Entries Tagged "security theater"

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Merry Christmas from the TSA

Cupcakes deemed security threat:

Rebecca Hains says she was going through security at the airport in Las Vegas when a TSA agent pulled her aside and said the cupcake frosting was “gel-like” enough to constitute a security risk.

The TSA has officially jumped the shark.

EDITED TO ADD (1/12): The TSA claims that the cupcake they confiscated was in a jar. So this is a less obviously stupid story than I previously thought.

EDITED TO ADD (1/13): The cupcake lady says that the TSA is lying.

Posted on December 25, 2011 at 10:28 AMView Comments

Feeling vs. Reality of Security in Sparrows

Sparrows have fewer surviving offspring if they feel insecure, regardless of whether they actually are insecure. Liana Y. Zanette, Aija F. White, Marek C. Allen, and Michael Clinchy, “Perceived Predation Risk Reduces the Number of Offspring Songbirds Produce per Year,” Science, 9 Dec 2011:

Abstract: Predator effects on prey demography have traditionally been ascribed solely to direct killing in studies of population ecology and wildlife management. Predators also affect the prey’s perception of predation risk, but this has not been thought to meaningfully affect prey demography. We isolated the effects of perceived predation risk in a free-living population of song sparrows by actively eliminating direct predation and used playbacks of predator calls and sounds to manipulate perceived risk. We found that the perception of predation risk alone reduced the number of offspring produced per year by 40%. Our results suggest that the perception of predation risk is itself powerful enough to affect wildlife population dynamics, and should thus be given greater consideration in vertebrate conservation and management.

Seems as if the sparrows could use a little security theater.

Posted on December 14, 2011 at 1:22 PMView Comments

Walls as Security Theater

Interesting essay on walls and their effects:

Walls, then, are built not for security, but for a sense of security. The distinction is important, as those who commission them know very well. What a wall satisfies is not so much a material need as a mental one. Walls protect people not from barbarians, but from anxieties and fears, which can often be more terrible than the worst vandals. In this way, they are built not for those who live outside them, threatening as they may be, but for those who dwell within. In a certain sense, then, what is built is not a wall, but a state of mind.

The essay goes on to talk about the value of walls as security theater.

Posted on December 2, 2011 at 5:30 AMView Comments

Isaac Asimov on Security Theater

A great find:

In his 1956 short story, “Let’s Get Together,” Isaac Asimov describes security measures proposed to counter a terrorist threat:

“Consider further that this news will leak out as more and more people become involved in our countermeasures and more and more people begin to guess what we’re doing. Then what? The panic might do us more harm than any one TC bomb.”

The Presidential Assistant said irritably, “In Heaven’s name, man, what do you suggest we do, then?”

“Nothing,” said Lynn. “Call their bluff. Live as we have lived and gamble that They won’t dare break the stalemate for the sake of a one-bomb head start.”

“Impossible!” said Jeffreys. “Completely impossible. The welfare of all of Us is very largely in my hands, and doing nothing is the one thing I cannot do. I agree with you, perhaps, that X-ray machines at sports arenas are a kind of skin-deep measure that won’t be effective, but it has to be done so that people, in the aftermath, do not come to the bitter conclusion that we tossed our country away for the sake of a subtle line of reasoning that encouraged donothingism.”

This Jeffreys guy sounds as if he works for the TSA.

Posted on October 3, 2011 at 1:20 PMView Comments

The Efficacy of Post-9/11 Counterterrorism

This is an interesting article. The authors argue that the whole war-on-terror nonsense is useless — that’s not new — but that the security establishment knows it doesn’t work and abandoned many of the draconian security measures years ago, long before Obama became president. All that’s left of the war on terror is political, as lawmakers fund unwanted projects in an effort to be tough on crime.

I wish it were true, but I don’t buy it. The war on terror is an enormous cash cow, and law enforcement is spending the money as fast as it can get it. It’s also a great stalking horse for increases in police powers, and I see no signs of agencies like the FBI or the TSA not grabbing all the power they can.

The second half of the article is better. The authors argue that openness, not secrecy, improves security:

The worst mistakes and abuses of the War on Terror were possible, in no small part, because national security is still practiced more as a craft than a science. Lacking rigorous evaluations of its practices, the national security establishment was particularly vulnerable to the panic, grandiosity, and overreach that colored policymaking in the wake of 9/11.

To avoid making those sorts of mistakes again, it is essential that we reimagine national security as an object of scientific inquiry. Over the last four centuries, virtually every other aspect of statecraft — from the economy to social policy to even domestic law enforcement — has been opened up to engagement with and evaluation by civil society. The practice of national security is long overdue for a similar transformation.

Maintaining the nation’s security of course will continue to require some degree of secrecy. But there is little reason to think that appropriate secrecy is inconsistent with a fact-based culture of robust and multiplicative inquiry. Indeed, to whatever partial extent that culture already exists within the national security establishment, it has led the move away from many of the counterproductive security measures established after 9/11.

Yet, in the ten years that Congress has been debating issues like coercive interrogation, ethnic profiling, and military tribunals, the House and Senate Intelligence committees, which have all the proper security clearances to evaluate such questions, have never established any formal process to consistently evaluate and improve the effectiveness of U.S. counterterrorism measures.

Establishing proper oversight and evaluation of the efficacy of our security practices will not come easily, for the security craft guards its claims to privileged knowledge jealously. But as long as the practice of security remains hidden behind a veil of classified documents and accepted wisdoms handed down from generation to generation of security agents, our national security apparatus will never become fully modern.

Here’s the report the article was based on.

Posted on September 2, 2011 at 1:34 PMView Comments

Man Flies with Someone Else's Ticket and No Legal ID

Last week, I got a bunch of press calls about Olajide Oluwaseun Noibi, who flew from New York to Los Angeles using an expired ticket in someone else’s name and a university ID. They all wanted to know what this says about airport security.

It says that airport security isn’t perfect, and that people make mistakes. But it’s not something that anyone should worry about. It’s not like Noibi figured out a new hole in the airport security system, one that he was able to exploit repeatedly. He got lucky. He got real lucky. It’s not something a terrorist can build a plot around.

I’m even less concerned because I’ve never thought the photo ID check had any value. Noibi was screened, just like any other passenger. Even the TSA blog makes this point:

In this case, TSA did not properly authenticate the passenger’s documentation. That said, it’s important to note that this individual received the same thorough physical screening as other passengers, including being screened by advanced imaging technology (body scanner).

Seems like the TSA is regularly downplaying the value of the photo ID check. This is from a Q&A about Secure Flight, their new system to match passengers with watch lists:

Q: This particular “layer” isn’t terribly effective. If this “layer” of security can be circumvented by anyone with a printer and a word processor, this doesn’t seem to be a terribly useful “layer” … especially looking at the amount of money being expended on this particular “layer”. It might be that this money could be more effectively spent on other “layers”.

A: TSA uses layers of security to ensure the security of the traveling public and the Nation’s transportation system. Secure Flight’s watchlist name matching constitutes only one security layer of the many in place to protect aviation. Others include intelligence gathering and analysis, airport checkpoints, random canine team searches at airports, federal air marshals, federal flight deck officers and more security measures both visible and invisible to the public.

Each one of these layers alone is capable of stopping a terrorist attack. In combination their security value is multiplied, creating a much stronger, formidable system. A terrorist who has to overcome multiple security layers in order to carry out an attack is more likely to be pre-empted, deterred, or to fail during the attempt.

Yes, the answer says that they need to spend millions to ensure that terrorists with a viable plot also need a computer, but you can tell that their heart wasn’t in the answer. “Checkpoints! Dogs! Air marshals! Ignore the stupid photo ID requirement.”

Noibi is an embarrassment for the TSA and for the airline Virgin America, who are both supposed to catch this kind of thing. But I’m not worried about the security risk, and neither is the TSA.

Posted on July 6, 2011 at 5:53 AMView Comments

Yet Another Way to Evade TSA's Full-Body Scanners

Last night, at the Third EPIC Champion of Freedom Awards Dinner, we gave an award to Susie Castillo, whose blog post and video of her treatment in the hands of the TSA has inspired thousands to complain about the agency and their treatment of travellers.

Sitting with her at dinner, I learned yet another way to evade the TSA’s full body scanners: carry a small pet. She regularly travels with her small dog, and has found that she is always directed away from the full-body scanners and through the magnetometers. I suspect that the difficulty of keeping the dog still is why TSA makes that determination. (The carrier, of course, goes through the x-ray machine.)

I’m not sure what the TSA is going to do now that I’ve publicized this unpublished exception. Those of you who travel with small pets: please let me know what happens.

(For those of you who are appalled that I could give the terrorists ideas on how to evade the full-body scanners, there are already so many ways that one more can’t hurt.)

Posted on June 14, 2011 at 7:54 AMView Comments

Julian Sanchez on Balancing Privacy and Security

From a blog post:

In my own area of study, the familiar trope of “balancing privacy and security” is a source of constant frustration to privacy advocates, because while there are clearly sometimes tradeoffs between the two, it often seems that the zero-sum rhetoric of “balancing” leads people to view them as always in conflict. This is, I suspect, the source of much of the psychological appeal of “security theater”: If we implicitly think of privacy and security as balanced on a scale, a loss of privacy is ipso facto a gain in security. It sounds silly when stated explicitly, but the power of frames is precisely that they shape our thinking without being stated explicitly.

I’ve written about the false trade-off between security and privacy.

Posted on February 11, 2011 at 12:48 PMView Comments

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Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.