July 13, 2004

Security Theater

Lots of people are telling airport-security stories these days. Thus far I have refrained from doing so, even though I travel a lot, because I think the TSA security screeners generally do a good job. But last week I saw something so dumb that I just have to share it.

I'm in the security-checkpoint line at Boston's Logan airport. In front of me is an All-American family of five, Mom, Dad, and three young children, obviously headed somewhere hot and sunny. They have the usual assortment of backpacks and carry-on bags.

When they get through the metal detector, they're told that Mom and Dad had been pre-designated for the more intensive search, where they wand-scan you and go through your bags. This search is a classic example of what Bruce Schneier calls Security Theater, since it looks impressive but doesn't do much good. The reason it doesn't do much good is that it's easy to tell in advance whether you're going to be searched. At one major airport, for example, the check-in agent writes a large red "S" on your boarding pass if you're designated for this search; you don't have to be a rocket scientist to know what this means. So only clueless bad guys will be searched, and groups of bad guys will be able to transfer any contraband into the bags of group members who won't be searched, with plenty of time after the security checkpoint to redistribute it as desired.

But back to my story. Mom and Dad have been designated for search, and the kids have not. So the security screener points to the family's pile of bags and asks which of the bags belong to Mom and Dad, because those are the ones that he is going to search. That's right: he asks the suspected bad guys (and they must be suspected, otherwise why search them) which of their bags they would like to have searched. Mom is stunned, wondering if the screener can possibly be asking what she thinks he's asking. I can see her scheming, wondering whether to answer honestly and have some stranger paw through her purse, or to point instead to little Johnny's bag of toys.

Eventually she answers, probably honestly, and the screener makes a great show of diligence in his search. Security theater, indeed.

Posted by Ed Felten at July 13, 2004 09:42 AM