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US Airport Security: Damned If You Do, Dead If You Don’t

January 11, 2010

All the hype surrounding security following the attempted Christmas Day bombing of a US passenger plane has led to “revelations” regarding the TSA’s body scanners and, of all things, privacy. Now, I love the ACLU and Constitutionally provided privacy, but there’s a difference between theory and reality (it’s the same reason I think Marx was a genius, yet Communism will always fail).

As an engineer and data analyst, I can assure you that the “privacy” features touted by the full-body scanner were a lie from the start and any free-thinking individual should have known that from the start. Why? Three simple reasons: accuracy, evidence, and liability.

Accuracy:

There is simply no system in existence that is built to gather and analyze information without storage capabilities. The only way to ensure, and improve, accuracy is to do comparitive analysis of the data being gathered. As new threats are discovered, adjustments must be made to the equipment to ensure the new threats are caught by the scanners. Granted, a fully isolated test machine can be tweaked in the lab with the adjustments being sent out into the field to all scanners. The problem with this is environmental. Those field devices need to be individually adjusted to ensure that the improvements suggested actually have the desired effect in place. You simply can’t verify these improvements without comparitive data to verify. That means images must be stored for later reference.

Evidence:

When an attack happens, the failure within the system that allowed the attack to succeed must be discovered in order to close the weakness and prevent a repeat attack. The Christmas Day bomber got past security because either the scanner failed to spot his explosives-laden underwear or because the operator failed to properly interpret what was uncovered by the scan. So, is the weakness to be addressed a failure in the machine or in the operator? How do you close the loophole – technology or training? You can’t answer the question – though you must – without looking at the original scan of the terrorist. That means images must be stored for later reference.

Liability:

Money talks. It’s just that simple. When a terrorist or other nut gets on a plane and successfully takes it down, killing two or three hundred innocent people, you have a huge, billion-dollar liability issue. In every deadly flight accident, the airline is sued by survivors and family members of the deceased for their losses. How does the airline respond? By proving that it wasn’t their fault. In a terrorist attack, the simplest direction in which to point the proverbial finger is in the direction of the government. Why? Because the airline can do everything in its power to protect passengers, but security is up to the TSA. They can easily, and rightly, say that the TSA/government failed in its duties. How does the airline prove this, or the government defend against this? By showing the original scan of the terrorist for all to see where the fault really lies. That means images must be stored for later reference.

In short, there is no way such a system would have ever been put in place without storage capabilities. It’s simply short-sighted to assume otherwise. The next question is – do you really care? I’ve flown over one million miles in the last twenty years (civilian and military) and I would much rather run the risk of a YouTube video of my near-naked scan going viral than a YouTube video of my charred body in the aftermath of a terrorist attack. If you don’t agree, don’t fly.

Travel by air is not a right. My safety at the expense of your inconvenience is.

The next question is, when do we take the Israeli approach? That means beginning security measures outside the airport, with slowly tightening security the closer you get to an actual plane. My last flight was through the Denver airport and, while waiting in line for security checks, I looked around and saw no fewer than 300 people crammed together in cattle chutes, waiting impatiently to be scanned and cleared. At that point, no security had been applied to me, other than not being allowed to park my Dodge Detonator at the curbside. If I had the intent, and a fairly large bomb in my bag, I could have simply detonated it right there in the terminal, killing all 300 folks around me and possibly taking down a large portion of the airport structure. Not as flashy as crashing a plane, but I think a terrorist would be satisfied with the results.

Isn’t it time to actually think of security as a necessity rather than a fashion consideration?

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