The TSA’s policy is junk

In its quest to make the skies safe, America’s Transportation Security Administration has once again upped the measures used to stop weapons from getting on airplanes. Last March, the TSA began distributing body scanners that can detect weapons under one’s clothing that a metal detector might miss, such as explosives. Security is no doubt improved by such devices– producing a naked picture of each passenger is an effective way of screening out weapons. Such devices, however, are unlikely to stop a terrorist attack and their deployment is using money that could be employed more effectively to increase security.

For most passengers over the last few months, the issue hasn’t been the TSA’s misuse of money. Rather, passengers are increasingly finding the measures taken at airports not to be worth the hassle. Everyone who enters the checkpoint must pass through security. Choosing to leave the airport without approval after entering the security gate can result in a $10,000 fine. Knowing that someone in another room is looking at an image of your naked body is embarrassing. (The officer viewing the images is located elsewhere and is unable to view the identity of the individual.) Passengers who refuse to be scanned are subject to a pat down by a same-gender officer and all passengers who enter the checkpoint must now be given either a body scan or a pat down. Children receive a modified pat down. For many, the invasion of privacy of a full body scan or a pat down without having done anything wrong is unjustified.

The TSA’s view on the matter, with some just cause, is that their job is to ensure air travel is safe and so they will do whatever is necessary to achieve that goal. Passengers have learned to adapt as security became more strict after September 11, 2001. The inability to carry water through security, for instance, or the need to take one’s shoes off at the security checkpoints are annoying but worth the assurance of safety. The caveat is that safety needs to actually improve. While many passengers are complaining that the new security process is degrading, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly where such a threshold is crossed. In any case, a decrease in dignity is likely worth the increase in safety, up to a point. The claim that the TSA’s investment on technology is dramatically increasing safety is questionable, however.

In his book Beyond Fear, Bruce Schneier coined the term “security theatre” in reference to practices that convey security but likely have no real benefit. While full body scanners– along with metal detectors and pat downs– prevent many passengers from inadvertently carrying knives and lighters onto airplanes, such measures are unlikely to stop a serious terrorist threat. It isn’t difficult to come up with ways of attacking a country’s transport system without going through a security checkpoint.

Airports and planes are popular targets for terrorists because they can do a great deal of damage while also bringing the air transport system of a country to a halt. It doesn’t take the bombing of a plane, however, to achieve the same result. One obvious way of grounding flights is to detonate a bomb in the line up for the scans. These lines are often the most crowded area of an airport. In the end, of course, officers will be unable to protect every traveler because terrorists might just as soon switch their attention to trains or high-rise buildings. A shift needs to occur away from focusing on passengers at airports toward more wide-scale intelligence gathering.

Security is a literal arms race of terrorists finding new ways to cause destruction and security agencies stopping them before they can follow through with their plan. While the body scanners prevent one kind of attack (a bomb concealed under one’s clothing) they are unable to detect weapons hidden in different ways. A terrorist in Saudi Arabia last year, for example, detonated a bomb hidden inside his rectum. There is no taboo to prevent a terrorist from smuggling a bomb inside a rectum or a vagina– more importantly, no security measure currently in place is capable of identifying such a device. Horrifically, even children are occasionally used as suicide bombers, so if children are given a less thorough check then a security breach is plausible. The TSA is simply unable to address every possible situation.

The point of this discussion isn’t to render airport security checkpoints useless, it is that they play an important but limited role in security. The examples make clear, however, that the solution to security isn’t better scanners at more locations. Terrorists who pose a serious threat to security will almost certainly be able to invent new ways of getting past technological screening.

To properly address the risk of terrorism, the best solution is to increase spending on intelligence so that threats can be stopped earlier. Evidence bares this out: recent terrorist attacks have been stopped almost entirely, not because of technology, but because of human intelligence. Breaking up terrorist cells will be far more successful– and efficient– than scanning every passenger who boards an airplane. At airports, asking the right kinds of questions with the proper training is the best way to identity suspicious individuals. The TSA would do a much more effective job if they refocused their budget to address a more complete picture of transport security. In this way, passenger dignity will be preserved and terrorists will be stopped.

. . Gauntlet Editorial Board

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