Airport Security Follies

March 3, 2002

Trevor Matich


"New airport security technique:  Make everyone balance a Twinkie on their nose before boarding the plane!"

How, one might ask, would balancing a Twinkie--or a Ho Ho, or even a Ding Dong--improve security?  The answer is, about as much as some of the actual security measures enacted since 9/11.

My commentary of November 18, 2001, "Musings from a Member of the Criminal Class," was a good-humored lamentation on the necessity of new hassles visited upon American travelers in our brave new world of security threats.  

Conceptually, the extra searches and identity checks are a necessary annoyance--as long as they serve to increase the safety of the traveling public.  But son of a gun, it looks for all the world that some of the most time consuming and annoying procedures not only do little to make us safer, they may actually make it easier for the bad guys to be, well, bad.

This all came to a head as I boarded a flight from Dallas to Sacramento.  Due to a tight connection, most of the passengers had boarded the flight ahead of me; there was nobody standing in line at the gate when I arrived with a few minutes to spare.

As I approached the gate, but before I had given my ticket to the attendant and thereby identified myself, I was motioned over to the security table for a manual search of my carry-on baggage.  This was alarming to me; it was immediately apparent that this "security" measure made us markedly less secure.

The reason is that the procedure used by airline personnel to choose which passengers would be searched was neither random nor based on profiling.  I wouldn't have minded either.

When asked, they confirmed what was readily apparent--that I was chosen simply because I happened to be there, and because the person doing the searching happened to be free at the moment.  They said that the FAA had a representative there monitoring them; their instructions were to pick a passenger out of the line, search their bags, then when finished, grab another who happened to be standing in line at the moment.  The idea was to keep the screener screening.

They said that this was "random."  But you mathematicians know that humans are not capable of truly random choices--and this was extremely "not random."  "Random" would require flagging tickets by computer, and pulling those passengers out of line for extra screening as those tickets are presented for boarding.

Think about it.  Under this current system, if you're a good guy you just line up for boarding, and divert for a search if you're called.  But if you're a bad guy with something to hide, all you have to do is wait at your seat until the line is short; then when someone is taken to the side to be searched, you step up to the gate and board, knowing that the next person to be searched won't be selected until the current one is finished.

This system would catch only the most moronic of bad guys, the ones who probably played defensive line on their Afghan terrorist camp's intramural football team.  (The "shoe bomber" comes to mind; since he didn't wear socks, his sweaty feet dampened the bomb's fuse.  In the extra time it took to try to light it, he was discovered and thwarted.)  It would serve to make the tasks of thoughtful terrorists that much easier.

(I'm not talking out of school here; if a blockhead like me can figure it out, good quality dirt-bag terrorists certainly can.)

Another dubious diversion of finite security resources is matching every piece of checked luggage with the passenger, making sure that that passenger has actually boarded the aircraft.  

If a bomber is bent on suicide as well as murder, what earthly good would matching him to his luggage do?  Wouldn't it make more sense to use those resources to augment the coming system of screening every checked bag for explosives, regardless of who it's matched to?

For goodness sake, this all sounds like the government to me.  They must think that if they make us twist through a maze of overt hassles for our bit of cheese at the finish line--actually getting to board the plane--we'll love their efforts on behalf of our security and will vote for them, or those who appoint them, in the next election.

You know, I'd rather just have the security, without all the gaudy extra trappings.  But until such a time, I'll just practice balancing Twinkies.






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