Friday, November 19, 2010

Stupid Arguments In Favor of the Security State

The Washington Post and L.A. Times have both provided stupid arguments on the question of "full body scans" and the frisking of passengers at airports. First up, the L.A. Times:
Shut up and be scanned
Really, that's their headline and its the gist of their argument - shut up and do as you're told. They attempt to dress it up a bit:
The new scans might not be foolproof, but they'll spot more dangerous materials than the old detectors and keep passengers safer.
Everybody agrees that the scans and pat-downs are not foolproof - not even close. Everybody in fact knows how to fool them. The issue then, is whether they make us appreciably safer and... despite the whopping 130 items taken from passengers as a result of the new machines, there is actually no evidence that the machines would make us safer. There's no evidence that body scanning would have identified the "underwear bomber".

Yes, I recognize that there are people who claim that Abdulmutallab would probably have been identified by a body scan, but here's the thing: We have his underwear bomb. We can dress somebody up in a facsimile, put them through the scanner, and find out for sure. So why hasn't that been done as a demonstration of the need for scans and their effectiveness at detecting threats that might otherwise be missed? Either we have to accept what we've been told so far - the DHS rushed into the purchase of these machines without actually trying to assess whether they improved security - or we can choose to be cynical and assume that "underwear bombs" were tested and the scans failed. Seriously, it would be a cheap and easy demonstration. If you were advocating for scanners, why wouldn't you be all over the news with scans proving that they would have stopped Abdulmutallab? Unless, that is, you know they wouldn't.

In short arguing that people should, in essence, shut up and take on the assumption that the machines make us "safer" is an irresponsible argument, contemptuous both of individual rights and freedoms and of what is involved in actually improving security. Which brings us to the Washington Post which, after reminding us that al-Qaeda remains interested in "targeting commercial flights",
No technology is foolproof; intelligence, traditional law enforcement and tips will continue to play leading roles in disrupting attacks. But the government would be irresponsible not to employ all reasonable means - and all available technology - to protect the lives of innocent people.
The Post assumes that body scanners are a "reasonable means" of detecting threats on the basis of... what? Just like the L.A. Times, they apparently don't need any evidence that the scanners add to security. You can argue that the assumption is not unreasonable, but even if we weren't talking about billions of dollars we should be looking at how much difference the scanners make and performing a cost-benefit analysis as compared to other security measures.

I believe TSA Director John Pistole when he states that a frisk (he still prefers the term pat-down, but let's be more accurate) would have detected Abdulmutallab's underwear bomb - and let's further assume that it would have been sufficient to distinguish the bomb from an adult diaper. As I previously noted he provides no comparable assurance that a body scan would have detected the bomb. The reasonable inference is that we're spending $billions on technology that, in specific relation to the threat that inspired the quick roll-out of body scanners, is probably inferior to a frisk. So maybe everybody should be frisked? Or scanned and frisked?

And that "all available technology" argument - how about making passengers walk through a giant fluoroscope - a virtual cavity search? Sure, it's more radiation than a backscatter device, but why should that matter? All this talk about balancing cost and effectiveness, considering whether other approaches might be better, wondering if we're wasting billions of dollars - talk, talk, talk. We're against a determined enemy so "shut up and be scanned", right?

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