TSA Searches, Revisited

December 5, 2010

We are still seeing the ongoing ruckus about the Transportation Security Administration’s [TSA] new scanning devices and “enhanced pat-downs”.  A planned protest just before Thanksgiving was something of a damp squib, apparently, in part, because the TSA was not using the new protocol at many airports.  Bruce Schneier, in his Schneier on Security blog, has an updated essay on the issue (the essay originally appeared at the Atlantic web site), in which he examines some of the claims and counter-claims made by various parties.

One of the problems with the use of the new scanner technology is that, contrary to what some people believe, it won’t necessarily find explosives like those used by the Christmas “Underpants Bomber”.  As Schneier correctly observes, the machines cannot identify PETN.

The problem is that no scanners or puffers can detect PETN; only swabs and dogs work. What the TSA hopes is that they will detect the bulge if someone is hiding a wad of it on their person.

But there is no particular reason to suppose that would-be terrorists will be obligingly stupid enough to carry their explosive in a lump.  As the essay points out, the material could be hidden in a body cavity, or rolled into thin sheets that could be sewn into clothing.  Or a group of attackers might each carry a small portion of the total, and then assemble a bomb once past security.   The TSA says that they will be looking for external initiator mechanisms (essentially, detonators).  Apart from the observation that, if that is a viable method, it ought to work for bombs in shoes or underpants as well, it not at all clear that finding these mechanisms is all that simple.

Do you think for a minute that the TSA can detect these “external initiators”? Do you think that if a terrorist took a laptop — or better yet, a less-common piece of electronics gear — and removed the insides and replaced them with a timer, a pressure sensor, a simple contact switch, or a radio frequency switch, the TSA guy behind the X-ray machine monitor would detect it?

We continue to pursue the chimera of perfect security, always and everywhere unattainable, especially in a free society.  Although the TSA’s procedures are certainly expensive and intrusive, I am not personally convinced that they improve security very much.  Richard Reid, the “Shoe Bomber”, and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the “Underwear Bomber”, both failed to set off their bombs, and were subdued by other passengers.  The toner cartridge plot was detected by good intelligence work.

Schneier has another essay, too.  He notes that the National Park Service has found it difficult to come up with a workable security plan for the Washington Monument, and suggests that we just close it, as a monument to our own craven response to the threat of terrorism.

An empty Washington Monument would serve as a constant reminder to those on Capitol Hill that they are afraid of the terrorists and what they could do. They’re afraid that by speaking honestly about the impossibility of attaining absolute security or the inevitability of terrorism — or that some American ideals are worth maintaining even in the face of adversity — they will be branded as “soft on terror.”

We make trade-offs all the time between security and convenience, cost, and other things that we want.  More people in the US are killed in automobile accidents each month than died on September 11, 2001.   Sensible adults do not look under the bed every night to make sure no burglar is hiding there — although one might be.

Refuse to be terrorized.

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