Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A cynic looks at airport security

Bill Sweetman writes at Ares about the state of airport security.

Since the terrorist attempt Friday on Northwest/Delta flight 253, [Homeland Security Secretary Janet] Napolitano has repeatedly said "the system worked." But it didn't. A terrorist was able to get a bomb aboard the airplane. It is no thanks to Napolitano that the passengers on 253 are alive, not in fragments in a warehouse somewhere, being identified by technicians. The system failed, but fortunately the bomb did too.

Unfortunately for the rest of us. For a tiny cost, terrorists apparently have panicked officials into inflicting more damage on the global air transportation system, by imposing humiliation and discomfort on passengers, while not making the terrorists' job any harder.

It's time to apply some serious security discipline to the protection of air transportation, on a global scale. This rests on the fact that no security measure is perfect. But if there are multiple measures in place, the attacker can't count on the imperfections to line up - link several slices of Swiss cheese - and has a much more difficult task.

Today's system wastes a huge amount of time and money searching people who are not homicidal maniacs - and this is the incontrovertible fact behind all the arguments about "profiling." Not only are most passengers not bombers, but most passengers are linked to a mass of data, an electronic identity that makes it easy to confirm that they are unlikely suspects.

Yes, some people will argue, but there's always the chance that a 44-year-old woman who's lived in Des Moines for 16 years and has travelled 20 times a year on business, on average, for the last decade has suddenly decided to become a suicide bomber. There is a chance, but it is a very small one, and if terrorist groups have to start recruiting in that demographic it will put a big crimp in their activities. Which is what we want.

So one way to greatly improve aviation security would be to take advantage of what we already know about people. Offer passengers a smart card, linked to a security rating - akin to a credit rating, based on personal details, life events, a travel record, the data trail behind the ticket and other factors, rated against the profile of known attackers.

(Privacy? Count yourself lucky if that's all anyone knows about you. The other day I was dealing with a bank online: In 30 seconds it was asking me to confirm what city a family member lived in, and it knew where I lived - 25 years ago. That horse is not just out of the barn - it has galloped across the open plain into the sunset.)

Use any of several hard-to-spoof biometric systems to match the card to the holder - they have to be better than photo IDs, and I speak as a person bearing not the slightest resemblance to my passport photo - and your high-rated passengers can sail through. Maybe not every time - I'd happily trade the imbecile shoes/jacket/laptop routine for a once-in-10 thumbprint scan and explosives check - but at least most of the time.

Then you can get rid of the low-paid, bored-to-death screeners doing the same thing over and over again and focus on the low-rated types. I'd guess that the alleged flight 253 bomber would have been among them: boarded in Nigeria, paid cash, no bags, 20-30 years old and male.

The absence of any kind of critical thinking along those lines is why Napolitano maybe should be fired. But that would reflect badly on her boss, and what we've seen in the last year is that, ultimately, that's what matters in Washington.

There's more at the link.

I couldn't agree more with him, of course. Current airport security - and the TSA in general - is a bad joke. If I (admittedly military- and law-enforcement-trained) can spot ten ways to get something through, you may be sure that those seeking to do evil have spotted many more! (And just consider . . . how many of us have flown somewhere with something verboten inadvertently in our carry-on luggage, because we forgot about it? And how many times has the TSA failed to detect it? It's happened to me more than once.)

As fellow blogger Breda plaintively asked:

... tell me again why I have to bear the humiliation of being groped and swabbed every time I fly? Someone please explain it to me because, clearly, I don't understand. Can't they just put me on a terrorist watchlist so that TSA will leave me alone?

Let's hope President Obama can apply some of the 'change' he trumpets so loudly to our transportation security agencies and systems. If he doesn't, it's only a matter of time until we have another tragedy/disaster/call it what you will, perhaps as bad as or even worse than September 11th, 2001 . . . and he won't be able to blame President Bush for it!


1 comment:

Mikael said...

I'm pretty sure I've read some blogg where it was written that the blogger had, post 9/11, forgotten he was carrying concealed, and didn't notice until he arrived at his destination. TSA never noticed either.