Security Choice

Bruce Schneier wrote recently about airport security after a screener seized a 6-oz jar of past sauce from his luggage:  “the official confiscated it, because allowing it on the airplane with me would have been too dangerous. And to demonstrate how dangerous he really thought that jar was, he blithely tossed it in a nearby bin of similar liquid bottles and sent me on my way.”  He goes on to discuss “the two classes of contraband at airport security checkpoints: the class that will get you in trouble if you try to bring it on an airplane, and the class that will cheerily be taken away from you if you try to bring it on an airplane.”  Airport security need not catch all of the former as long as the risk and consequences of detection are enough to deter one from attempting to bring them aboard.  That’s not true of the latter type of contraband:  “[b]ecause there are no consequences to trying and failing, the screeners have to be 100 percent effective. Even if they slip up one in a hundred times, the plot can succeed.”  He concludes that airport security should choose:  “[i]f something is dangerous, treat it as dangerous and treat anyone who tries to bring it on as potentially dangerous. If it’s not dangerous, then stop trying to keep it off airplanes.”


Here’s a companion piece to the Schneier article from The Atlantic:  The Things He Carried

11 Replies to “Security Choice”

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  3. deversen

    Victor, for all of the rhetoric comparing the TSA to the legendary “duck and cover” videos, I’d still like to see you attack my actual point. Are you seriously telling me that you would be totally fine with allowing everybody to carry knives onboard an airplane??? What’s the point of “[educating] people to fight the terrorists” when they all have weapons, whether that be knives, broken glass, or something flammable?

    I don’t want to tire people with the hypothetical weapons that could be made, but all it takes is a single glass bottle with a flammable liquid in it (something as harmless as a bottle of Bacardi 151), combined with a lighter, and now suddenly you have a Molotov cocktail in your hands. A terrorist could simply walk into the bathroom, assemble it, and then throw it at whomever/whatever.

    Yes, airport security is annoying and inconvenient. But I’d rather be forced to give up my easily replaceable jar of pasta sauce than my life. People should stop complaining about this.

  4. rtaylor88

    That was an interesting video, I didn’t know there were measures like the ones described that one could take to survive a nuclear detonation on a scale like the one Dr. Irwin was talking about.

    The security checks and rules are not pointless, they just might not be as effective as they could be. Techie is right, we can’t live a lifestyle of paranoia fearing imminent acts of terror, that would be too stressful and distracting. The idea that a terrorist wouldn’t sneak anything past security isn’t nearly as delusional as being told that “ducking and covering” is the best way to survive a nuclear attack.

    The problem with airport security is finding a balance between optimal protection and optimal efficiency when moving thousands of people through the airport. I’m from Atlanta and have flown out of Hartsfield many times. The traffic going in and out of that airport is ridiculous and it would be totally impractical to search every passenger thoroughly enough to have no doubts about safety. Techie is right, as civilians pretty much all we can do is notify security personnel about anything conspicuous and have faith in the people whose job it is to protect us.

  5. techie

    I disagree with Victor. Sometimes theatrical security tricks are needed, if only to assuage the public’s fear of another terrorist attack. I live in New York City and I see theatrical security tricks all the time, eg. an entire row of police cars lined up in front of Macy’s, random bag checks at subway stations, etc. There’s only so much that the police and security personnel can do to prevent another terrorist attack from occurring, but they can’t appear as if they’re not doing much. The public needs to feel psychologically safer so that they can go on with their lives without constantly worrying about another terrorist attack.

    We’ve always sacrificed our liberties to fear. I’m not saying that that’s how it should be, but that’s how people react when they feel like they can’t do anything about something that’s beyond their control. I don’t know how we can fight terrorism as individuals except to go on with our lives as productive members of society and to report suspicious behavior to security personnel. We’re already sacrificing our liberties by passively letting the government to abuse its power, eg. unchecked government surveillance, Guantanamo Bay. Fear has a way of causing people to act irrationally.

  6. Victor Pan

    Stop spending money on pointless theatrical security checks. Stop wasting the time of passengers waiting in line. Educate the people to fight against terrorists.

    We should not sacrifice our liberties to fear. We should fight off terrorism as individuals and live as we have always have, but with alertness to react to emergencies.

    The greater amount of terrorists try to sneak up a plane, the more likely to catch them. The lesser amount of terrorists, the more likely that passengers on the plane can foil a plot. I’d think we would rather fight for what we believe in, than pay an absurd amount of tax dollars for a show.

    These security checks are like the government telling citizens to “duck and cover” in the case of a nuclear confrontation. This isn’t the first time that we were being coaxed by a delusional idea.

  7. Angelo H

    I agree with Deversen’s position on this one. A glass jar can easily be made into a weapon if it is in the wrong hands. A glass jar could easily be used as a weapon. Just because the airport security guard pushed it to the side in a way that some might deem as “unsafe” is not the issue here. The issue here is that the security guard confiscated a potentially harmful weapon if used in the wrong way. The jar itself is not harmful and this is why the guard didn’t need to be extra safe with it. It is when this jar ends up in the wrong hands where a glass shard that can be turned into a knife that can potentially be used in a hijacking is dangerous. The security guard was just doing his job, seizing what could be potentially dangerous before it actually is. In this crazy world, it is better to be safe than sorry.

  8. deversen

    I’m going to have to disagree with this one. While it’s true that airport screeners are not 100% effective, they don’t have to be with regards to these objects because they’re actually only dangerous in aggregate. But make no mistake, they ARE CERTAINLY dangerous in aggregate.

    To make an example, let’s assume one of the objects the author mentioned is detected only 50% of the time, and that object is a pocketknife. First of all, a single person with a pocketknife can still create a hostage situation, but I’ll even ignore that for the moment. If pocketknives were allowed to be brought on planes, I’m relatively confident that 10 men carrying pocketknives on a single plane could create another 9/11 situation with relative ease. But let’s say 8 knife-carrying individuals is the minimum threshold for hijacking a plane.

    As the current security stands in my hypothetical situation, in order to get 8 knives onboard, 16 men would have to attempt to carry them onboard at a 50% failure rate. Call me crazy, but I’m pretty sure even the TSA would realize something was happening around the time they caught the fourth or fifth knife-carrying individual boarding the same plane. In other words, I think that their ban of pocketknives truly does inhibit terrorist plots even though their success rate isn’t 100%.

    Pocketknives were the easiest and most obvious example to make but I’m pretty sure, if you think about it, there are reasons why you wouldn’t want to let an unlimited number of individuals carry cigarette lighters, and say, hairspray onto a plane. And pasta sauce? Ask a prison inmate what can be done with broken glass.

  9. maggiemck

    I’ve heard of sneaking Jim Beam in to the Kentucky Derby the same way that Goldberg snuck beer into the airport. There’s so many ways liquids could be hidden in your clothes even without Beerbelly, and there’s no way that airport security could detect it if you really made an extra effort to hide it. The TSA director made a good point when he said that TSA can’t stop terrorists from bombing a crowd in the security line; there’s some incidences such as this that simply cannot be prevented, even if FBI agents were working the security checkpoints instead of the pasta sauce Nazi.

    Perhaps the money would be better spent on self-defense training for flight attendants and pilots. However, I think our best defense to another terrorist attack such as 9-11 is the passengers on-board, who would be able to subdue a terrorist armed with a homemade knife. I’ve seen too many trucks with “These Colors Don’t Run” American flag bumper stickers since 9-11 to believe that Americans would sit quietly in their chairs these days.

  10. rtaylor88

    Haha, that is so true. Going through airport security and going through Mugar are also similar with respect to the ease with which one can sneak in drinks and what not when they aren’t allowed….as you said, they only check your bags on the way out.

    I have never read nor heard of Jeffrey Goldberg before I read that article and I love his sarcasm. My faith in the TSA’s ability to prevent terrorism has never been very strong but that article makes them look so pathetic. The TSA director didn’t offer much condolence either. But then again, someone will always find a way to beat the system.

  11. afm

    I would compare this to the ‘security’ at BU’s Mugar Library. Everyone must unzip their purse/backpack when leaving the establishment to ensure they are not stealing books. This is all well and good, except that not one of the guards actually LOOKS inside a bag, but if you fail to open and angle it towards the guards (whether they acknowledge its contents or not) you are not allowed out of the library.

    The policy is not wrong, but in carrying it out there is no legitimacy to a rule that is enforced on the wrong level. In Mugar and airport security: the system is enforced without any regard to the goal it is in place to accomplish. Completely undermining the entire process.

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