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Layers of Security 3: Are We on the Right Track?

Bruce Schneier outlines the things in airplane security that he deems the right ones to focus on, and explains some downsides of the current state of affairs.

– Tell me a bit more about security. If, in your opinion, what we need to do is spend more of the money we currently spend on screening at airports, on intelligence, does that mean we have to have more spooks spy on us to see which of us is a terrorist or not?

Inspecting suspicious people as part of worth-doing security measures

Inspecting suspicious people as part of worth-doing security measures

– Now, that’s not good intelligence. Good intelligence is what you see on television: following the leads, it’s not a matter of spying on everybody, it’s a matter of looking at the suspicious people. We’re good at this, we’ve been doing this for years, this is not something new, it doesn’t require us to screen everybody’s Facebook posts or read each other’s Email, it’s just following the leads, and that’s how we keep tabs on terrorist organizations, this is what the UK has done, Israel does this, the United States does this. All countries have terrorist organizations in them, you think of Spain, France, Japan – this doesn’t require any new police powers.

– Just looking at airplanes, what would, in your opinion, be a good security system at an airport? What should we do?

– I think we should go back to pre-9/11 security, which is metal detectors and X-ray machines screening for obvious guns and bombs. I like positive bag matching, this is something that Europe did way before the United States.

– What’s that?

– That’s matching the bag to the passenger. If the passenger doesn’t fly, the bag doesn’t fly. You put your luggage on the carousel, it disappears and shows up when you arrive, it travels in the hold of the aircraft. And in the United States now and in Europe even before, those bags were matched to the passengers, so the airline was sure that every passenger on the bag was on the airplane.

Also bag X-raying, that’s something we’re doing in the United States much more than we used to, so even checked luggage gets screened. That’s basically it, and I think anything else is largely security theater, it doesn’t make us safer.

– But isn’t that important? I mean, go back to 2001, and the panic that, I think, swept across the world, and people were just afraid of flying. Don’t governments realize how important that is to our economies, even if what they do is just cosmetic, to put confidence back in flying?

– How important is it? I have $10 billion a year, I can make you feel better or I can do something useful, you can choose, and we can decide as a society: we’re going to waste $10 billion on a really impressive illusion. And if we want to do that let’s do that, but we should have that debate. My feeling is there are probably more important problems to solve. And sure, restoring confidence is important, but doing that directly would be cheaper. We don’t have infinite resources, we’ve got a lot of serious problems in society, we kind of need to pick and choose.

– What are the downsides? Because we haven’t really talked about that, we have talked about the cost of these things. Are there any other costs that cannot be measured by how much it costs to run the TSA?

– Well, there’s a lot. I wrote about this in the United States and I can talk about the American experience. In the United States we’ve actually increased the number of deaths on the road, because people don’t want to fly, so it’s about 300-500 excess deaths per year, and that can be measured, so we know the numbers. It’s probably different in different countries, but in the United States people not flying has resulted in deaths. There’s the indignity of being searched, a lot of the enhanced screening, we haven’t really talked about enhanced screenings, in the United States we’re seeing a lot more invasive patdowns in some cases. There are abuse survivors who are unable to fly.

The almost classified No-Fly List

The almost classified No-Fly List

– Can you tell me a little bit about the No-Fly List? How does that work?

– We don’t know how it works, and this is very antidemocratic, and it’s going to sound almost totalitarian. You expect something like this in East Germany or in the Soviet Union. There’s a secret list of people who are not allowed to fly, who are so dangerous that they are not allowed to fly.

– Do they know they’re on that list?

– No. And yet, they are so innocent they cannot be arrested. No one knows how you get on the list, you’re never told you’re on the list, you’re unable to take yourself off the list, to find out the reasons why you’re on the list – it’s Kafkaesque. We don’t know how many people are on the list, we hear numbers like 100,000 or 20,000, there are different lists, we’re not sure exactly where they come from or how they are managed, we don’t know if anyone’s ever gotten off the list. There are ways, and it used to be that if your name was the same as someone on the list, you also couldn’t fly. This was a disaster, because there were some common names on the list, I think there was a Bob Nelson on the list, and there are a lot of Bob Nelsons in the United States.

– Paul Jones could be a problem.

– Right. Now there is a redress system. You can get some kind of document from the government, the U.S. government that says, “I’m the same name, but I’m not the guy you’re looking for”.

– Does the TSA run that? That list, the dangerous flier list.

– I don’t know, I don’t think so. We think the list comes from the FBI and other organizations, the TSA manages how that list is used at airports.

– What about the Trusted Travelers scheme?

– Trusted Traveler is a different list, and I believe the TSA does manage this, and this is a list of people who have put themselves through background checks and have been deemed to be more trusted.

– It does sound to me like that’s a great target for terrorists to work on: “Just get ourselves on that!”

– And I’ve argued that’s why the list is a bad idea. Whenever you make an easy way and a hard way through security, you invite the bad guys to take the easy way, I call the Trusted Traveler list a simple way for the terrorists to know if the government is onto them or not.

– If this is such a cost, and you’ve mentioned all those other things quite apart from the cost of running a bureaucracy, then why aren’t the airlines lobbying more because this is getting in the way of their business? Why aren’t they saying to the government: “Stop all this! We don’t need this!”

– You know, the airlines have a very love-hate relationship with security, they have fought security measures in the United states for decades. Reinforcing the cockpit door, which is something that was suggested in the 70s, the airlines fought successfully until 2001 when they did that.

– Now that’s standard on planes?

– Now that’s standard on planes.

– It’s not a bad idea.

– Oh, it’s a great idea! It’s easy, it’s cheap, it doesn’t affect civil liberties, I’m really happy about it.

Photo ID check addresses both security and commercial ticket resale issue

Photo ID check addresses both security and commercial ticket resale issue

The one measure the airlines liked is the photo ID check, because what it did is it solved an airline problem: it stopped the resale of tickets. I remember when I was a kid I would see ads in a newspaper for a round-trip ticket from here to there for a female, because the ticket was in some female name. And you’d buy those tickets on the secondary market, the airlines never liked that, but they couldn’t do anything about it. Now with the photo ID check they could at least stop that. But in general the airlines like it when security isn’t their fault. They want to blame the government for all these measures, and then they stand back and say: “It’s not us, it’s the government”. I think right now, if they lobby against security, they will be looked at unfavorably by the press, by the government. And remember the political difficulty of being against these security measures: if you’re wrong, your career is over.

Read previous: Layers of Security 2: The World after 9/11
Read next: Layers of Security 4: Fighting Terror by Refusing to Be Terrorized

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