Forgot your password?
typodupeerror
Transportation Security United States News

Vanity Fair On the TSA and Security Theater 256

Posted by Soulskill
from the keeping-the-terrists-from-winning dept.
OverTheGeicoE writes "Perhaps it's now officially cool to criticize the TSA. Vanity Fair has a story questioning the true value of TSA security. The story features Bruce Schneier, inventor of the term 'security theater' and contender for the Most Interesting Man in the World title, it would seem. With Schneier's mentoring, the author allegedly doctors a boarding pass to breach security at Reagan National Airport to do an interview with Schneier. 'To walk through an airport with Bruce Schneier is to see how much change a trillion dollars can wreak. So much inconvenience for so little benefit at such a staggering cost.'"
This discussion has been archived. No new comments can be posted.

Vanity Fair On the TSA and Security Theater

Comments Filter:
  • Get a clue Big Sis (Score:5, Informative)

    by koan (80826) on Friday December 23, 2011 @01:05PM (#38472718)

    Israels airport security has not been breached since the 70's
    http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/explainer/2011/01/whats_so_great_about_israeli_security.html [slate.com]

    "All passengers waiting to check in speak to a polyglot agent. The agents, most of whom are female, ask a series of questions, looking for nerves or inconsistent statements. While the vast majority of travelers pass the question and answer session and have a pretty easy time going through security"

    This method requires competence on the part of the interrogator though, so in effect that leaves out TSA employees.

    • by Anonymous Coward on Friday December 23, 2011 @01:16PM (#38472858)

      I have lived in Israel, and went through their vaunted security dozens of times. My own observations led me to suspect this was security theater of a different kind, and my suspicions were later verified by a friend who once worked as one of those security screeners. Their trained goal is to make the passengers think they can't pull one over on the security personnel, and it seems that's enough.

      That being said, they do screen baggage very carefully.

      • by ColdWetDog (752185) on Friday December 23, 2011 @01:32PM (#38473064) Homepage

        I have lived in Israel, and went through their vaunted security dozens of times. My own observations led me to suspect this was security theater of a different kind, and my suspicions were later verified by a friend who once worked as one of those security screeners. Their trained goal is to make the passengers think they can't pull one over on the security personnel, and it seems that's enough.

        That being said, they do screen baggage very carefully.

        Part of security is intimidation. If you don't think you can breach the defenses and don't try - that's a win. But trying to use Israel as an example of 'how to do' airport security will fail for the simple reason that the Israelis are trying to protect only one large airport (Ben Gurion) - not hundreds of large ones and thousands of smaller ones. Some things just don't scale.

        Further, Israeli security is openly racist -if you look Arabic, you're chances of getting most carefully screened is much higher than if you're Caucasian appearing. That wouldn't (so to speak) fly in the US.

        • by meerling (1487879)
          There have been lots of reports that the TSA also treats you inequitably if you look Arabic or have a Middle Eastern sounding name in their opinion.

          So your point is?
      • Venezuela, then? (Score:5, Interesting)

        by oneiros27 (46144) on Friday December 23, 2011 @02:27PM (#38473740) Homepage

        I've heard good things about the Venezuelean security screeners (I think it was Venezualean, I heard about it second-hand) ... maybe it was just a single case, and not the way it's all done, but rather than the 'standard 3' we used to get asked (did you pack your own bag, etc.), they'd ask questions like 'What's the color of the inside of your suitcase?'

        They were presenting at a conference, and the screener (coming in at customs), asked them to give the presentation to them. If it's someone claiming to be visiting as a tourist, you ask them what hotel they're staying at (and you can check the reservation), and what sites they plan on seeing.

        I admit, it's possible to be prepared for all of these questions ... but when they're less predictable (giving the screener the ability to improvise), and it's not just yes/no questions, it's harder to plan for.

    • From the article:

      between 2 percent and 5 percent of travelers get singled out for additional screening. The exact selection criteria aren't publicly available, but ethnicity is probably a consideration [...] Secondary screening can involve hours of questioning. Agents have been known to click through all of a traveler's digital photographs. Body searches are common, and agents usually take luggage apart one item at a time.

      This does not sound better. Just racist, inefficient, and highly subjective.

    • by Hatta (162192) on Friday December 23, 2011 @01:23PM (#38472958) Journal

      The risk of terrorism is simply not severe enough to warrant that level of investment in security. We will save more lives focusing on clean drinking water, renewable energy, and public health and welfare in general. It would be a lot cheaper too.

      If the TSA is ineffective, don't be surprised. It's not intended to be effective. It's intended to be profitable for well connected individuals and corporations. It is quite plainly a fraud on the American people.

    • by bill_mcgonigle (4333) * on Friday December 23, 2011 @01:31PM (#38473048) Homepage Journal

      This method requires competence on the part of the interrogator though, so in effect that leaves out TSA employees.

      And now that they're unionized, good luck with that. When was the last time we saw government voluntarily reduce its size and scope?

      The only way this is going to be fixed is by wiping out the whole department. There's a primary coming up a candidate who would do that.

      • by Anonymous Coward on Friday December 23, 2011 @02:28PM (#38473758)

        And now that they're unionized

        What does ionization have to do with it?

      • by Thing 1 (178996) on Friday December 23, 2011 @08:58PM (#38478038) Journal

        The only way this is going to be fixed is by wiping out the whole department. There's a primary coming up a candidate who would do that.

        I and many of my friends have registered Republican this year, solely so we can vote for Ron Paul in the primaries. (I believe that is what you meant, and wanted to inform those who were unaware.) I also heard on NPR on the way home tonight that Newt Gingrich is basically out of money, and both Ron Paul and Mitt Romney have "super-PACs" that are not in their control, which are generating attack ads that Newt will not be able to afford to overcome, so he's effectively out of the running. The gist of that story was that it's a two-way race now, between Mitt Romney and Ron Paul! That is amazing, I always thought he was "fringe", but now he's about to attract some government lead. Too bad, I like his ideas.

    • by Yvanhoe (564877)
      And with such airport security Israel has really been safe from terrorists since the 70's. One of Schneier's point is that if you make airport even marginally harder to hit, terrorist will hit somewhere else.
    • by TubeSteak (669689) on Friday December 23, 2011 @01:37PM (#38473112) Journal

      Israels airport security has not been breached since the 70's

      You know what's wrong with Israeli airport security?
      Besides the institutionalized racial/ethnic profiling, It doesn't scale up.

      Ben Gurion airport handles ~12 million passengers per year
      JFK International* in New York handles ~46.5 million passengers per year.

      The number 1 airport in the world is Atlanta International and they handle ~89 million passengers per year.
      There is no reasonable way to intensively screen 89 million passengers per year

      *Adding Newark and LaGuardia gives you the biggest clusterfuck in the USA & #2 in the world.

      • So what you're telling me is that if you hire 5x the amount of personnel working at Ben Gurion you could not still match the amount of people at JFK? I thought that is exactly how you scale up operations?

        Also what's the success failure rate of the screening/security at Ben Gurion vs JFK?

        TSA is what, 0 out of X number of preventing/catching anything?

      • by Hadlock (143607)

        How on earth did Atlanta beat out Newark, JFK, DFW etc? I've had plenty of connections through Miami and Newark (and once through Houston), but never, ever Atlanta.

        • How about the fact that Newark, JFK (and LGA) serve GREATLY overlapping populations... that's pretty much a divide by three right there...

          then, the big US airlines: AA (hubs Chicago, which has Midway, and DFW, but that's east/west), United (also Chicago, and Denver east/west), and Delta (ATL). So its no surprise that Chicago is at least number two, but it has Midway. ATL is number one...

    • by k6mfw (1182893)

      >Israels airport security has not been breached since the 70's

      Or maybe they have but those very few times have not been reported. There was a discussion someplace (this forum or someplace else) that while their airport security is very good, it is not absolute. The myth goes on like Rolls Royce cars never break down (but spoke with a RR owner and he says his car needs maintenance all the time). Then your airports may be secure but everyplace else is not. So then you have to secure everything then the

      • So then you have to secure everything then the country becomes a prison and basically a non-economy.

        Have you been paying attention lately? Google "ViPR train station bus station Tennessee highway" and see what you find. Then, turn to the financial section of your local newspaper and read about how our economy has been doing. Can you honestly tell me that the U.S. isn't already there (or at the very least, quickly heading that direction)?

    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by hawguy (1600213)

      "All passengers waiting to check in speak to a polyglot agent. The agents, most of whom are female, ask a series of questions, looking for nerves or inconsistent statements. While the vast majority of travelers pass the question and answer session and have a pretty easy time going through security"

      If I was talking to a hot female Israeli polygamous agent, I'd be pretty flustered and would always get selected for secondary screening - what could I do to be assured of having a body cavity search?

    • by mseeger (40923) on Friday December 23, 2011 @02:16PM (#38473622)

      First: Overall security seems better to me in Israel. But experience breeds progress. The U.S. has an abysmal terrorist rate. Should you increase that, the counter terrorists will become better as well. For various reasons i discourage walking that path.

      Second: If you carry lot's of gadgets (like me), the check while leaving may take 1+ hours for doing the x-rays alone.

      Third: The checks start a lot earlier than the airport.

      Fourth: There are good security people and not so good, even in Israel. User experience may vary ;-). Security was more thorough 15 years ago. Seems more relaxed lately.

      Fifth: Ask Israeli businessmen what they think about the security people. The don't like them more than their counterparts in the U.S. do.

      Sixth: The terrorists already win, when flying becomes more of a burden. Life is a bitch :-(.

    • by dargaud (518470)

      "All passengers waiting to check in speak to a polyglot agent. The agents, most of whom are female, ask a series of questions, looking for nerves or inconsistent statements. While the vast majority of travelers pass the question and answer session and have a pretty easy time going through security"

      I had heard about Israel's security reputation in terms of efficiency while not being too much of a pain in the ass (well, as long as you are not a palestinian I guess). I went there recently so I paid attention and that was certainly true. First of all there was nobody else going through security at that time, so that certainly helped. The guy was friendly but asked pointed questions like: "what's your wife's name?". And I noticed he was focused and paying close attention to my hands as I spoke.

    • by nospam007 (722110) *

      "...check in speak to a polyglot agent."

      None of them understands my Luxembourgish, so I just stick to it and I'm quite fast through the check.

  • by FudRucker (866063) on Friday December 23, 2011 @01:10PM (#38472778)
    "We will bankrupt ourselves in the vain search for absolute security."
  • by Entropius (188861) on Friday December 23, 2011 @01:14PM (#38472832)

    "I see your prohibition is against 'liquids'. Can I carry ice onboard?"

    The agent didn't know. Asked his supervisor; she didn't know.

    • by Bucky24 (1943328)
      That's genius. I imagine even now a high level TSA official is scratching his/her head as they try to decide if they should allow ice or not.
      • by SuperQ (431) *

        You think that's bad, try Peanut Butter.

        • by Bucky24 (1943328)
          Eh, I think they would stop peanut butter. I had my toothpaste taken away from me by the TSA, and that, like peanut butter, is a soft-paste-like thing. Maybe peanut butter frozen solid?
        • by Kenja (541830)
          Peanut butter is a "gel". Gels are only allowed in limited amounts (think those mini-bottles of shampoo).
    • by meerling (1487879)
      Nice :) And water ice is pretty identifiable and totally unlike virtually all other 'ices' in the entire universe. (That's literally.) If you don't know, ask a chemist. Heck, almost any physical scientist will remember the oddities of water/ice from school even if they don't have to deal with it in their current field. It really is that weird of a substance.
    • Don't laugh - I read on a frequent flyer forum several months ago that ice is not a problem, because it is not a liquid. The person posting on the forum claimed to regularly take frozen bottles of water through security. Whether this is a general policy, or only at that person's particular airport, I have no idea.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    And if he does, does he prefer Dos Equis?

  • by daveschroeder (516195) * on Friday December 23, 2011 @01:15PM (#38472842)

    Security theater, from this perspective, is an attempt to convey a message: “We are doing everything possible to protect you.” When 9/11 shattered the public’s confidence in flying, Slovic says, the handful of anti-terror measures that actually work—hardening the cockpit door, positive baggage matching, more-effective intelligence—would not have addressed the public’s dread, because the measures can’t really be seen. Relying on them would have been the equivalent of saying, “Have confidence in Uncle Sam,” when the problem was the very loss of confidence. So a certain amount of theater made sense.

    After witnessing enough conversations about how TSA is worthless, or worse, yet another part of an effort to acclimate hapless Americans to living in a police state, I think it's valid to consider the reasons for even "appearances" of security, and I'm glad this article laid them out clearly. Even appearances can be a deterrent.

    The other points in the article are also valid. I believe we need to ask ourselves the question that if at least some amount of "theater" is appropriate, what is that amount, and what would the damage been to the air transport sector if nothing (visible) had been done? Note I don't pretend to know the answer.

    Some say that money might better have been spent "educating" people why such security measures don't work, so they won't be a afraid when they don't see it. That's a task far easier said than done. Alongside the constant drumbeat in some circles that the government is out to get them, it's important to understand there are actual legitimate reasons for things the TSA is doing, seen and unseen.

    None of this means that our homeland security efforts should be exempt from criticism or thoughtful scrutiny, but it needs to be done against a backdrop of reason.

    Interesting semi-related story:

    Skies Are Now So Safe on U.S. Flights That Experts Turn Focus to 'Surface Threats' [wsj.com]

    • by bill_mcgonigle (4333) * on Friday December 23, 2011 @01:21PM (#38472922) Homepage Journal

      The skies aren't safe because of the TSA, it's because nobody really wants to blow up an airplane, jihadi style.

      Think about it - the failure rate of the TSA is over 60% at some airports. If the so-called jihadis really want to blow up airplanes, they just need to send 10 people and they'll take out six airplanes, on average.

      Or if you believe this liquid explosive nonsense, they can send 10 guys each with 3 oz shampoo bottles.

      It may be because ordinary Americans solved the security problem over a field in Shanksville PA just an hour after the 9/11 plot became known.

      Or maybe the secure cockpit doors had something to do with it.

      Or maybe the 9/11 plot wasn't really carried out by jihadis.

      Any of the above could be true, but what's clearly not true is that there currently exists a jihadi threat to airliners.

      • by Dracos (107777)

        Or maybe the 9/11 plot wasn't really carried out by jihadis.

        Ding ding ding ding ding!

      • by rikkards (98006) on Friday December 23, 2011 @01:37PM (#38473122) Journal

        if jihadis really wanted to cause terror blow themselves up in security lines. Forget the planes, they could take out passengers and the TSA

        • by DavidTC (10147)

          No kidding. They'd functionally stop all flights, and possible cause enough of an overreaction that people who've already gone through security can't go anywhere.

          And, of course, there's the other fun attack: taking out the dozen or so bridges that almost all port traffic uses. Car bombs would do it.

          The only thing that hijacking airplanes let you do is blow up buildings, and, uh, there are other ways to do that that are easier.

          Luckily, al Quaeda is apparently gone, otherwise, I'd fully expect this to star

          • Any of us can think of many ways to kill a large number of people, if we're unconcerned with our own survival and unconcerned with which specific people we kill. It is noteworthy how rarely any such thing actually happens.

      • by the eric conspiracy (20178) on Friday December 23, 2011 @01:47PM (#38473252)

        Blowing up US planes has been tried four times since 9/11. Each time it has failed because of intelligence, in-flight security or passenger action.

        The TSA however been hasn't shown to be worth jack shit let alone a trillion dollars. They haven't stopped or prevented anything.

        Passengers who responded in these situation got the full-blown hero treatment in the media. Every now and then the Flight 93 movies and documentaries are rebroadcast which further drives home the message.

        IMHO the reason you don't see it much is that it doesn't work any more, not that terrorists don't want to do it. All it does is make heroes of ordinary people, which is not the result terrorists want.

    • by SmurfButcher Bob (313810) on Friday December 23, 2011 @01:22PM (#38472944) Journal

      > Alongside the constant drumbeat in some circles that the government is out to get them, it's important to understand there are actual legitimate reasons for things the TSA is doing, seen and unseen.

      Name three.

      Note that pumping billions into a crony corporation is not considered legitimate.

      • Name three.

        1. Jobs!
        2. Convince people not to fly and thus reduce CO2 emissions.
        3. Distract people from the chemtrails.
        • by Shark (78448)

          I'll grant you the last two... But government jobs do nothing for the economy. They merely have different people spend the same money. Unless you figure out a sector where the government actually produces something that people are willing to pay for and generates a profit doing so (most candidates for that operate at a loss).

    • by Bob9113 (14996)

      >> Relying on them would have been the equivalent of saying, âoeHave confidence in Uncle Sam,â when the problem was the very loss of confidence. So a certain amount of theater made sense.

      > After witnessing enough conversations about how TSA is worthless, or worse, yet another part of an effort to acclimate hapless Americans to living in a police state, I think it's valid to consider the reasons for even "appearances" of security, and I'm glad this article laid them out clearly. Even appea

    • Except that I remember that there was not that much outcry from the general populace to "do something". There was a lot of "how did this happen?" The big outcry for security theater was from politicians. It would not have been very hard to sell the American people on the idea that the anti-terror measures that work were enough. Most people recognize, or can be easily shown, that the terrorists 9/11 plan would not work today. Any attempt to hijack an airplane today with weapons that only kill one at a time,
    • Even appearances can be a deterrent.

      Sure, but is that worth BILLIONS of dollars? That's what it comes down to - Is this money well spent?

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday December 23, 2011 @01:26PM (#38472990)

    Security isn't very good at the White House either:

    So off we went to Washington [to have dinner with President Bush]. The dinner was at the Hilton, where Ronald Reagan had been shot. It wasn't long after 9/11, so I was feeling really paranoid about the security situation. Then, when we got there, it was pandemonium. They had about five thousand TV cameras outside, and just one little metal detector with a couple of guys manning it. I had to cling on to Greta's jacket just to get through the crowd. Meanwhile, my assistant Tony -- who's only a little fella -- skipped over the rope and walked behind the metal detector without anyone even noticing. It was a joke, man. I could have smuggled a ballistic fucking missile into that place, and no one would have said a word.

    Citation:
    Ozzy Osbourne, from the biography "I Am Ozzy"

  • by Minwee (522556) <dcr@neverwhen.org> on Friday December 23, 2011 @01:37PM (#38473120) Homepage

    Good article, but then...

    I read the comments after it.

    What was I thinking?

  • by k6mfw (1182893) on Friday December 23, 2011 @01:48PM (#38473262)
    Regarding incidents of mass shootings, i.e. Columbine and Virginia Tech, a gun enthusiast said all these places are "gun free" zones. He said more and more states are removing gun bans on various places because places that allow conceal carry never had mass shootings. Logic goes that if anyone is allowed conceal carry, then whenever or whereever a madman shooter goes wild, other people (students and teachers) can pull out their handguns and waste the perpetrator. This seems to be the most ridiculous form of security but mentality of people of this country are all going nutzoid these days. Like using logic that there were "no terrorist attacks" in the 1800s (there were but were called something else).
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      I understand not liking guns, especially in public. However, responsible gun owners can prevent crimes before or during the act. In general, the police show up after the crime. If you could go back in time and give a gun to a teacher at Columbine, would you? I would. Obviously there is the potential for unintended consequences, but that applies to both sides - if everyone has a gun, it might cause more violence. If only criminals have guns, it might cause more crime. I don't think "ridiculous" is an

    • by Attila Dimedici (1036002) on Friday December 23, 2011 @02:23PM (#38473690)

      Logic goes that if anyone is allowed conceal carry,...

      No, the logic goes that people who are planning to shoot up a bunch of people are not going to be deterred by the fact that some place is a "gun-free" zone. As a matter of fact, that makes that place a better choice for shooting up a bunch of people because you know that no one else there will be armed. The argument is that these places should allow those who have been granted a concealed carry permit (a process that usually involves some evaluation of the mental state of the individual and whether or not they have a history of encounters with law enforcement) because then not everybody there would be solely a potential victim.
      Of course, the big part of this argument comes from the stories very few people hear of where someone tried to shoot up a place where there were people carrying concealed weapons. Within six months of the first Virginia Tech shootings there were two or three similar attempts that did not make the news because the shooter only got off about six shots before someone with a concealed carry license pulled their weapon and shot him. The thing is, every time someone tries this in a "gun-free" zone, there are a lot of deaths, every time someone tries this where someone is legally concealed carrying there are at most three deaths (two victims and the perpetrator).

      • by oodaloop (1229816) on Friday December 23, 2011 @04:51PM (#38475570)
        Agree on all points. Additionally, crimes that were averted with the mere flashing or drawing of a weapon do not get reported either. A woman getting raped and beaten is newsworthy and sensationalist. A woman pulling a gun defensively on someone trying to rape her wouldn't even get reported to the news let alone aired; too common and boring. I carry concealed, as do many of my friends. One of them was approached by several hoodlums. My friend pulled his vest to the side to show his pistol, and they walked away. How many times this kind of nonviolent preemptive defensive use of a firearm occurs is anyone's guess.
    • This seems to be the most ridiculous form of security but mentality of people of this country are all going nutzoid...

      So, in other words, because the end results don't match your preconceived notions of how things *should* work, those who say, "This clearly isn't working; let's try something else." are "nutzoid"? As the saying goes, "When seconds count, the cops are just minutes away." I don't see what's so "nutzoid" about accepting the fact that the only person you can count on to "protect" you is you.

      Think it through for a second. Murder is already illegal, so what

  • You cannot make an argument against safety even if what you are doing is wasteful. What if there is an attack right after the TSA is disbanded? This is political suicide and no one will do it. If I want to make the TSA even larger, this is considered improving safety! It's like trying to argue that the speed limit should be raised or even eliminated. Remember: "If even one life is saved, it is all worthwhile!"

Do not simplify the design of a program if a way can be found to make it complex and wonderful.

Working...