Thursday, November 25, 2010

Airline Security

I won't be trite and say "The T'r'rists have Won!", but I have to wonder if Osama isn't laughing his ass off in a cave somewhere. Is this really what we have been reduced to? In the days following 9/11, there were many reactions floating in the national mood, and one of the strongest I remember was: we will not submit, we will not be afraid. We've had a string of near misses with terrorists since, and the result is that we've reduced ourselves to plaintively bleating at the government: Help Us, Protect Us, Save Us - no matter the cost! A decade later, we have citizens paying their government in taxes and dignity to buy machines that take naked pictures of every person who buys a plane ticket or, for the more recalcitrant or suspect, government agents groping the public.

And what do we, the traveling public, get in return? Some assurance that another underwear bomber might be caught, or that the risk of being caught will force a terrorist to try a different attack. It's unlikely we'll have another suicide hijacking a la 9-11. That was, however, largely the result of hardening cockpits and an awareness among travelers that they may need to fight back. So terrorists move to planting ineffective explosives in shoes, so we start walking through security barefoot. They concoct a complicated plan to mix explosives in shampoo bottles, so we ban anything larger than 3 oz containers. They put explosives in their underwear, so we get virtual strip searches and enhanced pat-downs. Hoop upon hoop, layer upon layer, cat chasing mouse.

It is, however, just a matter of time before a way is found around this latest countermeasure. How long will it be until we have a terrorist attack (either successful, another dud, or thwarted early) with a bomb tucked in a terrorist's rectum? And what shall we do then? Full-body X-Rays for travelers? With cavity searches for those who refuse? Meanwhile, our ports, borders, and important public places are still ripe targets. Maybe an airline attack is too hard, so terrorists will switch tactics and truck-bomb a mall. What will we, as a society, then do?

As an engineer, I deal with risk assessment every day. Risk is not just "how bad can things go wrong?", it is also a matter of probability. The product of the two is risk. Low risks can be events with severe consequences, but with such low probability that the risk can be considered remote. And high risk is not always the end of the game. It may be that the risk is inherent to the system, and cannot be mitigated short of utterly extraordinary measures. In the jargon of risk management, you'd say the risk is "As Low As is Reasonably Practicable." At that point, it becomes a calculus to determine whether the potential benefits outweigh those residual risks. For medical devices, this calculus largely falls to the FDA, doctors, and patients. An artificial heart is an enormously risky device: it or the surgery will almost certainly kill you. On the other hand, if you are dying for a heart transplant that may be minutes or months away, it may not look so bad.

In terms of security, one can perform similar analyses. What are the potential threats, what are the possible outcomes of a security breach, what's the probability of that harm coming to pass, and what would it cost to mitigate that risk? There isn't a single answer to these questions: some people or institutions are more or less risk tolerant, some have more or less to lose, and some have more or fewer means to beef up security. At some point, however, everyone will have a limit where the additional costs cannot be borne, the residual risk is too small, and the additional costs outweigh the potential benefits. You draw a line, accept you can't or won't do more, and live with it.

So here's my take on the present subject or airline security. On the potential benefit side we have the reduced likelihood of a terrorist attack on an airplane and all the accompanying potential losses: loss of life, property damage, damage to the American psyche, and potential further cost as we roll out the latest countermeasure. That all seems like a very high toll - and it is. But it was a highly improbable event in the first place. So I count the risk as actually being pretty low, not only for myself as an individual, but also for my family and for the nation as a whole. On the cost side we have the direct costs for the scanners and personnel (a couple billion dollars at least), more lost time getting through security (billions and billions more), increased radiation exposure for travelers, increased road deaths as people throw up their hands and decide to drive, psychological damage at being either seen virtually nude or groped, and the enormous cost to the dignity and liberty of travelers. The potential for abuse or misconduct is high. And, lastly, it is not even clear, and certainly not demonstrable, that these new procedures are actually improving security, or that our resources would not be better spent, say, more thoroughly checking luggage or increasing human intelligence.

I tally this up and come to this conclusion: the costs of this latest security procedure are too high, and do not outweigh the potential (or hoped-for) benefits. For me, the line of diminishing returns was crossed some time ago. I can give some deference to the government being more conservative in their calculus: they have a duty to protect us, and their asses are on the line when something goes wrong. But even in that light, things have gone too far. Eventually, I think others will reach their own stopping point, but I fear what the traveling experience will be like by the time that happens.

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