Bruce Schneier: get rid of secondary screenings at the airport

I had mixed feelings about Sam Harris’ endorsement of profiling at the airport. The rest of the blogosphere reaction was more uniformly negative, and when security expert Bruce Schneier wrote a rebuttal to Harris (which Harris posted on his own site), this was taken as a decisive refutation of Harris. But I think people have missed the most interesting part of Schneier’s response, which is at the end:

I too am incensed—but not surprised—when the TSA manhandles four-year old girls, children with cerebral palsy, pretty women, theelderly, and wheelchair users for humiliation, abuse, and sometimes theft. Any bureaucracy that processes 630 million people per year will generate stories like this. When people propose profiling, they are really asking for a security system that can apply judgment. Unfortunately, that’s really hard. Rules are easier to explain and train. Zero tolerance is easier to justify and defend. Judgment requires better-educated, more expert, and much-higher-paid screeners. And the personal career risks to a TSA agent of being wrong when exercising judgment far outweigh any benefits from being sensible.

The proper reaction to screening horror stories isn’t to subject only “those people” to it; it’s to subject no one to it. (Can anyone even explain what hypothetical terrorist plot could successfully evade normal security, but would be discovered during secondary screening?) Invasive TSA screening is nothing more than security theater. It doesn’t make us safer, and it’s not worth the cost.

In other words, Harris is right to think we shouldn’t be putting old women in wheelchairs through secondary screening–Schneier just ends up going further and saying we shouldn’t be putting anyone through secondary screening. I strongly suspect Schneier is right about that, and if he is I’d like to see that message broadcast. Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t seem interested in the question of whether or the various “security” procedures that have sprung up after Sept. 11th do any good. They just want to make sure we aren’t doing the un-PC thing of “profiling.”

It’s worth pointing out, for example, that Schneier’s first point stops making sense if you think we should go on doing secondary screenings at random. Once you commit to secondary screenings, you’re screening an awful lot of non-terrorists regardless of whether you profile.

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  • slc1
  • thztds


    I just want to know if the TSA agent was singing:

    Henry Kissinger
    we’ve been missing ya
    And wishing you were here. . .

  • Stephanie Zvan

    Who was only interested in whether it was “un-PC”? Everyone I saw talking about it said it was stupid because it wouldn’t work.

    • Kevin

      I’m sure one day there will be an “incident” where an employee of an airline or the airport smuggles in a “device” that is then passed to a person who goes through the regular screening process.

      But…DAMN…it’s just batshit insane to make little old ladies go through the grope because of that.

      I’ll declare this here and now. I have no death wish, but if someone blows up my plane in this manner, I’ll just shrug and say, “well, you got me.” In no way will I advocate (pre-mortem as it were) for increased post-screening security as a result.

      I think we have to start pushing back. There is no such a thing as zero-risk travel.

      And I’m flying on Saturday.

  • Bill Fisher

    Despite the billions of dollars wasted on full body scanners, their groping searches of children and strip searches of elderly women, they find this using the x-ray belt that was in use prior to 15 years ago. The scanners were scrapped in Germany because of the 54% false positive rate and failure to detect hidden items 44% of the time.

    Nearly every item that TSA finds is found on the x-ray belt, not by the invasive searches or dangerous x-ray body scanners. Only two items have been caught by the scanners since their deployment.

    They also acknowledge that their explosive trace detection is so flawed that it reports a false positive despite a complete lack of explosive material being present.

    The notion that randomly fondling the genitals of innocent people is necessary to provide security is absurd. This is an unacceptable and sick approach to address a security measure that could be as easily and effectively accomplished with less invasive methods.

    There have been 80 reported security breaches in the last 18 months. After sixty billion dollars TSA can’t cite one success, fail 70% of security tests and allow 60% of the freight in the hold to go unchecked.

    There were a total of 91 TSA workers arrested in the last 17 months including 12 arrested for child sex crimes, over 25 for theft, ten for smuggling and even one for murder. Crime, abuse and incompetence is so widespread in TSA that even Kip Hawley, the last TSA Director, has called for its overhaul.

    This cost of this agency is out of control and this is more evidence that none of these newer methods are productive and that the agency is grossly wasteful. Pistole has failed to contain the rampant misconduct and mismanagement within the agency and both need to be replaced with something that works.

  • Steve

    TSA security theater has two main purposes: to remind us that we are now subjects, not citizens, and to provide jobs to be passed out as political favors. An unintended (I hope!) effect was to upgrade a major tactical victory by militant Islam to a strategic victory. I’m far from the first to say It’s time for *every* Presidential and Congressional candidate to be asked, in every public forum, what he plans to do about this crap.

    Didn’t anyone bother to tell the People Who Count that it’s not what a terrorist _does_ that does the real damage, it’s what he can goad the target government into doing?

  • F

    I strongly suspect Schneier is right about that, and if he is I’d like to see that message broadcast.

    His messages have been broadcast, widely. The PTB simply do not listen nor care.