The TSA: Stupid, Owned, or Complicit?

I have long been in Bruce Schneier’s camp, thinking that the TSA is a joke: nothing but security theater.

A few recent examples come to mind:

  • In the famous recent event, a man refuses to go through the backscatter machine, and then refuses to be groped. They tell him he can’t board the plane, take a report, and say he is free to leave. Then they say he has to go back to the screening area and be screened before leaving the airport, despite his wishes. Obviously they don’t believe he really had a bomb, because if he did, would they really want him in a cramped area surrounded by hundreds of civilians? So why make him go back?
  • Reading about these screenings, one of my thoughts was, “I sure wouldn’t want to have my kids have to go through that, or a millimeter wave machine whose health effects are completely unknown!” Then I read the TSA’s bulletin, intended to calm people like me: don’t worry, kids under 13 will never be patted down. OK TSA, so either your patdowns are completely ineffective or you are so naive that you think that nobody under 13 could ever be an attacker. If the latter, why fuss with making them go through security in the first place?

I don’t get it. They have been completely reactionary since they began. They have a complete failure of institutional imagination. Something happens, and then a new rule comes out to prevent the thing that everybody is now expecting. And what happens about the thing that people aren’t expecting yet? Nothing. So we now have to take off our shoes because one guy tried to use them for something nefarious. OK, fine, but the next guy is probably going to try something other than shoes.

Which is why, I’m sure, many people are pointing out that the TSA is over-reliant on technology and device detection and completely underemphasizing evildoer detection — as, we are repeatedly reminded, the Israelis excel at. The TSA’s attempt to remedy that was foolish at best, and, according to a recent report, “not grounded in science.”

Which is why I am heartened that, almost a decade after 9/11, Americans are starting to let go of their fear and be ready to reclaim some sense of intelligence at the security line. The fact that politicians think there is something to be gained by being tough on TSA’s invasive screening procedures, rather than risk looking soft on terrorism, is evidence of this.

So, what I haven’t yet worked out is this: What gives, TSA? Are they:

  • Stupid or incompetent? Do they really, deep down, actually believe it when they say this is excellent, best in the world security? Do they really not see how stupid it is?
  • Afraid? Are they afraid that if they don’t deploy every possible technological solution, and then there is an attack, that they will be fired? (This surely doesn’t explain the botched behavioral screening program though)
  • Pressured? Are the vendors of security technology getting at them directly or indirectly via politicians forcing them to deploy this stuff?
  • Apathetic? They simply have a job, don’t really care about it at all, and are just doing the minimum necessary to bring home a paycheck?
  • Stuck in a culture of rigidity? Unable to come up with any sort of process that gives screeners the ability to use discretion, they insist that everyone be treated equally — and that those that aren’t are treated differently on a completely random basis. Some bureaucrats probably spent years on the plan, which is totally useless.

(Note: this criticism is directed mostly at the upper levels of TSA management; I do not believe the people most of us see have the ability to change the system, even if they wanted to.)

One final word: I also get annoyed at all the people that grouse at the TSA checking 80-year-olds as thoroughly as everyone else. An 80-year-old could be wearing a hidden device just as much as anyone else could, and if we don’t check them, then someday they probably will. The key is to be smart about who we check carefully. Use data, behavioral analysis, simple questioning, etc — it works, and is a lot better than exempting people under 13 and over 80 from screening on arbitrary grounds.

Also, it might help anyone with a blurry groin. And it might just save a bunch of us from getting cancer.

5 thoughts on “The TSA: Stupid, Owned, or Complicit?

  1. Purely mathematically speaking, one could divide all the time people spend going through these TSA checks by the average duration of a human life.

    Admittedly, even thinking about the problem in this way sounds almost fascist (“having all the people on one plane every now and then killed is more appropriate than stealing a minute or two from every plane traveller every time he flies”). It does however offer a refreshingly different point of view, something that might help incite a discussion on how to improve the current situation.

  2. My money is on “pressured” by security vendors being the best explanation.

    Also, economically speaking, is there any possible motivation for TSA being less invasive? Saving money probably doesn’t help them. Less spending probably means less budget for next year.

    Also, the motto for law enforcement is “serve and protect” right? I was struck a few years ago by the mission statement of the air marshals program, which was “restore confidence” in flying. I was floored. No protect. No serve. They were there purely to create a warm fuzzy feeling and some of the marshals were blowing whistles.

    So is TSA’s mission to actually protect anything? If not, then the pure security theater they engage in is completely rational behavior.

    Local news last night featured a quote from TSA reminding me that flying was a privilege, not a right. I was floored again. That’s really bold and I doubt they did themselves any favors by saying that.

  3. I think they fail their own mission statement:

    he Transportation Security Administration protects the Nation’s transportation systems to ensure freedom of movement for people and commerce

    The Transportation Security Administration will continuously set the standard for excellence in transportation security through its people, processes, and technology.

    Core Values
    To enhance mission performance and achieve our shared goals, we are committed to promoting a culture founded on these values:

    * Integrity:
    o We are a people of integrity who respect and care for others and protect the information we handle.
    o We are a people who conduct ourselves in an honest, trustworthy and ethical manner at all times.
    o We are a people who gain strength from the diversity in our cultures.
    * Innovation:
    o We are a people who embrace and stand ready for change.
    o We are a people who are courageous and willing to take on new challenges.
    o We are a people with an enterprising spirit, striving for innovations who accept the risk-taking that comes with it.
    * Team Spirit:
    o We are a people who are open, respectful and dedicated to making others better.
    o We are a people who have a passion for challenge, success and being on a winning team.
    o We are a people who will build teams around our strengths.

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