Friday, May 23, 2008

Everpresent Security

So of course to go to work I have to get on a commercial flight. And to get on a commercial flight I have to go through security. Ahh, security. Everyone besides people who intend to blow up the airplane has an immediate keen interest in people who intend to blow up the airplane not being equipped to do so, but no one looks forward to undergoing security screening.

I'd like to give the TSA some credit today for addressing the public animosity in a blog, Evolution of Security. They publish information, stories, refutations and explanations. When the blog first went online it was inundated with comments and complaints. And I give the official bloggers more credit for acknowledging the problems and responding to the comments.

As I see it, security screening areas are unhappy places because:

  • Passengers don't know the rules or refuse to follow them.
  • The rules appear illogical, vary from place to place, and are inconsistently applied.
  • Submitting to the screening process is irritating, time consuming and can be humiliating.
  • Passengers are abusive towards screeners.
  • Screeners do not treat passengers with respect.

People in airports are already under stress, because of time pressure, carrying heavy objects and important valuables in the presence of many strangers, the nature of the business that calls for them to travel, and for many a fear of getting on airplanes in the first place. Present these people with one more piece of stress, or simply an available human target, and many of them explode into defiance.

The vast majority of air travellers today are familiar with the basic rules: no weapons or explosives, liquids in one baggie, no jokes about threats, possessions all go through the X-Ray machine while the passenger walks through the scanner. In fact general hatred of security screening by frequent travellers probably has the effect of propagating this knowledge through the non-travelling population. And for the very ignorant, there are large signs and often people reiterating the rules as you approach security.

Passengers have to take responsibility for complying with the rules. Unfortunately many don't, and instead blame the screener for the confiscation of their precious sunblock. The way I see it, if I decide to take the risk of trying to carry my sunblock onboard in a 110 mL container, or if I am too lazy or forgetful to put it in my checked baggage, then I can hardly complain if the rule is enforced. If I were to say, "what? how can my sunblock be a threat to the airplane?" I'd be claiming to be an idiot.

This "how can you do this to elderly/innocent/handicapped/military personnel?" argument is a common one, but one that shows an innocence of the entire security mentality. To do good security you actually must believe that everyone is a threat. Bruce Schneier writes about the security mindset.

If the TSA were to assume everyone was a harmless and innocent passenger, they'd let everyone through with no questions or screening, and while that would be quicker, it wouldn't be screening. So instead they assume everyone wants to blow up the airplane, and it is their job to determine how you plan to do that, despite your innocent appearance. That is, there's nothing to stop you from having an artificial hip AND a gun. If grey-haired ladies with a limp were discovered to get a free pass, then anyone who wanted to defeat security would have a grey-haired lady limp it through the scanner for them.

They are aware that the scanning is irritating and not all that effective and are trying to make it more efficient and effective, with devices like the "naked" scanner. I'm not all that concerned about it, and I freaked out when they took my fingerprint at Disney World. I think that Americans are more body-shy than people of many other nations. Certainly more than Europeans. Canadians vary a lot coast to coast in this respect, with the Southern Ontarians being the biggest prudes.

The inconvenience of the security procedure will decrease as the facilities begin to be designed around having to take off your shoes and unpack your toothpaste and laptop. The inconsistency will always be with us, but a little respect in both directions helps with that. I'll come back to respect tomorrow.


Paul Tomblin said...

You forgot to mention the small minority of security screeners who are facist oppressors of the worst ilk.

A friend of mine was going through security and discovered that they were out of those trays you're supposed to put everything into. He called to a screener and in a mild voice said "we're out of trays, can we get some more". The screener came over and SCREAMED something at him, and when he pointed out that he was just calmly asking for more trays, they yanked him out of line and gave him a 2 hour going over and made sure he missed his plane.

Rob said...

Most people incorrectly believe that fingerprint readers "capture" a picture of your fingerprint. When in fact they use a mathematical algorithm based on your fingerprint to create a unique number. They can not reverse engineer this number to recreate your fingerprint. These types of readers don't actual keep a copy of your fingerprint on file, but only the number that was created when your fingerprint was scanned.

Most people freak out until the process is properly explained to them.

majroj said...

Livescan digital fingerprint storage can capture and re-display finerprints no trouble IF the subject is known. Working with crappy partials taken in the field or from resistive subjects must pose its own challenges. If an unidentifed print is being compared to the database, a search and recognition algorithm is used on the digitally captured prints. First iteration hits (high speed, low false positives) are probably very numerous. A second sieve might be used which is slower and generates fewer false positives and is more finely discriminatory, then another (this could be the "unique number" stage) which is highly discriminatory and slowest yet, if the classic search-by-elimination schema is used. If a match is found, it can then disply the match for final scanning by the human eye and brain. LiveScan isn't exactly broadcasting their latest technology.
Yeah they have hired some folks who need a break and a Valium salt lick. Of the initial wave of TSA employees herabouts, qute a few failed an in-depth background check or "did a no-no" between hiring/being thrown onto the line, and the deeper secondary checks.

Rob said...

I should have put my response in the proper context. I.T. and Physical security authentication and access, NOT law enforcement.

majroj said...

10-4 rob

phik said...

My problem is that regulations are developed seemingly in the total absence of cost/benefit analysis. Or rather, that a marginal improvement in security is deemed priceless, worth doing at any cost.

When I consider the direct cost of airport security -- millions of wasted hours each year, countless discarded personal items, and so on -- plus the indirect cost of a tremendous loss of liberty, it seems astronomically out of proportion.

It's frustrating that we debate details like "liquids or no liquids" or "100 vs. 150 ml", but the fundamental issue of whether the cost is appropriate is off limits.

Honestly, it surprises me that Americans are so eager to hold up their trousers with one hand, so they can hold their boarding pass and government ID in the other, while they shuffle, shoe-less, through metal detector and "puffer" machines, on the way to get their random pat-down and retrieve their plastic bag of midget-size toiletries.

This is the United States?

"But if it saves even one airliner, then it's worth it!"