net.wars: The alternative universe of stupid people

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 07 February 2003

Are you carrying any electrical, electronic, or battery-operated devices? Whenever I'm asked this at an airport, I want to answer, "No, of course not, because this is 1972 and they haven't invented portable electronics yet." But I don't. I play to the system and don't get stopped.

Wendy M Grossman

Are you carrying any electrical, electronic, or battery-operated devices?

Whenever I'm asked this at an airport, I want to answer, "No, of course not, because this is 1972 and they haven't invented portable electronics yet." But I don't. I play to the system and don't get stopped.

One of the most frustrating things about the panic reaction to the September 11, 2001 attacks is that it's given Them - what humor writer Merrill Markoe once casually referred to on Letterman as the "alternative universe of stupid people" - a chance to invade our universe and force us to bend to their stupid will.

It's like my friend, Terry Hines, a professor at Pace University, says about the new rule that they're all supposed to wear their ID tags hanging around their necks. "Is Osama bin Laden going to decide not to attack Pace because he doesn't have the right ID?"

On Monday, Privacy International will officially announce the first-ever, hopefully annual, Stupid Security awards, to be presented at this year's Computers, Freedom, and Privacy conference. Please send in your nominations now to stupidsecurity at privacy.org. (You know how to make that into an email address, don't you? So PI doesn't get spammed to death?) Nominations close March 15.

Most people support intelligent security that actually helps prevent terrorism, organized crime, and the other "Horses of the Infocalypse", as Timothy May dubbed them. (Can you name the rest?) The problem is that in the rush to "do something!" governments and businesses have brought in rules that achieve little except to irritate. Most of the time these rules are implemented by staff who either a) enjoy their inner bureaucrat's new power or b) know the rules make no sense but have been ordered to make sure everyone obeys them and it's their jobs at stake.

I think the woman who needed to see photo ID before selling me a bus ticket (for cash) from DC to Harrisburg last December fell into the latter category. Did the bus driver cross-check to make sure the person getting on the bus was still me? No.

In fact, Electronic Frontier Foundation co-founder John Gilmore believes that demanding photo IDs for domestic travel contravenes his right to travel anonymously within the US, and he's therefore suing United Airlines, Southwest Airlines, and attorney general John Ashcroft. Meanwhile, Penn Jillette has a PR woman who has promised to make it "very pleasant" for him whenever he flies out of Las Vegas since he filed a police complaint about the overly intimate attentions of a security guard. (Not so much stupid security as personal security.)

There are loads of potential nominees.

The PriceWaterhouseCoopers operation in New York City administers a complete grilling – and then gives you an easily duplicated piece of red plastic as ID.

The BBC issues IDs with no date, at least on occasion, leaving one of my friends free to wander in any time he likes.

The rule noted on NYKer.com that's enforced by many buildings in New York City that prohibits you from meeting people in the lobby; you have to meet outside.

The refusal of many such buildings to accept hand-delivered bouquets of flowers or packages.

The note at Ravikiran.com about the Economist, where the sample subscription number ... works to get you access to content (or at least did in September 2002).

The recent SQL Slammer worm, for which people can't make up their minds whether to blame stupid sysadmins for not patching their servers, stupid Microsoft for leaving holes in its software, or stupid Microsoft (again) for making the patch difficult to find and harder to apply.

Airports of course are the native habitat of stupid security. If you get stopped for coins in your pocket you get searched. No, you can't put the coins in the little bin and go through the scanner again. What laptop was that, sir?

Sometimes sensible security ideas get modified for user convenience. I remember the fanfare with which New York State brought in picture driver's licenses. You had to go to the DMV and get your picture taken twice because the inexperienced staff messed up. But you can renew your license by mail. I wish I could say people marvel how little I've changed since 1989. Instead they say, "Wow, you look like a mass murderer."

There are some positive developments.

I like the sound of Admiral James Loy, head of the Transportation Security Administration, who compiled a 429-item "Stupid Rule List" when he took over last August: he wants more common sense and less inconvenience. He was the one that got rid of the restriction on carrying beverage containers through security, and last October was reportedly considering dumping the final random search at the boarding gate. I guess it's because of him that I'm again allowed to carry a jeweler's screwdriver so I can fix my glasses.

I look forward to the day when we finally admit that the weapon that mattered on September 11, 2001 was not boxcutters but two decades of training airline passengers not to resist. Call it selfish, but I'd like to be able to travel with my Swiss Army knife.

Get those nominations in!

Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).