Just in case you had some doubts

Airport security is a joke. It only exists to make some people feel better. Case in point:

HOUSTON – A college student’s checked luggage on a Continental Airlines flight to Houston from Argentina on Friday contained dynamite, and federal authorities are investigating why he had it and what he intended to do with it, an FBI spokeswoman said.

“Certainly we are doing a thorough investigation and trying to find out what this individual’s intention was in trying to bring dynamite here,” FBI spokeswoman Shauna Dunlap said Friday.

The dynamite was found during a luggage search in a federal inspection station at Bush Intercontinental Airport shortly after Continental Flight 52 landed about 6 a.m. Friday. Marlene McClinton, spokeswoman for the Houston Airport System, said a bomb-sniffing dog “had a hit” on explosive residue during a further search.

Read that closely. They found the dynamite AFTER the plane landed.

This has to be one the easiest to detect cases. One of the problems with explosives sniffers is that someone can custom make an explosive that isn’t detected by existing detection devices. The problem is similar to the computer anti-virus vendors. They have databases of “virus signatures” they compare suspect attachments and files to. If it matches something they have in their database they flag it as a virus and handle it appropriately. If a new virus shows up they have to update their database with the new signature. Commercially available explosives, such as dynamite, should be within the capabilities of the explosives sniffer.

Even in this easy case the system failed. We don’t yet know why it failed this time but in general it’s an exceedingly tough problem because of what is called the “attack surface”. There are many hundreds of airport, thousands of sensors, doors, gates, fences, and walls defining the “secure” areas, and tens of thousands of people with privileged access to the “secure” areas. Each of these airports, each of these secure areas, and each of these people is a potential point of attack. Together they form the “attack surface”.  Because the attack surface is so large the probability of their being a weak spot someplace is very high. Hence the problem is very difficult to solve.

IMHO the problem is so difficult to solve using the existing paradigm we should divert all the existing resources to a different paradigm. That new paradigm is being on the offense rather than being entirely defensive/reactive. First (back in the 70’s) we defended against guns, then box-cutters and knives, then cigarette lighters, and most recently liquids and gels. We are always defending against the most recent attack. We need to make them be defending against our attacks. This paradigm change would also stop the infringment of some of our rights.

But, as you know, airport “security” isn’t about actual security. It’s about making some people feel better.

Update: I forgot to mention that Sean gave me the link to the article.


2 thoughts on “Just in case you had some doubts

  1. Joe,

    That was a brilliant post. I’ve had a hard time lately distinguishing what is the government’s duty to its citizens as far as defending them from criminals, terrorists, etc. and what is plain government infraction on personal liberty. It would seem to me that a defensive plan would be a better approach than the “flavor of the month” threat approach we’ve had.

    Part of the problem with my DUI case is that I happened to be hungover during the “Holiday Blitz” our mayor and governor love to laud at Christmas. There’s no argument that drunk drivers kill people and that we live in the worst state on that particular problem.

    But that is almost irrelevant when it comes to defense. Recently, I’ve been offered the opportunity to take a trip to London. Great. Woo-hoo. But if they are going to mess with my ghoulies and confiscate most of the shit I consider absolutely necessary to carry, I’m a bit intimidated.

    Additionally, what if you book tickets and they change the game before your trip?

    I don’t know,


  2. Thanks for the praise.

    If they change the game after you buy the tickets my guess is the terms of the ticket stand. If they were non-refundable you either take the trip or toss them in the trash.

    And what if you get over there and THEN they change the rules? “Full body cavity searches for everyone. No carry-ons of any type–including your own clothes. TSA, or equivalent thereof, issued fire retardant paper hospital gowns only, everyone is handcuffed to their seats for the duration of the flight (diapers are available for a nominal fee), and random body cavity searches while in flight.” Now what are you going to do? Swimming home isn’t an option and all the boats that make the pond crossing are going to be booked full. I would be inclined to very dramaticly demonstrate the most dangerous weapons is between the ears not what is carried in one’s hands, and make a good faith effort to liberate the U.K. But that is just me.

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