Sunday, August 13, 2006

Liquid security

Somehow going to the airport seems a whole lot more distasteful for this frequent flier than it did last week. It's not just the new security measures, though that's a part of it. It certainly isn't fear of flying, far from it. I guess it's a combination of weariness and a deep loathing of bureaucratic procedures implemented ham-fistedly. The desi cop at the security barrier and the bullying TSA guy share that sense of self-importance that folks get when given a little authority over a lot of people. [Though, at least in India, I don't have to deal with the additional factor of FWB ... flying while brown.]

Here's some much needed sagacity from security expert Bruce Schreier:
The new airplane security measures focus on that plot, because authorities believe they have not captured everyone involved. It's reasonable to assume that a few lone plotters, knowing their compatriots are in jail and fearing their own arrest, would try to finish the job on their own. The authorities are not being public with the details -- much of the "explosive liquid" story doesn't hang together -- but the excessive security measures seem prudent.

But only temporarily. Banning box cutters since 9/11, or taking off our shoes since Richard Reid, has not made us any safer. And a long-term prohibition against liquid carry-ons won't make us safer, either. It's not just that there are ways around the rules, it's that focusing on tactics is a losing proposition.

It's easy to defend against what the terrorists planned last time, but it's shortsighted. If we spend billions fielding liquid-analysis machines in airports and the terrorists use solid explosives, we've wasted our money. If they target shopping malls, we've wasted our money. Focusing on tactics simply forces the terrorists to make a minor modification in their plans. There are too many targets -- stadiums, schools, theaters, churches, the long line of densely packed people before airport security -- and too many ways to kill people.

Security measures that require us to guess correctly don't work, because invariably we will guess wrong. It's not security, it's security theater: measures designed to make us feel safer but not actually safer.

Airport security is the last line of defense, and not a very good one at that. Sure, it'll catch the sloppy and the stupid -- and that's a good enough reason not to do away with it entirely -- but it won't catch a well-planned plot. We can't keep weapons out of prisons; we can't possibly keep them off airplanes.
[Via Boing Boing] Also definitely check out Will Saletan's column Liquid at Slate.

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