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Archive: 12 August 2006

Insecurities

Last night, I returned from a week in Ojai, CA.  The rules for my return were just a touch different than when I left.

For a moment on Thursday, I was seriously concerned, because the news reports made it seem like no books, iPods, laptops, or other time-fillers would be allowed on any flights in the U.S., and I was facing a flight home of four or more hours.  Even worse, that meant I’d have to send my laptop through the baggage handling system.  I was frankly far more concerned at the potential for damage or loss there than I was over the possibility that someone might blow up my plane.

Fortunately, things settled down and the truth emerged: no gels, liquids, or creams.  Everything else is still permitted.

Although this isn’t true if you’re flying from the U.K. to the U.S.  I was planning to be in London this November, but faced with the prospect of eight hours in a metal tube with nothing but the in-flight movies to occupy my attention, I’m starting to reconsider.  I mean, come on: for my flight out to LAX, the movie was direct-to-video Dr. Dolittle 3.  In comparison, their showing She’s the Man on the return flight almost seemed like a blessing.  At least it was based on Shakespeare.

So anyway, the new security rules do actually improve a couple of things.  For one, getting through the security checkpoint at LAX (terminal 6) in the middle of a Friday afternoon was a breeze, because the most anyone had was a briefcase, so there was a lot less struggling with bags and such.  Also, the sudden lack of competition for overhead luggage space meant that boarding was quite smooth, with few if any aisle backups.

The downside, though, is that there is a final complete search of travelers’ bags at the gate (at least in LAX), and that part needs a lot of work.  Instead of feeding people through the screening by rows, the way planes are usually boarded, they just told everyone to line up for screening.  But they weren’t actually ready to let anyone on the plane, so the screening area was immediately clogged with already-screened passengers (with no real tracking of who’d actually been screened), which brought everything to a halt.  It was a good ten minutes before the plane was open for boarding and the process unclogged.

Don’t get me wrong: if you’re going to search everyone for gels and such, doing it at the gate makes a lot more sense than doing it at the main security checkpoint.  All I’m saying is that it needs to be done with a little bit of thought.  As it was, the screening process at my gate was marginally less organized than an Easter Egg hunt conducted by a crowd of severely ADHD pre-schoolers.  It’d be nice to see that improved before I get back on a plane. (That would be tomorrow, as it happens, so I’m not terribly hopeful.)

All this leaves aside the basic lack of common sense the whole situation evinces.  Even if there were no more airport security than existed on 10 September 2001, the odds of my dying on a plane, whether by accident or design, would be several orders of magnitude smaller than the chances I’ll be killed driving to the airport.  (This was triply true in my case, as I had to drive from outside Los Angeles to LAX in the middle of the day.)  With the security that existed before this past week, my survival odds on the plane were greater still.  I’m not saying we should just take away all the security, but personally, since Thursday I thought of at least two ways to take down a plane that the current system would be highly unlikely to catch.

At least, I think that’s so.  It’s hard to be sure, because airport security is like the ultimate closed-source application.  I can’t just say, “Hey, here’s a way to get a bomb past airport security using a medium-size ball of twine and 17 Hello Kitty stickers; how can we address this?” because then maybe I’ve given an idea to the Bad Guys, as though the Bad Guys haven’t been thinking about this a lot longer and harder than I have.  The black hats know all about the system’s weaknesses, but we common users have no way to check for bugs without being hauled off to jail—or, if we simply speculate aloud on possible weaknesses and ways to patch them, get accused of giving aid and comfort to the enemy, whatever the hell that means.  (Oh, that’s right: it means doing anything the current administration doesn’t like, including criticism of their decisions and actions.  Sorry, I just forgot for a moment.)

Anyway, ze frank and New Scientist said it better than I can, so I’ll just shut up now and let you check them out.  Just make sure neither has any liquids or gels on them.

August 2006
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