As one of my Facebook friends wrote, US airport security policy is "Fighting Yesterday’s Threat Tomorrow." Bruce Schneier, author of Beyond Fear: Thinking Sensibly About Security in an Uncertain World has emerged in recent years as the primary spokesperson for sane pragmatism in a world in which politicians feel the need to assuage public fears by engaging in what he calls "security theater." In other words, security tactics that get in the way of the general flying public, no matter how unhelpful, are good… because it makes us feel like the government is doing something.
Since these security tactics are slowly mutating from merely inconveniencing passengers towards abusing us, it’s a good time to think about Schneier’s message.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Schneier back in 2007 about these topics for my (former) podcast, The R.U. Sirius Show. It was then transcribed, edited and published on the 10 Zen Monkeys site. Since his observations remain fresh and relevant today, I’m quoting from it here and linking to the full interview, both in text and audio.
RU: Most of us experience the so-called "War on Terror" in one place, and that’s at the airport. What are they doing right, and what are they doing wrong at the airports? Are they doing anything right?
BS: (Laughs) Since September 11, exactly two things have made us safer. The first one is reinforcing the cockpit door. That should have been done decades ago. The second one is that passengers are convinced they have to fight back, which happened automatically. You can argue that sky marshals are also effective. I’m not convinced. And actually, if you pretend you have sky marshals, you don’t even actually have to have them. The benefit of sky marshals is in the belief in them, not in the execution.
Everything else is window dressing — security theater. It’s all been a waste of money and time. Heightened airport security at the passenger point of screening has been a waste of time. It’s caught exactly nobody; it’s just inconvenienced lots of people. The No Fly List has been a complete waste of time. It’s caught exactly nobody. The color-coded threat alerts – I see no value there.
RU: A recent Boing Boing headline read: "TSA missed 90% of bombs at Denver airport." (Obviously they weren’t talking about real bombs, but a test.)
BS: And the real news there is it wasn’t even surprising. This is consistent in TSA tests both before and after 9/11. We haven’t gotten any better. We’re spending a lot more money, we’re pissing off a lot more fliers, and we’re not doing any better.
There’s a game we’re playing, right? Think about airport security. We take away guns and bombs, so the terrorists use box cutters. So we take away box cutters and small knives, and they put explosives in their shoes. So we screen shoes and they use liquids. Now we take away liquids; they’re going to do something else. This is a game we can’t win. I’m sick of playing it. I’d rather play a game we can win.
RU: The reactive thing is terribly absurd. The whole shoe-bomber thing — my ongoing joke is that if he were an ass bomber, taxpayers would now be buying a lot of Vaseline. What do you think about John Gilmore’s court fight — that he shouldn’t have to present an ID to fly inside the country? Do you think that’s a legitimate goal?
BS: I don’t know the legal and constitutional issues. I know they’re very complex and he unfortunately lost his case on constitutional grounds. For security purposes, there’s absolutely no point in having people show a photo ID. If you think about it, everybody has a photo ID. All the 9/11 terrorists had a photo ID. The Unabomber had one. Timothy McVeigh had one. The D.C. snipers had one; you have one; I have one. We pretend there’s this big master list of bad guys and if we look you up against the list, we’ll know if you’re a bad guy and we won’t let you on the plane. It’s completely absurd. We have no such list. The no-fly list we have is full of innocent people. It catches nobody who’s guilty and everybody’s who’s innocent. Even if your name is Osama bin Laden, you can easily fly under someone else’s name. This isn’t even hard. So there is absolutely no value to the photo ID check. I applaud Gilmore based on the fact that this is a complete waste of security money.
RU: So if you were in charge of airport security, are there any things that you would implement?
BS: I think we should ratchet passenger screening down to pre-9/11 levels. I like seeing positive bag matching. That’s something that was done in Europe for decades. The U.S. airlines screamed and screamed and refused to do it, and now they are.
Really, I would take all the extra money for airport security and have well-trained guards, both uniformed and plainclothes, walking through the airports looking for suspicious people. That’s what I would do. And I would just give back the rest of the money. If we secure our airport and the terrorists go bomb shopping malls, we’ve wasted our money. I dislike security measures that require us to guess the plot correctly because if you guess wrong, it’s a waste of money. And it’s not even a fair game. It’s not like we pick our security. They pick their plot — we see who wins. The game is we pick our security, they look at our security, and then they pick their plot. The way to spend money on security – airport security, and security in general — is intelligence investigation and emergency response. These are the things that will be effective regardless of what the terrorists are planning.