and get caught. Combine that with our intelligence work tracking terrorist cells and interdicting terrorist funding, and you have a climate where major attacks are rare. In many ways, the success of 9/11 was an anomaly; there were many points where it could have failed. The main reason we haven’t seen another 9/11 is that it isn’t as easy as it looks.

Much of our counterterrorist efforts are nothing more than security theater: ineffectual measures that look good. Forget the “war on terror”; the difficulty isn’t killing or arresting the terrorists, it’s finding them. Terrorism is a law enforcement problem, and needs to be treated as such. For example, none of our post-9/11 airline security measures would have stopped the London shampoo bombers. The lesson of London is that our best defense is intelligence and investigation. Rather than spending money on airline security, or sports stadium security — measures that require us to guess the plot correctly in order to be effective — we’re better off spending money on measures that are effective regardless of the plot.

Intelligence and investigation have kept us safe from terrorism in the past, and will continue to do so in the future. If the CIA and FBI had done a better job of coordinating and sharing data in 2001, 9/11 would have been another failed attempt. Coordination has gotten better, and those agencies are better funded — but it’s still not enough. Whenever you read about the billions being spent on national ID cards or massive data mining programs or new airport security measures, think about the number of intelligence agents that the same money could buy. That’s where we’re going to see the greatest return on our security investment.

Posted on September 11, 2006 at 6:36 AMView Comments

Bomb or Not?

Can you identify the bombs?

In related news, here’s a guy who makes it through security with a live vibrator in his pants.

There’s also a funny video on Dutch TV. A screener scans a passenger’s bag, putting aside several obvious bags of cocaine to warn him about a very tiny nail file.

Here’s where to buy stuff seized at Boston’s Logan Airport. I also read somewhere that some stuff ends up on eBay.

And finally,Quinn Norton said: “I think someone should try to blow up a plane with a piece of ID, just to watch the TSA’s mind implode.”

Posted on September 6, 2006 at 1:48 PMView Comments

Antiterrorism Expert Claims to Have Smuggled Bomb onto Airplane Twice

I don’t know how much of this to believe.

A man wearing a jacket and carrying a bag was able to sneak a bomb onto a flight from Manila to Davao City last month at the height of the nationwide security alert after Britain uncovered a plot to blow up transatlantic planes.

The man pulled off the same stunt on the return flight to Manila.

Had he detonated the bomb, he would have turned the commercial plane into a fireball and killed himself, the crew and hundreds of other passengers.

The man turned out to be a civilian antiterrorism expert tapped by a government official to test security measures at Philippine airports after British police foiled a plan to blow up US-bound planes in midair using liquid explosives.

In particular, if he actually built a working bomb in an airplane lavatory, he’s an idiot. Yes, C4 is stable, but playing with live electrical detonators near high-power radios is just stupid. On the other hand, bringing everything through security and onto the plane is perfectly plausible. Security is so focused on catching people with lipstick and shampoo that they’re ignoring actual threats.

EDITED TO ADD (9/3): More news.

EDITED TO ADD (9/8): The “expert” is Samson Macariola, and he has recanted.

Posted on September 1, 2006 at 12:41 PMView Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.