Saturday, November 20, 2010

Anger at Junk Touching

There are three reasons for objecting to the new TSA security measures, one of which I consider to have substantial merit, one of which I don't believe has been adequately addressed, and the last of which, at least to me, isn't particularly compelling.

First, there's the question of whether the screening enhancements actually do anything to improve airline security and, if so, whether they can be justified on the basis of a cost-benefit analysis. As of yet the TSA has proved wholly unprepared to substantiate any material benefit from the new screening methods, let alone a benefit that would justify the cost. (For that matter, the TSA hasn't presented much evidence on the cost-benefit front for existing technology, and its placement of air passengers into long lines as they wait for security creates a glaring vulnerability.) When you challenge scanners and frisks on a cost-benefit basis,
It's not about doing something "instead" of the current system—it's about not doing things that are wasting money and time and not making us safer. It's quite possible that we're already as safe as we're going to get—and every subsequent airport security "improvement" is just reducing our freedom without improving security.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with expecting that the government will provide a rational justification for either an expenditure of billions of dollars or an intrusion on the privacy of its citizens. Put both together, and people have every right to object when the government is unprepared to demonstrate a meaningful security benefit.

The second issue is whether the new body scanners are safe. With due respect to their exposing passengers to no more radiation than the additional exposure they might experience on a typical air flight, I believe people have a right to be concerned about additional exposure, particularly if they are prone to skin cancer or if they're concerned about their (or their children's) lifetime exposure. "The FDA says it's okay" isn't very comforting - the FDA was asked in general terms about radiation levels, not body scanners. Let's see the science, and some scientific reassurance of how we can have certainty now, given that we don't have a lot of experience with exposure to this type of radiation.

Even if we assume that the machines are safe when they come out of the box, how well will the machines be maintained, tested and operated to ensure that radiation levels remain at factory levels? After all, problems of radiation overexposure can happen in a clinical setting. Finally, in the unlikely event that the TSA actually requests that it evaluate the scanners, why should I believe the FDA wouldn't succumb to political pressure, particularly in light of its recent decision-making?

The third argument is, in essence, "This makes me uncomfortable." I'll grant, some people have more cause than others to feel uncomfortable. Some people cannot go through the scanner, or have prosthetics or medical devices such as insulin pumps that will result in a frisk even if they go through the scanner. But if the cost-benefit case is made, the scanners are safe, the TSA continues with its belated plan to minimize what is displayed to the technician in the scanning booth, and concerns over the alleged selection of "cuties" for more intensive screening are adequately addressed, it's difficult to see how this level of intrusion isn't reasonable. Not at all in the immature "shut up and take it" sense espoused by the L.A. Times, but in the sense that the case will truly have been made that this makes air travel materially safer. It's to TSA's continuing discredit that it is unprepared to make its case, apparently on the assumption that the L.A. Times sentiment would carry the day.

There's a variant of the discomfort argument, "No one should have to suffer this type of indignity." Except as many have pointed out, people do suffer this type of indignity quite regularly, most notably minority males in "high crime" areas who may be stopped, frisked and released with some regularity - and with a very low rate of detection of weapons or other contraband.

The authoritarians who argue "shut up and take it" bother me because, as usual, they are happy to surrender the rights of others in the name of security without even asking that the state provide evidence that security will be improved. The latest example I've found is from Richard Adams who is willing to include himself among those whose junk gets touched, but on the basis of terrible reasoning:
Personally, I'd like to take a flight knowing that the plane is less likely to be blown up or hijacked and rammed into a building full of people. Alternatively, I'd like to be able to work in a tall building in New York City, Washington DC or even London without having a 747 flown into it.

Don't want to be scanned in an airport security line? Really? Easy: don't fly. Nobody is holding a gun to your head forcing you to take that flight to Aruba. Although if security is relaxed because of the idiotic uproar of recent days, then you might get a gun held to your head on-board the flight instead.
Everybody would like to know that "the plane is less likely to be blown up or hijacked", but that doesn't mean that every security measure taken will in fact make that possibility less likely. And with due respect to arguing from fear, if a gun could get onto a plane despite existing security measures, these new measures aren't at all likely to improve the situation.
It's bizarre that a nation that has largely rolled over and acquiesced in allowing its government to tap its phones and internet traffic – the Patriot act, a far graver assault on civil liberties – should get so exercised about this instead.
First, many people have objected to the "security state" developments in the U.K. and U.S., but "shut up and take it" arguments from people like Adams have drowned them out. Second, the use of excessive security measures in one context does not justify the use of excessive security measures in a second context. Third, as I've previously indicated, a lot of the acquiescence toward security excesses in other contexts is that it's invisible - it's either happening to other people, or it's happening in such a manner that you don't even know your privacy has been encroached. It may well be hypocritical to acquiesce to intrusions in other contexts while objecting this time, but being a hypocrite doesn't make you wrong.

Further, if the contexts are analogous and Adams truly believes that the Patriot Act represents government overreach that's being replicated in this context, he should be arguing against the overreach. If he doesn't believe the situations are analogous, he's reaching for an example he knows is irrelevant merely so he can sneer that those who disagree with him are hypocrites.

While Adams makes a valid point about the inadequacies of racial profiling, he continues in relation to Charles Krauthammer's recent column,
The scariest part of Krauthammer's piece is this: "This has nothing to do with safety - 95% of these inspections, searches, shoe removals and pat-downs are ridiculously unnecessary." Which means that five per cent are necessary, according to Krauthammer. One in 20? In that case, security isn't anywhere near tight enough. More to the point, deterrence is a major purpose of airport security. How many people it catches is immaterial.
Adams' first mistake is his treatment of Krauthammer's only the fly statistics as being somehow scientifically determined. His second mistake is an interpretation of what Krauthammer is stating in relation to the 5% of passengers he sees as needing more intensive screening. Krauthammer's argument is that TSA could easily exclude 95% of passengers from the category of "even slightly probable to engage in an act of violence, terrorism or hijacking on an airplane," and that the TSA should thus focus its efforts at identifying and intensely screening the remaining 5%. He's not arguing that 5% of airline passengers are dangerous - not even close.

Let's say you're looking for a needle in a haystack. You propose using a metal detector to try to identify the haystacks that might contain a metal object, and searching those haystacks first. Somebody else howls, "No - we need to put all of the hay from all of the stacks into one giant stack before we even can even begin to look." You may not find the needle the first way, assuming there even is one, but the second way creates an enormous inefficiency. Krauthammer's point, in essence, is that we're better off trying to identify the 5% of the "haystack" that is at all likely to pose a threat rather than putting everybody into that "haystack" - an approach that creates a great deal of inefficiency, generates an astronomical number of "false positives" (bins and bins full of 3.2 oz tubes of gel, nail files, etc.) and may not do much to actually improve security. Yes, it's possible to dispute whether Krauthammer has the right approach to identifying the people who pose a threat - racial profiling won't do it - but is it not in fact the case that the vast majority of air travelers pose no risk to the air flight, and that we can reasonably screen 95% of passengers into a "very low risk" category for purposes of pre-flight security screenings?

Adams' argument that airport security is about deterrence, not about how many suspected terrorists are actually intercepted, begs the question. He's in essence arguing that we can justify the expenditure of billions of dollars and the intrusion of privacy of people who pose no threat simply to put on a good show. Let's not even consider whether the new measures have a greater deterrent effect than the status quo. Let's not bring up the question of whether focusing intensive screening on the small subset of passengers who might actually pose a threat to an air flight would have equal or greater deterrence. Think of the body scans and frisks as a glorious form of performance art.

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