Security Theater

Anyone who flies regularly and has not thought of at least five ways they could easily beat airport security isn't really trying.  Jeffrey Goldberg actually tries a few:

Suspicious that the measures put in place after the attacks of September 11 to prevent further such attacks are almost entirely for show"”security theater is the term of art"”I have for some time now been testing, in modest ways, their effectiveness. Because the TSA's security regimen seems to be mainly thing-based"”most of its 44,500 airport officers are assigned to truffle through carry-on bags for things like guns, bombs, three-ounce tubes of anthrax, Crest toothpaste, nail clippers, Snapple, and so on"”I focused my efforts on bringing bad things through security in many different airports, primarily my home airport, Washington's Reagan National, the one situated approximately 17 feet from the Pentagon, but also in Los Angeles, New York, Miami, Chicago, and at the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport...

Schnei­er and I walked to the security checkpoint. "Counter­terrorism in the airport is a show designed to make people feel better," he said. "Only two things have made flying safer: the reinforcement of cockpit doors, and the fact that passengers know now to resist hijackers." This assumes, of course, that al-Qaeda will target airplanes for hijacking, or target aviation at all. "We defend against what the terrorists did last week," Schnei­er said. He believes that the country would be just as safe as it is today if airport security were rolled back to pre-9/11
levels. "Spend the rest of your money on intelligence, investigations, and emergency response."

Though I have to give props to the TSA for supporting first Amendment rights, I am not sure their concern over free speech and privacy was driving this encounter:

On another occasion, at LaGuardia, in New York, the
transportation-security officer in charge of my secondary screening
emptied my carry-on bag of nearly everything it contained, including a
yellow, three-foot-by-four-foot Hezbollah flag, purchased at a
Hezbollah gift shop in south Lebanon. The flag features, as its
charming main image, an upraised fist clutching an AK-47 automatic
rifle. Atop the rifle is a line of Arabic writing that reads Then surely the party of God are they who will be triumphant.
The officer took the flag and spread it out on the inspection table.
She finished her inspection, gave me back my flag, and told me I could
go. I said, "That's a Hezbollah flag." She said, "Uh-huh." Not "Uh-huh,
I've been trained to recognize the symbols of anti-American terror
groups, but after careful inspection of your physical person, your
behavior, and your last name, I've come to the conclusion that you are
not a Bekaa Valley"“trained threat to the United States commercial
aviation system," but "Uh-huh, I'm going on break, why are you talking
to me?"

It turns out, incredibly, that most airport employees are not screened.  Because, you know, it would be grossly unfair to subject airport staff to the same sort of time-wasting indignities to which we all must acquiesce.  Also, many commercial flights have a belly-full of US mail which I am pretty sure is not inspected in any way.


  1. ErikTheRed:

    Bruce Schneier (mentioned in the quote) is one of the world's leading experts in information security and has been poking holes in "Security Theater" for some time now. He has a nice blog at

  2. Rob:

    I flew back from Paris a couple days after Reid tried to blow up his shoe back in 2001. I thought it was ridiculous how they made me take off my shoes, but yet I was able to carry 4 bottles of wine in my back pack onto the flight.

    I don't remember if the TSA was established at the time, but I remember sending an e-mail in 2004 about how there were so many security threats like liquids like win, fake tickets, ticket swapping, tainted packaged goods for airport businesses, etc... I got a generic response to which I promptly replied with a harsh e-mail criticizing the lack of attention to these potential threats. After that, someone actually called to thank me, and actually said that they hadn't identified those as potential threats.

    I laugh (in a scared way) that now we can't bring liquids past security unless they are are a certain number of ounces (by volume or weight?). I told them a couple years before they banned liquids pretty much.

    TSA still doesn't check for fake tickets with fake Ids which could easily be swapped with valid tickets before boarding the plane. This effectively circumvents any watch lists (watching for a congregation of potential terrorists at the airport).

    Of course, the lack of security on packaged goods going to businesses that operate behind the security checkpoints is an obvious blunder...

  3. jay:

    A couple years ago, I was ready to leave for business, and decided that a lighter jacket would be in order since I was going to California. I threw on a jacket I hadn't used since last summer and met my flight.

    After I got through security (jacket went through Xray) and was waiting to board, I reached in my pocket and realized I had a 4" lockback knife... completely ignored by the 'security' folks (lucky for me). I ducked into a men's room and ditched it in a trashcan.

    Yup, topnotch.