I know, I gripe about the TSA and drones a lot on this blog, but after reading this story, I think you’ll understand why I think a lot of the TSA airport security policies are nothing more than security theater. It’s supposed to make you feel safer, but it doesn’t actually make you safer. It’s an act, a joke. And the way the TSA responds to criticism of those airport security policies is an even worse joke.
The story begins with this video by Jonathan Corbett. In it, Corbett argues that someone trying to smuggle something past the TSA’s new body scanners (whether contraband, a weapon, or explosive) need only slip it into a hidden pocket along your ribcage. He then shows videos which purport to show him passing through airport security checkpoints and the body scanners without the item being detected by the TSA.
Naturally, a story like that will generate some response. Among them was an article in the Guardian. The only airport in the UK that uses the new body scanners is in Manchester. Spokesperson Russell Craig said, “He’s taken a small metal tin through. And the guards are looking for a threat object. That’s not one. It’s not a valid test. To say this shows it undermines airport security technology is totally wrong.”
That response made me laugh. It gives the game away. First off, what exactly is a threat object? An axe, a sword, a gun? What would-be terrorist would use that? Even the 9/11 hijackers used relatively innocuous box cutters. The “liquid bombers” were going to use energy drink bottles. The underwear and shoe bombers also went for innocuous setups. The spokesman basically said if you’re not obvious, you will get through. And if the only way to test a system is to try to bring something obvious through the system–you know, instead of trying to be subtle and sneak something through–then you’re rigging the test.
Now, the story would have probably died away fairly quickly, but the TSA had to issue a response. And was it a doozy. Here is the official TSA response and here is a Gizmodo article destroying it. The TSA does not even refute the video! But they do take time to make fun of Corbett. The TSA simply says trust us, and trust the body scanners. Don’t you worry your little heads about it–we’ll keep you safe from the big, bad boogeymen. Oh, but all evidence about our successes are classified, so again, trust us. And if you don’t like it, you can opt to be felt up.
Even worse, there are now reports that the TSA is “strongly cautioning” reporters not to cover this story. Way to build trust, TSA.
Those body scanners cost a ton of money. Do they improve airport security? Probably. Is the marginal increase in security worth the cost? What about the health effects for frequent travelers? Do their policies make any sense? Read this article if you want to learn about security theater at its best/worst. In it, a man claiming to be a former FBI counterterrorism officer talks about being able to bring a gun on board, but not a knife. Feel safer yet?
Remember these sorts of stories next time you’re passing through airport security. When you’re getting scanned or invasively patted down. Ask yourself if you are actually safer, or if you’re just supposed to play a part in the security theater.