Even Worse Than a Waste of Time and Money

Bruce Schneier on airport security:

A short history of airport security: We screen for guns and bombs, so the terrorists use box cutters.  We confiscate box cutters and corkscrews, so they put explosives in their sneakers.  We screen footwear, so they try to use liquids.  We confiscate liquids, so they put PETN bombs in their underwear.  We roll out full-body scanners, even though they wouldn’t have caught the Underwear Bomber, so they put a bomb in a printer cartridge.  We ban printer cartridges over 16 ounces -- the level of magical thinking here is amazing -- and they’re going to do something else.

This is a stupid game, and we should stop playing it.

It’s not even a fair game.  It’s not that the terrorist picks an attack and we pick a defense, and we see who wins.  It’s that we pick a defense, and then the terrorists look at our defense and pick an attack designed to get around it.  Our security measures only work if we happen to guess the plot correctly.  If we get it wrong, we’ve wasted our money.  This isn’t security; it’s security theater. [...]

Exactly two things have made airplane travel safer since 9/11: reinforcing the cockpit door, and convincing passengers they need to fight back.  Everything else has been a waste of money.

Unfortunately it’s worse than merely wasteful, because the TSA’s latest bit of security theater involves them seeing you naked via x-ray machines whose safety has not been proven and which may in fact be quite dangerous:

Quoting Jason Bell:

These questions have not been answered to any satisfaction and the UCSF scientists, all esteemed in their fields and members of the National Academy of Sciences, have been dismissed based on a couple of reports seemingly hastily put together by mid-level government technicians or engineers.  The documents that I have reviewed thus far either have NO AUTHOR CREDITS or are NOT authored by anyone with either a Ph.D. or a M.D., raising serious concerns of the extent of the expertise of the individuals and organizations evaluating these machines with respect to biological safety.  Yet, the FDA and TSA continue to dismiss some of the most talented scientists in the country...

With respect to errors in the safety reports and/or misleading information about them, the statement that one scan is equivalent to 2-3 minutes of your flight is VERY misleading.  Most cosmic radiation is composed of high energy particles that passes right through our body and the plane itself without being absorbed.  The spectrum that is dangerous is known as ionizing radiation and most of that is absorbed by the hull of the airplane.  So relating non-absorbing cosmic radiation to tissue absorbing man-made radiation is simply misleading and wrong.  Of course these are related and there is over-lap, but we have to compare apples to apples.

Furthermore, when making this comparison, the TSA and FDA are calculating that the dose is absorbed throughout the body.  According the simulations performed by NIST, the relative absorption of the radiation is ~20-35-fold higher in the skin, breast, testes and thymus than the brain, or 7-12-fold higher than bone marrow.  So a total body dose is misleading, because there is differential absorption in some tissues.  Of particular concern is radiation exposure to the testes, which could result in infertility or birth defects, and breasts for women who might carry a BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation.

There are plenty of other experts who believe the TSA is either wrong or lying about these devices, for example:

Quoting U.S. Rep. Rush Holt:

Earlier this year, the Congressional Biomedical Caucus - of which Holt is a co-chair - hosted a briefing by Dr. David Brenner of Columbia University on the potential health effects of "back scatter" x-ray devices.  According to Dr. Brenner, the devices currently in use and proposed for wider deployment deliver to the scalp "20 times the average dose that is typically quoted by TSA and throughout the industry."  Dr. Brenner has pointed out that the majority of the radiation from X-ray backscatter machines strikes the top of the head, which is where 85 percent of the 800,000 cases of basal cell carcinoma diagnosed in the United States each year develop.

According to Dr. Brenner, excessive x-ray exposure can act as a cancer rate multiplier, which is why Holt has urged the government to investigate thoroughly the potential health risks associated with this technology.  In August, Holt wrote to the House Committee on Appropriations calling for a freeze in funding for any further full-body scanning devices employing "back scatter" technology until the GAO completes its examination of the technology.

But aside from the fact that all of this nonsense doesn’t make us any safer, and may in fact be giving us cancer, there is the simple issue of the obvious conclusion to this path we’re on: namely that terrorists who wish to blow up airplanes will put the explosives in the only place left: up their butts.  (It’s happened before.)  At that point, by the TSA’s logic, the response must be either full medical-style x-rays, or anal probes, for every passenger.

We’ve given the TSA about a decade, and I think we can all agree that by now they’re at or near the pinnacle of suckitude.  It’s time we start exploring other, more realistic methods of airline security.  I’ll propose a couple ideas to get things started: first, instead of having just the two options of strip-search or groping, we should expand the list to strip-search, groping, or kicking a government official in the face.  Second, in terms of the bigger picture, it’s well past time that we seriously consider the nuke the moon option.

Posted by Anthony on reply

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