Thursday, November 18, 2010

Balancing Security Against the Threat

As the air traveling public recoils at the choice between being scanned by a TSA strip search machine or having an enhanced pat-down (a/k/a a frisk), the TSA has attempted to defend its latest measures:
TSA Administrator John Pistole defended the system today, saying that all passengers want to know that their fellow fliers have been properly screened for weapons like box cutters, liquid explosives or a shoe or underwear bomb.

"Everybody wants the best possible security," Pistole said on NBC's "Today" show. "The question is, What's that blend or balance, if you will, between security, safety and privacy? While we remain sensitive to people with those concerns, the system we have set up addresses those concerns and provides the best possible security."
Except, as we know, neither a frisk nor a strip search scan will stop a determined terrorist. Neither will detect contraband stored inside the body, and there's no reason to believe that terrorists haven't figured that out.

If public reaction so far is a measure, TSA should infer that it has gone past the tipping point - people are willing to take off their shoes, take medical equipment and computers out of their luggage for the x-ray machine, be patted down, wanded, and otherwise inconvenienced to eliminate most contraband from flights, but don't like the idea of being electronically strip searched or frisked. They would apparently accept the 1:10,000,000 or so chance of being hijacked without this "enhancement" over the 1:10,100,000 chance that they enjoy with this added security. And I may be overstating the statistical difference.

Thomas Friedman wrote a while ago that we have been lucky not to have been hit by another terrorist attack - and he's correct.
Meanwhile, we need to focus on the things we can control. For starters, we’re going to have to learn to live with more insecurity. Terrorism is awful, but it is not yet an existential threat. And we can’t let our response to it be to shut down our open society or tear ourselves apart with recriminations. Like the Israelis and Brits, we need to keep up our guard, learn from our mistakes, but also learn to bury our dead and move on.
President Obama recently made a statement that should have been treated as an opportunity to have an adult conversation about the risks of terrorism and how we might respond.
I said very early on, as a Senator and continue to believe, as a presidential candidate and now as president, that we can absorb a terrorist attack. We will do everything we can to prevent it. but even a 9/11, even the biggest attack ever, that ever took place on our soil, we absorbed it, and we are stronger. This is a strong, powerful country that we live in, and our people are incredibly resilient.
Instead, Republican hacks started to shriek about how the President wasn't committed to protecting us from terrorism. With no offense intended, I don't believe for a second that Pistole is trying to achieve balance. He's working in an environment in which it is presumed that no mistakes are acceptable, and thus that it's reasonable to invest $billions in technology that most people find objectionable in order to provide a very small overall improvement in security.
Pistole, who said Wednesday that the scanners and new pat-downs already had found "dozens and dozens of artfully concealed items" noted that Muslim women and members of other religions that dictate the kind of clothing they must wear can request to receive a pat-down in private or have a witness present, among other procedures.
I wish we had a better sense of what type of contraband we're talking about or how it posed a threat. Instead we hear about "dozens and dozens" of items - which could mean 48 - with no indication that any of them posed an actual threat to air security.

We are now in an era in which you can shut down an airport by accidentally going through the wrong door, or when a security guard accidentally leaves a door unattended. Jeffrey Goldberg's nightmare scenario - somebody setting off a bomb in a line for airport security - would, as he indicates, immediately shut down air travel across the nation. Meanwhile, with present policies for responding to an in-the-air incident, it's not clear why a hijacker would choose to try to get on an airplane over taking Goldberg's approach, at least if they're already in the U.S.

Something that might have helped in this debate, if you want to call it that, would be evidence that the TSA has rigorously tested and compared various methods of screening to demonstrate that a determined passenger is less likely to be able to smuggle contraband on board if scanned or frisked. As with every prior "enhancement", the TSA measure seems to be largely reactive - "somebody almost got away with X, so let's implement security measure Y to prevent it from happening again" - without any real thought to actual risk, cost, or efficacy. If TSA could say, "We challenged 1,000 FBI agents to get through security lines with dangerous contraband, and caught 99% of them using scanners versus 90% with frisks and 66% with existing technology", the case for the scanners would be far more compelling than claiming, after-the-fact, that the $billions spent have resulted in the interception of "dozens and dozens" of forbidden items with no claim that any of those items in fact posed a danger to a flight or other passengers.

Update: Adam Serwer reports the lack of testing and due diligence exercised by the TSA before making this multi-$billion investment:
The current scanners were being evaluated at a time when, according to a 2009 Government Accountability Office report, the TSA had neither implemented a cost-benefit analysis of its passenger-screening technologies nor established "performance measures that assess how deployed technologies have reduced or mitigated risk." As of today, the GAO says the TSA still hasn't done either, despite having deployed the scanners nationwide. A TSA spokesman defended the machines by saying it had done an analysis concluding that the machines offered an ability to detect nonmetallic threats that could "only otherwise be obtained by increasing manpower to conduct physical pat-down searches." However, a March GAO report found that it "remains unclear" whether the body scanners would have been able to detect the type of explosive that underwear bomber Umar Abdulmutallab attempted to employ. Once again, we've traded liberty for security without even having a good idea of how much security we're really getting.
And yet we're to believe that this is part of an effort to balance safety against privacy?

(Serwer and, more bluntly, Mike at C&F, have pointed out that much of the reaction to airport scanners and frisks falls into the category of "This type of thing is only supposed to happen to other people".)

Update 2: Apparently "dozens and dozens" means "130", again with no indication that any items found posed a threat to an airplane or other passengers. The biggest problem at this point appears to be a very high rate of false positives, meaning passengers who are carrying nothing inappropriate can agree to the virtual strip search and still have to go through a frisk.

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