Monday, December 18, 2006

No more no-fly lists: Writing in the Times, Randall Stross pillories the “security theater” of the Transportation Security Administration’s hilarious security procedures. If we just make everyone empty their pockets, maybe we can catch the next al Qaeda hijackers, the idea goes. And this idea has some credence, that if we only screen dark-skinned single men with beards, the next bomber will be someone’s grandmother. But there’s no reason to believe that making them empty their pockets and walk through a metal detector will do the trick. El Al and MI5 do not necessarily rely on racial profiling, but they use standard counterterrorism police profiling, and they seem to do a good job of it. (Yes, I know. John Kerry, that cheese-eating surrender monkey, thought we should treat counterterrorism as a police operation. And since he lost, clearly he was wrong.) All the TSA’s wasted energy and money strips us of the investigative capacity to detect and deter real terrorism, or so Stross and security guru Bruce Schneier say:

As passengers, we tender our boarding passes and IDs when asked. We stand in lines. We empty pockets. We take off shoes. We do whatever is asked of us in these mass rites of purification. We play our assigned parts, comforted in the belief that only those whose motives are good and true will be permitted to pass through.

Of course, we never see the actual heart of the security system: the government’s computerized no-fly list, to which our names are compared when we check in for departure. The T.S.A. is much more talented, however, in the theater arts than in the design of secure systems. This becomes all too clear when we see that the agency’s security procedures are unable to withstand the playful testing of a bored computer-science student [who built a boarding-pass generator].


Richard L. Adams, the T.S.A.’s acting federal security director, said [the student Christopher Soghoian’s] generator “could pose a threat to aviation security.”

But Bruce Schneier, chief technology officer at BT Counterpane, a security consulting firm in Mountain View, Calif., emphatically disagreed. Anybody with Photoshop could create a fake boarding pass, he said. Mr. Soghoian’s Web site simply eliminated the need to use Photoshop. The T.S.A.’s profession of outrage is nothing but “security theater,” Mr. Schneier said, using the phrase he coined in 2003 to describe some of the agency’s procedures.


The root problem, as some experts see it, is the T.S.A.’s reliance on IDs that are so easily obtained under false pretenses. “It would be wonderful if Osama bin Laden carried a photo ID that listed his occupation of ‘Evildoer,’ ” permitting the authorities to pluck him from a line, Mr. Schneier said. “The problem is, we try to pretend that identity maps to intentionality. But it doesn’t.”


WHEN I asked Mr. Schneier of BT Counterpane what he would do if he were appointed leader of the T.S.A., he said he would return to the basic procedures for passenger screening used before the 2001 terrorist attacks, which was designed to do nothing more ambitious than “catch the sloppy and the stupid.”

He said he would also ensure that passengers’ bags fly only if the passenger does, improve emergency response capabilities and do away entirely with ID checks and secret databases and no-fly and selectee lists. He added that he would shift funds into basic investigation and intelligence work, which he believes produces results like the arrests of the London bomb suspects. “Put smart, trained officers in plainclothes, wandering in airports — that is by far the best thing the T.S.A. could do,” he said.

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