The TSA and Your Privates

by on Nov.17, 2010, under Security, Whining

I’ve had a lot of thoughts lately on the TSA’s new practices for protecting us from terrorist shenanigans during air travel. My privacy-minded friends and I pass links back and forth each day with horror stories from people who have felt violated by the TSA. All of this came to a head today when Jeff Jarvis said this on twitter this morning:

I may stand alone, but I’d rather be groped than blown up in an airplane with a murderer who had not been groped.

This is clearly an oversimplification of the argument (it isn’t an “A or B” situation…a lot of people on twitter were shouting “False Dichotomy!!”) and is beneath Jeff, in my opinion. For those who don’t know Jeff, you can find info about him here

Generally speaking, I’m a big fan of his work and of his opinions. Just about every time I hear him speak or read his blog, I feel like he “gets it.” Not so much today, though. Jeff kept spouting fallacious arguments in favor of the TSA’s policies and many people responded unfavorably to what he was saying (Jeff has about 55,000 followers, FYI). I think he’d agree that most of his twitter feedback was negative. I jumped in and sent a few replies but I was frustrated, as usual, by the 140 character limit. Jeff replied to a few of my tweets in a very civil manner, as one would expect, except for the fact that he called me a drama queen. Oh, and he joked that people who are against the TSA procedures must have small penises. Once again, this is beneath you, Jeff.

I won’t recap the entire conversation here (you can see it on twitter if you want to), but Jeff agreed to read my argument if I were to post it in blog form… so here we are. I’ll try to keep this as brief as possible, Jeff, I know you’re a busy guy.

“Enhanced” Security Screenings Are Merely Security Theater And Will Not Keep Us Safe

To many people, this is not news. Many years ago (pre-9/11), George Carlin put it brilliantly when he spoke of the illusion of safety. More recently, Bruce Schneier coined the term “Security Theater.” I don’t know why I’m even writing this post since so many others have already made the point so much better than I ever could, such as Noah Shachtman in this piece from the WSJ….but I’ll do it anyway because I have some bits I’d like to add.

Fallacy #1: If we had these measures 10 years ago, it would have prevented 9/11

My opinion:

The only thing preventing 9/11 from happening again is 9/11 itself. Today’s terrorists know they can’t pull off another 9/11-style hijack-then-crash-into-specific-targets attack again because the passengers won’t stand for it. On September 10th, 2001, we were all told that we should comply and be quiet if we are on a hijacked plane. The September 11th attacks depended upon that and, for the most part, it worked. Evidence has shown that this is no longer the case. Passengers that get goofy on a flight get a first-class ass kicking courtesy of their fellow passengers.

So if we had today’s security and September 10th’s mindset, could they have pulled it off? Of course they could have. They possibly wouldn’t have their boxcutters but there are plenty of other ways to intimidate Sept 10th-mindset passengers with equipment you can still get on a plane. Don’t make me list specifics, I don’t want to get a visit from the FBI. Use your imagination… that’s what the terrorists do. Even using something as simple (and previously thought of as harmless) as boxcutters was fairly inventive on their part. They made use of something they were pretty sure they could get through security. When all you have to do is sit around, day after day, thinking of ways to beat a system, you will find a way. As long as the TSA procedures are made public and the limitations are detailed, which has to be the case, the enemy will think of a method to abuse those limitations. Remember, we cannot project our perception of what is acceptable behavior onto them: they will use children or other extreme measures that will make us sick to our very cores if it will help them accomplish their goals.

Fallacy #2: Today’s security would have caught the underwear bomber.

My opinion:

This one comes straight from one of Jeff’s tweets. While this is essentially true, it misses the point entirely. We started taking our shoes off because of the “shoe bomber” and now we get groped because of the “underwear bomber.” Do you see the pattern? There was never another shoe bomber, there will probably never be another underwear bomber (I’d also like to point out that neither of these dingbats boarded a plane in the US…they both went through European security). Both of them sat around their (no doubt) smelly apartments for weeks formulating a plan based on the limitations of the security through which they would have to pass. I really really hate to say it, but there are probably more dingbats sitting in smelly apartments thinking about the same stuff right now.

We keep reacting to previous threats and the bad guys keep evolving. That is the very crux of security theater: make it look like we’re “doing something about the problem.” Would there have been another underwear bomber if we hadn’t started the new procedures? Possibly, but he probably would have been just as successful as the first one. My understanding of the underwear bomber is that he was a nervous mess. He would have been denied access to a plane in Israel simply from one of their well-trained security people talking to him. They probably would have snagged the shoe bomber, too.

Fallacy #3: The logical conclusion is that we’ll all end up flying naked. THEN we’ll be safe for sure.

My opinion:

This may not come as a surprise, but the goal of a terrorist attack is not “blow up planes” or “hijack planes” … it is to kill or injure a very large group of people. Airlines were, for a long time, an ideal target for this kind of action. Some planes carry over 200 people and none of them can get away from the bad guys. Security was really lousy up until the hijack-happy 80’s when people suddenly became afraid to fly. Security was beefed up and hijackings went way down (especially on flights coming out of the US). As a result of this heightened security, pulling off the September 11th attacks took a great deal of planning, organization, and luck.

After September 11th, airlines in the US ceased to be a viable target for serious terrorists. I say “serious” terrorists because the terrorists who have tried to walk through security since then are crackpots and utter failures. The combination of heightened security efforts (pre-gropefest) and passengers who will not be cowed into compliance makes the chances of success drop lower and lower. I’m not saying that there will never be another airplane-based terror attack, I’m just saying the chances are extremely slim at this point. The bombs-disguised-as-toner recently showed that airplanes can still work for terrorists on SOME level but it also shows that they are not willing to try their luck with security checkpoints any more.

If you look at it from the viewpoint of a terrorist who hates America (I know it makes you feel dirty, but you have to understand the enemy if you ever wish to defeat them), I’ll bet you can think of a LOT better targets than airplanes for accomplishing your goals. Once again, I’m not going to name specifics, but I’ve only thought about this for a few minutes and I can think of a few horrific ideas. Now imagine that you are a terrorist and this is ALL you think about.

I’m not saying all this so that you live your life in fear. We simply can’t allow that to happen. The truth is you have a much better chance of being struck by lightning than being injured in a terrorist attack. This doesn’t mean we should not be diligent, but there are limits to what is APPROPRIATE diligence. I feel strongly that the new TSA procedures cross that line. There are better ways to accomplish the overall goal and it is the job of the TSA to find these methods. Replace security theater with actual security.

I don’t know who said it first this morning, but somebody on twitter brought up the following Ben Franklin quote:

Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety

Couldn’t be more apt.

Some other reading you might be interested in:

Bruce Schneier talking specifically about new TSA procedures
Bruce Schneier – Beyond Security
Jason Alexander’s take on the situation
TSA confiscates heavily-armed soldiers’ nail-clippers
Former FBI Agent shares his feelings about the TSA

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2 Comments for this entry

  • Jose G.

    I so totally agree with you. The problem is that Jeff Jarvis was a witness to 9-11. The guy is still haunted/scarred by this incident that to him “the ends justify the means.” I feel for the guy but I do highly respect him. In this incident, Jeff Jarvis is just 110% flat wrong.

    Ben Franklin was right. Giving up liberty for security gains you nothing.

    However, I’m willing to die if it means upholding my beliefs. If that means getting blown up on a plane to say “FUCK YOU” to the terrorists, I’ll do it. We have to hold the line and make our point. Terrorism will not work. They can decimate our cities, but we shall not give up. I think many Americans are coming to the point where our right continue to be eroded away and now we are saying, “The line must be drawn here. This far, no further.”

    I’m dumbfounded that Mr. Jarvis doesn’t get it. The terrorist have won a victory here. I’m going to be saddened when the next terrorist incident happens and all of this “security theater” is proven useless once again.

  • Dan

    One thing that has never been mentioned is the reality that with the constant increasing infringement on civil liberties by the TSA, they are giving the terrorists exactly what they want. Americans angry at our government. Americans frustrated. Americans suffering in one form or another.
    Is terrorism about killing the infidels? No. Terrorism is about scaring the infidels into rising up against our government and invoking change to their favor. The Madrid train bomber killed a couple hundred people. But more importantly, they managed the news so that the Spanish government didn’t divulge the fact that it was a terrorist attack. The terrorists waited until the week before elections, then dropped another (political) bomb which resulted in the sweeping out of incumbents, which supported America in Iraq, with a new party, which pulled Spanish support in Iraq. Win.
    If they can’t kill us, they can at least make our lives difficult. One would think that the idea of the “underwear bomber” was not as much to blow a plane up. that just kills a few dozen people. But instead to cause our government to overreact (which the did) and start getting more and more personal and restrictive with their screening. Which they did.
    Did they kill a few dozen people last Christmas? No. But the result has been so much more satisfying. Millions up in arms about abusive screening. Thousands angry with their government. Win.
    But then this administration isn’t even able to point to who the terrorists are. They can’t even say the words Islamic extremists. If you can’t recognize them when you see them, how can you combat them?

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