US Senator takes on the TSA

Airport bullying – where the government sets out to belittle and humiliate you for wanting to travel – is as big a problem in the US as in Australia. There, a Senator is fighting back with proposed laws to empower flyers and restrain authorities. But security guru Bruce Schneier thinks the lawmaker’s bills are a mixed bag

Sen. Rand Paul takes on the TSA

By Bruce Schneier*, from his Crypto-Gram newsletter, 15 July 2012

Rand Paul (a US Senator from Kentucky) has introduced legislation to rein in the US Transport Security Administration, the TSA.

There are two bills: “(The first) bill would require that the mostly federalized program be turned over to private screeners and allow airports – with Department of Homeland Security (DHS) approval – to select companies to handle the work.”

This seems to be a result of a fundamental misunderstanding of the economic incentives involved here, combined with magical thinking that a market solution solves all. In airport screening, the passenger isn’t the customer. (Technically he is, but only indirectly.) The airline isn’t even the customer. The customer is the US government, which is in the grip of an irrational fear of terrorism.

It doesn’t matter if an airport screener receives a paycheck signed by the Department of the Treasury or Private Airport Screening Services, Inc. As long as a terrorized government – one that needs to be seen by voters as "tough on terror" and wants to stop every terrorist attack, regardless of the cost, and is willing to sacrifice all for the illusion of security – gets to set the security standards, we’re going to get TSA-style security.

We can put the airlines, either directly or via airport fees, in charge of security, but that has problems in the other direction. Airlines don’t really care about terrorism; it’s rare, the costs to the airline are relatively small (remember that the government bailed the industry out after 9/11), and the rest of the costs are externalities and are borne by other people. So if airlines are in charge, we’re likely to get less security than makes sense.

Governments need to behave sensibly

It makes sense for a government to be in charge of airport security – either directly or by setting standards for contractors to follow, I don’t care – but we’ll only get sensible security when the government starts behaving sensibly.

"The second bill would permit travelers to opt out of pat-downs and be rescreened, allow them to call a lawyer when detained, increase the role of dogs in explosive detection, let passengers ‘appropriately object to mistreatment’, allow children 12 years old and younger to avoid ‘unnecessary pat-downs’ and require the distribution of the new rights at airports. That legislation also would let airports decide to privatize if wanted and expand TSA’s PreCheck program for trusted travelers."

This is a mixed bag. Airports can already privatize security – San Francisco International has done so already – and TSA’s PreCheck is being expanded. Opting out of pat downs and being rescreened only makes sense if the pat down request was the result of an anomaly in the screening process; my guess is that rescreening will just produce the same anomaly and still require a pat down. The right to call a lawyer when detained is a good one, although in reality we passengers just want to make our flights; that’s why we let ourselves be subjected to this sort of treatment at airports. And the phrase "unnecessary pat-downs" all comes down to what is considered necessary. If a 12-year-old goes through a full-body scanner and a gun-shaped image shows up on the screen, is the subsequent pat down necessary? What if it’s a long and thin image? What if he goes through a metal detector and it beeps? And who gets to decide what’s necessary? If it’s the TSA, nothing will change.

And dogs: a great idea, but a logistical nightmare. Dogs require space to eat, sleep, run, poop, and so on. They just don’t fit into your typical airport setup.

Problem of terrorized government

The problem isn’t government-run airport security, full-body scanners, the screening of children and the elderly, or even a paucity of dogs. The problem is that we were so terrorized that we demanded our government keep us safe at all costs. The problem is that our government was so terrorized after 9/11 that it gave an enormous amount of power to our security organizations.

The problem is that the security-industrial complex has gotten large and powerful — and good at advancing its agenda — and that we’ve scared our public officials into being so scared that they don’t notice when security goes too far.

I too want to rein in the TSA, but the only way to do that is to change the TSA’s mission. And the only way to do that is to change the government that gives the TSA its mission. We need to refuse to be terrorized, and we need to elect non-terrorized legislators.

But that’s a long way off. In the near term, I’d like to see legislation that forces the TSA, the DHS, and anyone working in counterterrorism, to justify their systems, procedures, and expenditures with cost-benefit analyses. It’s not going to magically dismantle the security-industrial complex, eliminate the culture of fear, or imbue our elected officials with common sense – but it’s a start.

1Bruce Schneier is the international guru of security. The article above comes from his blog page and his regular newsletter:

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