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net.wars: Privacy victims

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 03 January 2010


Frightened people often don't make very good decisions. If I were in charge of aviation security, I'd have been pretty freaked out by the Christmas Day crotch bomber – failure or no failure. Even so, like all of us Boxing Day quarterbacks, I'd like to believe I'd have had more sense than to demand that airline passengers stay seated and unmoving for an hour, laps empty.

Wendy M Grossman

But the locking-the-stable-door elements of the TSA's post-crotch rules are too significant to ignore: the hastily implemented rules were very specifically drafted to block exactly the attack that had just been attempted.

Which, I suppose, makes sense if your threat model is a series of planned identical, coordinated attacks and copycats. But as a method of improving airport security it's so ineffective and irrelevant that even the normally rather staid Economist accused the TSA of going insane and Bruce Schneier called the new rulesmagical thinking.

Consider what actually happened on Christmas Day:

  • Intelligence failed. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was on the watch list (though not, apparently, the no-fly list), and his own father had warned the US embassy.
  • Airport screening failed. He got through with his chunk of explosive attached to his underpants and the stuff he needed to set it off. (As the flyer boards have noted, anyone flying this week should be damned grateful he didn't stuff it in a condom and stick it up his ass.)
  • And yet, the plan failed. He did not blow up the plane; there were practically no injuries, and no fatalities.
  • That, of course, was because a heroic passenger was paying attention instead of snoozing and leaped over seats to block the attempt.

    The logical response, therefore, ought to be to ask passengers to be vigilant and to encourage them to disrupt dangerous activities, not to make us sit like naughty schoolchildren being disciplined. We didn't do anything wrong. Why are we the ones who are being punished?

    I have no doubt that being on the plane while the incident was taking place was terrifying. But the answer isn't to embark upon an arms race with the terrorists. Just as there are well-funded research labs churning out new computer viruses and probing new software for vulnerabilities, there are doubtless research facilities where terrorist organizations test what scanners can detect and in what quantity.

    Matt Blaze has a nice analysis of why this approach won't work to deter terrorists: success (plane blown up) and failure (terrorist caught) are, he argues, equally good outcomes for the terrorist, whose goal is to sow terror and disruption. All unpredictable screening does is drive passengers nuts and, in some cases, put their health at risk. Passengers work to the rules. If there are no blankets, we wear warmer clothes; if there is no bathroom access, we drink less; if there is no in-flight entertainment, we rearrange the hours we sleep.

    As Blaze says, what's needed is a correct understanding of the threat model – and as Schneier has often said, the most effective changes since 9/11 have been reinforcing the cockpit doors and the fact that passengers now know to resist hijackers.

    Since the incident, much of the talk has been about whole-body scanners – "nudie scanners" Dutch privacy advocates have dubbed them – as if these will secure airplanes for once and for all. I think if people think that whole-body scanners are the answer they have misunderstood the problem.

    Or problems, because there is more than one. First: how can we make air travel secure from terrorists? Second: how can we make air travelers feel secure? Third: how can we accomplish those things while still allowing travelers to be comfortable, a specification which includes respecting their right to privacy and civil liberties?

    If your reaction to that last is to say that you don't care whose rights are violated, all that matters is perfect security I'm going to guess that:

  • you fly very infrequently;
  • you would be happy to do so chained to your seat naked with a light coating of Saran wrap; and
  • your image of the people who are threats is almost completely unlike your image of yourself.
  • It is particularly infuriating to read that we are privacy victims: that the opposition of privacy advocates to invasive practices such as whole-body scanners are the reason this clown got as close as he did. Such comments are as wrong-headed as Jack Straw claiming after 9/11 that opponents of key escrow were naïve.

    The most rational response, it seems to me, is for TSA and airlines alike to solicit volunteers among their most loyal and committed passengers. Elite flyers know the rhythms of flights; they know when something is amiss. Train us to help in emergencies and to spot and deter mishaps.

    Because the thing we should have learned from this incident is that we are never going to have perfect security: terrorists are a moving target. We need fallbacks, for when our best efforts fail.

    The more airport security becomes intrusive, annoying, and visibly stupid, the more motive passengers will have to find workarounds and the less respect they will have for these authorities.

    That process is already visible. Do you feel safer now?


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    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).