TSA Cavity Search 101

Security Theater, by the very nature of the term, is designed to emit the aura of security in the environment of the general public. The very act of providing a “sense of security” in the public mind is counter productive to making the public feel safe when very real threats to security may be present. Recent events in Caddo Parish reinforce the fact that certain entities make posturing the appearance of security for the public, yet this posturing actually undermines long-term goals of public safety.

Security theater is a term that describes security countermeasures intended to provide the feeling of improved security while doing little or nothing to actually improve security. A classic example of postured security was the placing of national guardsmen throughout public places immediately after 9-11-2001. These guardsmen often were as confused to their mission as the public was in seeing them.

The term “Security Theater” was coined by computer security specialist and writer Bruce Schneier in his book Beyond Fear, but has gained currency in security circles, particularly for describing airport security measures. It particularly is significant today in the gross interpretation of airport security since 9/11. Schneier described the ease with which people can pass through airport security with fake boarding passes. First, scan an old boarding pass, alter it with Photoshop, then print the result with a laser printer. He has even used an example, complete with the little squiggle the TSA agent had drawn on it to indicate that it had been checked. Does this engender a sense of security?

TSA agents walk around randomly swabbing hands with a damp, chemically impregnated cloth: a test for explosives. Schneier says, “Apparently the idea is that al-Qaeda has never heard of latex gloves and wiping down with alcohol.” The uselessness of the swab, in his view, exemplifies why Americans should dismiss the TSA’s frequent claim that it relies on “multiple levels” of security. For the extra levels of protection to be useful, each would have to test some factor that is independent of the others. But anyone with the intelligence and savvy to use a laser printer to forge a boarding pass can also pick up a stash of latex gloves to wear while making a bomb. From the standpoint of security, Schneier says, examining boarding passes and swabbing hands are tantamount to performing the same test twice because the person you miss with one test is the same person you’ll miss with the other.

Security theater, from the perspective of the TSA, is an attempt to convey the message: “We’re doing everything possible to protect you.” When 9/11 shattered the public’s confidence in flying a handful of anti-terror measures that actually work—hardening the cockpit door, positive baggage matching, more-effective intelligence—would not have addressed the public’s dread, because the measures can’t really be seen. The TSA is the visible sign that some people just need to see.

TSA security measures have been, at best, confused as bungling attempts to confiscate personal possessions from the public. It’s accurate to say that many knives, liquids and other contraband have been found on passengers, but these generally would be caught with far less drama than currently is shown at airport check points. The grandmother whose wheelchair is disassembled, the baby whose mother’s milk is monitored and the diaper that gets changed in view of the TSA agent are all examples of silly theater, at best.

Recently returning to the US from the Middle East, I was made aware of the TSA intentions to “tighten up” on the new scanners and utilize less body pat-downs that have been seen as poorly addressing security while enhancing negative publicity for the rude and often crude techniques utilized by agents. However I only observed women who felt their privacy had been overly invaded and children and babies who were examined from top to bottom, only to find crayons and dirty diapers.

Not only have agents been accused of overly-aggressive pat-downs, but sexual harassment complaints have mounted. Youtube videos of some events have served to exacerbate the PR nightmares.

Security theater encourages people to make uninformed, counterproductive political decisions.The feeling of (and wished for) safety can actually increase the real risk to an uninformed public. Citizens deserve a better break on the billions of tax dollars spent each year “keeping us safe.”

Since 9/11, Islamic terrorists have killed exactly 17 people on American soil, all but four were victims of an army major turned fanatic who shot fellow soldiers in a rampage at Fort Hood, Texas. The other four were victims of lone-wolf assassins. During that same period, over 3,400 Americans drowned in their bathtubs. And over 100 died driving their cars into deer on public highways. It’s time we quit the drama and did more hard research on terrorist in our country. The drama costs too much and accomplishes very little.