News reports in the last couple of weeks have been full of stories about the new air passenger screening facilities and procedures put in place by the Transportation Security Administration [TSA]. There has been so much commentary and so many different reactions that it is hard to know where to start; however, Bruce Schneier has a long post on his “Schneier on Security” blog which has a fair cross-section of reactions, and lots of links to other sources. (The date of the original post was November 19, but it has been updates a number of times since then.)
My own reaction to these developments is to some degree mixed. Although I think it is past time that we had a somewhat serious discussion of the trade-offs between security and privacy, some of the nearly hysterical reactions to the new screening protocols strike me as a bit overblown. And I am sure there would be at least equivalent hysteria — some of it probably from the same people — in the event that a terrorist attack on an aircraft were successful.
On the other hand, as the late Senator Daniel Moynihan said, everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts. Ruth Marcus, a generally sensible OpEd columnist for the Washington Post, wrote in a recent column:
… whether this is real security or security theater is to some extent unknowable; the plot deterred cannot be measured. We do know that, without the enhanced imaging, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab got on a plane with enough explosives to blow it up.
We actually do not know anything of the kind. As I noted in a post in March, the BBC sponsored an experiment in which the same amount and type of explosive (80g of PETN), placed in the same position as Umar’s seat, were set off in a retired 747 at an aircraft graveyard in the UK. The resulting explosion almost certainly would have killed the terrorist and some people nearby; however, it did not even rupture the skin of the aircraft fuselage. The experts involved said that the quantity of explosive was “not nearly enough” to cause structural damage. There was no evidence that the crew’s ability to control or land the aircraft would have been significantly compromised.
I don’t mean to pick on Ms. Marcus; there have been many other similar statements made by others. What concerns me is that this sort of “lore” takes on a life of its own. I think there is in consequence a real risk that we will end up doing to ourselves more, in terms of economic loss, and loss of privacy and freedom, than the terrorists could ever hope to do.