Security Theater – Entr’acte

By | November 22, 2009
ARLINGTON, VA - MARCH 27:  Transportation Secu...
Image by Getty Images via Daylife

Holiday seasons are usually times when many of us take to the air to see relatives and enjoy a little time away. It is also a time when thoughts turn to security. The government is always warning us to be vigilant, especially during the holiday season. But why?

Bruce Schneier has referred to the phenomenon as Security Theater. Security theater refers to “security measures that make people feel more secure without doing anything to actually improve their security.

It is these measures that make travel difficult for us. But we still keep going, although this year, that may be different.  “Most of us travel only if we have to“, says Juline Mills, who teaches at the University of New Haven’s department of hospitality management. “The upcoming travel season will see people traveling primarily to visit friends and relatives, and not so much for leisure vacations.” That is different from previous holidays, in which Americans used Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Years to get away.

Every time we go through security, we have to show our ID and Boarding Pass, we walk to the belt and take off our outerwear and shoes, empty our pockets, separate out our larger portable electronics, show our Boarding Pass again…possibly subject ourselves to someone rummaging through our bag before we head out to our plane.

And what does this do for us? Are we safer? No one has explained how proving you have a photo ID provides any security. It does allow you to be checked against government watchlists, of course. But Fake IDs aside, no agent verifies anything about you at the checkpoint. They just compare the name to the one on the ticket.  And it has already been well-established that boarding passes can be faked.

Upgrade Travel reported last week that that the TSA has changed its rules about cash. Yes, we are talking about money. Having money is no longer a threat to security. Facing lawsuit by the ACLU, they changed those rules to state that “screening may not be conducted to detect evidence of crimes unrelated to transportation security” and that “large amounts of cash don’t qualify as suspicious for purposes of safety.” However, that may not be enough to prevent insanity. They found this line in a recent directive. “As a general matter, there should be no reason to ask questions of the passenger about security, although there may be times when questions are warranted by security needs.”

Ben Wizner, an A.C.L.U. lawyer for national security issues, said the organization did not object to aggressive security enforcement by screeners. The crucial issue is the threat to Fourth Amendment guarantees against unreasonable searches by screeners who overstep their limited authority. “The encounter Americans have with T.S.A. screeners is the most common Fourth Amendment event in American life,” he said.

Now, some screening makes sense. No one is talking about getting rid of screening altogether. Bruce Schneier, again, pointed out that it is a dangerous world even without the items the TSA doesn’t want us to bring through. He quotes the American Journal of Forensic Medical Pathology, which states: “If airport and aircraft security measures are to be consistently applied, then consideration should be given to removing items such as glass bottles and glass drinking vessels. However, given the results of a relatively uncomplicated modification of a plastic knife, it may not be possible to remove all dangerous objects from aircraft.

The Journal concludes that security systems should focus on passenger behavior rather than on eliminating every item that may be a potential weapon. We have been saying this for years.

What do you think?