Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Archive for December 26th, 2007

Can you hide anything in your shoes that you cannot hide in your underwear?

Posted by metaphorical on 26 December 2007

“If anyone has questions about whether our efforts have been fruitful over the past five years — come on…. While we can’t publicize everything that we’ve done, every event, we can say definitively that our efforts over the last five years have not been for nothing.”

Now there’s a rousing defense for a $27 billion program—”our efforts have not been for nothing.”

Yes, $27 billion. The program in question is airport security, on which we apparently spend an annual $5.6 billion. The quotes come from TSA spokesman Christopher White, and the occasion for them was a study by three researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health, described last week in the British Medical Journal.

According to a Reuters article, the researchers

could not find any studies showing whether the time-consuming process of X-raying carry-on luggage prevents hijackings or attacks.

They also found no evidence to suggest that making passengers take off their shoes and confiscating small items prevented any incidents.

Coming, as they do, from the Harvard School of Public Health, the researchers have a natural orientation toward data, when it comes to justifying the expenditure of billions of dollars for some putative public good.

The researchers said it would be interesting to apply medical standards to airport security. Screening programs for illnesses like cancer are usually not broadly instituted unless they have been shown to work.

“We’d like airport security screening to be of value. As passengers and members of the public we’d like to know the evidence and the reasoning behind these measures,” Linos said in a telephone interview.

“Can you hide anything in your shoes that you cannot hide in your underwear?” they asked.

Of course, we do have some data, in the form of periodic testing done by outside agencies, as reported by the GAO. So far, TSA has done nothing but fail at these tests, usually quite spectacularly. The most recent tests have concerned liquid explosives, the alleged means by which some British transatlantic flights were going to be blown up back in August 2006. Here’s a snippet from a GAO report from last month.

Our investigators succeeded in passing through TSA security screening checkpoints undetected with components for several IEDs and an improvised incendiary device (IID) 4 concealed in their carry-on luggage and on their persons. The components for these devices and the items used to conceal the components were commercially available.

Here’s the part I like:

By using concealment methods for the components, two GAO investigators demonstrated that it is possible to bring the components for several IEDs and one IID through TSA checkpoints and onto airline flights without being challenged by transportation security officers. In most cases, transportation security officers appeared to follow TSA procedures and used technology appropriately

In other words, the problem isn’t (just) incompetent TSA security officials. The problem is incompetent TSA security. We’re spending billions of dollars annually for procedures that simply do not make us more secure. At a minimum, the burden of proof is on TSA to show that they have some efficacy.

It’s one thing for TSA to say that they have to move fast to react to newly proved threats, for example the British liquid explosive plot. It’s another thing for TSA to maintain these nonsensical procedures well over a year later; to spend billions to keep us from carrying a bottle of water or cup of coffee through security with absolutely no justification for the belief that it makes us any safer.

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