Insecurities

Published 11 years, 6 months ago

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.


  1. I know, the thought of not having my stuff is upsetting too. But dammit, I still gotta fly and if they take it with, who knows. Maybe we’ll all get more creative with crayon and paper.

    No, wait, paper is probably too sharp.

  2. I am really hoping that these restrictions are lifted before a bunch of geeks get to fly across the world to Oz next month.

    The thought of spending 22 hours without geekery is bad enough, but the prospect of a day on a plane without the opportunity to polish those slides is worse.

    I’m seriously thinking about not trusting my Mac to the hold and renting one when I get to Sydney. Any Ozzy geeks that can help me out with a loan/rental Mac for a week would be most welcome.

  3. British comedian Mitch Benn has an amusing little segment on this week’s episode of “The Now Show”. (Downloadable temporarily from the BBC’s Radio 4 web site — his bit starts about 22 minutes in.)

  4. Eric Said:
    “. . . 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 read on engadget the other day that peopla are still making books ;-)

    Have you read “The Tipping Point”, by Malcolm Gladwell?
    http://www.gladwell.com/tippingpoint/index.html

  5. Small world. I was at LAX last night at Terminal 5 waiting for my wife’s flight from Atlanta. Her flight was delayed an hour. So, I stood outside and smoked. I was extremely popular with arriving passengers: no one had matches or lighters. I had a very interesting conversation with a gentleman arriving from Isreal; and, I had one with a gentleman from Heathrow. It is a very small world after all.

  6. Allan: when departing from the UK, books aren’t allowed either; thus my concern. Just about all they’re permitting is travel documents, and I have to tell you, I can only read the fine print on my passport eight or nine times before it starts to get old. And then what am I supposed to do for the remaining seven hours and forty minutes?

  7. Unfortunately the best solution for this is racial profiling. Lets be honest, 8 year old white kid in front of you is probably not a terrorist. If he was middle eastern I would be concerned. Radical islam raises (use) their children to hate Jews and infidels and make them think it is their birth right to die for jihad. Don’t believe me, check out Sesame Street Islamic style.

    The old lady in front of you is most likely not a terrorist either. If we want to get serious the airport screeners need to question everybody like Israel’s airport screening protocol. Quit wasting our time and profile those who are most likely terrorists.The fact is not all Muslims are terrorists, but 99.9% of terrorists are Muslims.

  8. Matt: it’s been long time, so please remind me—which branch of radical Islam did Timothy McVeigh follow?

  9. It’s not about finding a 100% watertight security system. That’s not possible. Unless we don’t mind being sedated, thoroughly (physical) investigated before being put in the luggage room of a freight aircraft to bring us to our destination. Not looking forward to that scenario myself..
    It’s not about winning this so-called “war on terrorism”.
    It’s not about radicalists who want to “destroy our values, democracy and freedom”, as mr. president B. says it.
    It’s about young people being very very frustrated about the foreign policy of certain western countries. You know, invading countries under false pretences, to give one example.
    As for the traveling: looking forward to the long travels by boat :)

  10. I suspect there weren’t a lot of Muslims in the IRA either, and they did a pretty good job of bombing us in England.

    Wikipedia says there are 1.4 billion Muslims in the world. Profiling based on religion doesn’t even narrow the field down enough to be useful; it’s much more of a waste of time than luggage restrictions, because of the huge number of false positives.

    I don’t think the bomb plots were foiled by profiling. They were foiled by investigations, arrests, and questionning.

  11. […] Eric Meyer: Insecurities – “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.” […]

  12. So are laptop’s allowed on the plane?

    Great linkage to zefrank. He is great!

  13. Rather than complaining about some travel inconveniences, or that any government agency is unable to get 55,000 employees to follow any procedure perfectly, I’m going to be grateful for the biggest intelligence success in this century.

  14. Scott: yes, laptops (and iPods and books and all other manner of distraction) are permitted, at least within the US. Departing the UK, apparently not.

    Michael: assuming the allegations are true, of course, I’m very much with you. I suppose my root problem is that I’d like to see more effort invested in that kind of work, and less in knee-jerk reactions. And my frustration with the gate procedure was entirely with the personnel at the gate, not with any agency above them. I’ve no doubt the directive from on high was “search baggage to prevent the following from getting onto the plane”. It was up to the people on the spot to think about the situation and handle it intelligently. In the local case I saw, they didn’t.

  15. Gads, no books? No ipods, laptops, games, books… people are going to go utterly batshit crazy with boredom on long haul flights. I would have thought that’s a security risk in itself.

    “Well gee, there’s nothing to do… might have a drink. Still nothing to do, might have another one. Wow this inflight magazine has a review on beers… better have another drink…”

    ….no books? why on earth?? Well ok, so Neal Stephenson’s last few books would make viable weapons… but, otherwise…

  16. Well Eric, Tim McVeigh is the .1% non-muslim terrorist. By the way, there is loads of evidence that Tim McVeigh was an agent of Iraq and acted as so. Don’t believe me, do a search, maybe read a book. Looks like their was a middle eastern connection, specifically Iraq.

    There is also evidence that Iraq had a hand in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

    I agree that profiling alone can’t be silver bullet, but it just makes sense to do so. Unfortunately that would be “insensitive”. More importantly, question people where they are going, what they are doing, etc. It is hard to fool a trained Israeli screener. This is what Et Al Israel does.

  17. Sorry. I have to correct myself. McVeigh and Nichols were probably working with Al-Qaeda, under Bin Laden. Both were working with a terrorist cell in Oklahoma and were seen with a middle eastern man right before the bombing. That man has been identified as a former member of Sadam’s Repulican Gurard. Also, Terry Nichols was going back and forth between the U.S. and Philipines meeting with members of Al-Qaeda.

    So yes, racial profiling would not work if McVeigh and Nichols would have chosed to take over or explode planes.

  18. 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

    Come to London Eric – just bring a good book for the flight! :-)

  19. Olly: as I keep saying, books are banned on flights leaving the UK. Literally, all a passenger can take onboard is travel documents and essential prescription medications. Thus the words you quoted. And sleeping on the return flight isn’t an option unless I want to become severely jet-lagged, which I don’t.

  20. I see great business oportunities for in-flight libraries and safe laptop rental service! Shhh, don’t tell it anyone before someone steals my idea.

    You know, it might all be one big complot of the movie industry. They are behind the attempts. They are loosing market share because everyone downloads them. But now, flight agencies are forced to rent more and better movies to keep people occupied. Which means more profit for the movie industry.

  21. Followup: the bans on books, etc. have been eased today, so hooray on that score. One wonders, though, if the terrorists will just hatch a series of plots that involve smuggling explosives in books, iPods, etc. so that eventually everything will be banned for carry-on and nobody will want to fly anywhere.

  22. Uh..guys…McVeigh didn’t blow himself up. The Muslim terrorists do; therefore, I second Matt’s profiling suggestion.

  23. That makes two of us – flying to LA had a completely different set of rules than flying back did yesterday. Even a 2.5hr flight would have been tedious without a book/electronics/whatever.

    However, aside from signs up at the Starbucks informing me I wouldn’t be allowed to bring on board anything I bought there, there was no change from any other time I’ve gone through LAX. No evident baggage searches, nobody at any point asking me if I had liquids in my bags.

    Two days after the arrests, everything’s back to the way it was. What a useless knee-jerk freak-out this one was.

  24. Pollyanna: I fail to see how the bomber being killed in the blast or not really matters to the victims and their relatives, let alone what it has to do with much of anything that’s been discussed.

    The problem is that you and Matt aren’t advocating racial profiling, which wouldn’t work anyway; instead, you’re advocating theological profiling, which wouldn’t work either. Preventative intelligence work is absolutely the key, and good intelligence work isn’t blinded by race or theology or anything else.

    Dave: amazing—they searched everyone when I left Friday, and randomly or not at all by Sunday? I guess Starbucks signs and closed duty-free shops are the only real long-term effects. Lovely.

  25. Get this. The duty-free was open for business and they were already back to handing out bags of freshly-bought goods to people entering the plane. The guy sitting next to me had a brand new bottle of cologne on him.

  26. […] Eric’s Archived Thoughts: Insecurities “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.” (tags: security airports airtravel) […]

  27. Preventative intelligence work is absolutely the key, and good intelligence work isn”t blinded by race or theology or anything else.

    Good intelligence work is blinded by publications like the New York Times when they publish our methods, or when our governments’ hands are tied because they can’t wiretap a suspect.

    I would be willing to wager that some methods that people would consider illegal were used in busting this plot.

  28. Jason: Oh, please. That is most emphatically not the media’s fault– any part of it. If the security services (or adminstration, or whoever) wants to keep the details of their methods out of the papers, then they need to ensure that word of them never reaches the media. Once the information gets to the media, then it’s fair game for publication. As far as I’m concerned, they’ve done more than their fair share of holding back stories for very long periods of time out of national security concerns.

    But don’t blame the messenger, the media, for poor operational security. You should rather thank them for making it plain when security is weak—because if they can get their hands on this stuff, what does that say about actual malefactors who can pay handsomely for the inside scoop? Every time news of a program hits the papers, the people in charge of keeping secrets should work to do better, not whine about the fact that their failure became public. Fortunately, I think most of them do.

  29. The security restrictions are nothing but security theater, especially in the U.S.

    As for flying to and from the UK, I have to put in a plug for Virgin. The planes are nice and pretty new, the food is good, and they have the best in-flight entertainment system I’ve ever seen — lots of movies, as well as television shows, all on-demand so they start when you start them. Take a book for the flight out, and watch TV or movies on the way back, assuming that sanity hasn’t returned and security dropped back to the normal level of annoying pointlessness.

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