Airport Security, or Lack Therof

On 1 November, the government changed the rules about airport security.  My colleague, whose name is misspelled in his passport, has had to get a new one because airline staffers, who used to just wink at the discrepancy, aren’t allowed to to that anymore.

At the same time, body scanners and ‘enhanced pat-downs’ came into more general use.  I’ve said before that I don’t mind the body scanner, as long as I can’t hear the guy off in a room somewhere looking at me naked and snickering.

Much has been written about how the new scanners and searches are demeaning, an assault on one’s dignity.  Perhaps, but we’ve set our Fourth Amendment rights at airports aside for about 40 years, since metal detectors first came into use.  I accept that, consistent with government’s responsibility to maintain civil order, my person and effects may be searched before I can travel on a plane.

What bothers me more about the new security procedures is that I’m not sure how effective they are.  Our modern approach to problems like this is to throw expensive equipment and onerous procedures at the problem.  Politicians like body scanners because they can say that they’re doing something concrete to fix the problem.  The manufacturers of the devices earn a living out of it, and turn around and support the politicians.  Everybody’s happy, right?

One of my pastimes when flying is to imagine how, if I were a bad guy, I could circumvent the security rules and do something evil.  I’ve had some clever thoughts in that vein, though in the name of good citizenship I won’t report them here.  My point is that what makes people dangerous is what they are thinking, far more than the objects they may be carrying.  But we can’t examine people’s thoughts, so we examine their objects.

The Israelis have been practicing effective airport security for decades.  I’ve never experienced it, but the reports I’ve read suggest that they question passengers to establish their motives for travelling, at least to satisfy themselves that their motive will not impact the safety of the flight.  They pay attention to the passenger’s thoughts, as well as his objects.

It’s a compelling alternative, and I would like to see it applied here, even if it meant that I would have to arrive at the airport three hours before my flight.  It would meaningfully improve airport security.  I’d even pay an extra $50 for every airplane ticket to help pay for it.

But that’s why it won’t work:

  • People will complain, just as they do now with pat-downs and body scanners, that the aggressive questioning is an assault on their civil liberties.
  • It will mean that passengers will have to arrive at the airport early, in a disciplined frame of mind, prepared to submit to questioning, which will deter many casual travelers.  The airlines won’t want that.
  • While I’m willing to pay for genuine airport security, I’m probably in the minority.  We’re still in the mode of processing passengers as cheaply as possible.
  • It’s possible to teach someone the skills of the present airport security regime in a few days or weeks, and establish that he is doing a satisfactory job through direct inspection.  The Israeli method turns on professional judgement, accrued through years of experience.  Where would we get the people?

So we’re probably stuck with the methods we use now, at least until some invents a machine to read minds.

Just as long as I can’t hear them snicker.

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