Crime & Punishment

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The illusion of security guards our airports

with 14 comments

The failed terrorist attack on Northwest Airlines Flight 253 shows just how bad our air security is and not a system that “worked” as Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano tried to spin on CNN’s State of the Union show on Sunday morning. She back-tracked  the next day by saying what she said had been taken out of context.  Nonsense.  It showed just how broken the system is and how luck coupled with an incompetent would-be terrorist saved all those lives.

I fly a lot.  An awful lot. Rare is the week that I am not on a plane somewhere.  And frankly I am sick of having to play the game knowing that security at our airports in North America is little more than an illusion designed to make the travelling public feel like the authorities are doing something to protect us from those who would attack our very way of life.

In the aftermath of 9/11, the TSA in the US and CATSA in Canada began a series of ridiculous procedures that served no actual security result.  But they certainly inconvenience the travelling public.  And, I should probably say that at least the TSA has the veneer of competence.  Not so much for CATSA.

I can’t count how many times I have had my laptop randomly selected for and EDT (Explosive Detection Test) done with a swab or having been randomly selected for a physical search, a pat down head to toe after I had cleared the magnetometer screening. This picture says it all:

Now, I’m not saying we shouldn’t be using metal detectors.  Nor am I suggesting that elderly folks should not be subject to screening.  What I am saying is that we should not be focussing 100 % of our attention on 100% of travellers. It isn’t hard to figure out what our enemy looks like or, and most especially, what he acts like.

The Israelis have been using Predictive Profiling for years and have done so with remarkable success.  They do not waste time ensuring everyone is treated the same.  They know they are under a constant threat and proceed accordingly.

Notice I didn’t say Racial Profiling.  The 19 9/11 lunatics and the Christmas Day Pantybomber, Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab, do not look the same relative to racial profiling which is at best, politically problematic and at worst, ineffective.

Predictive Profiling is based upon knowing how the terrorists behave and focus their efforts on how they work not who they are.  In other words, to be effective it is more important for airport security to find the bomber not focus on finding the bomb.

This is done by training security staff to engage folks in conversation and asking open questions designed to keep them off balance and highlight behaviours that are suspicious.  Then those suspicious individuals are put under further scrutiny.  The average traveller is allowed to proceed normally.

But this requires leadership and common sense.  Something not apparent in the TSA or Department of Homeland Security in the wake of the Pantybomber episode.   Making people sit in their seats for the final hour of their flights is plain stupid.  As is limiting access to laptops and iPods in that final hour before landing.

Equally, physically searching every passenger at the boarding gate borders on insanity.  It is ridiculous to spend all that time, effort and energy and inconvenience the whole of the travelling public because the TSA and DHS will not use Predictive Profiling in the security process because of the political connotations of the term Racial Profiling.

Knowing who the enemy is and how they behave is the first line of defence but only if the information is used at the first point of contact, the airports used to enter the country and move around within it.  Ignoring the incredibly obvious for fear of offending someone who may be a threat is offensive to all of us.  One need only look at the massacre at Ft. Hood to see where that can end up.

Security need not be overly complicated.  But it does need to be thorough.  And thorough has nothing to do with physically searching everyone getting on a plane.  That’s plain stupid.  Which is how Janet Napolitano looked on CNN.  Which in itself, may explain rather a lot.

Leo Knight

primetimecrime@gmail.com

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Written by Leo Knight

December 29, 2009 at 2:01 am

Posted in 1, Crime & Punishment

14 Responses

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  1. Just goes to show that bureaucrats and politicians are in charge of security instead of actual security experts.

    Jay

    December 30, 2009 at 6:06 pm

  2. Excellent Post Leo! What you suggest is just so obviously the correct plan of attack. At this point in History the terrorists are winning.
    Now, just set down your latte for 1 moment and imagine Fast Forwarding the present, by say, 10 years. Just imagine …………… You can’t.
    This should help put the present in perspective. Al-Qaeda issued one of its most lunatic statements to date: “We have people who love death as much as you love life.”
    Now, “how does patting down an elderly citizen with blue rinsed hair and tennis shoes protect us all from that”, a reasonable person might ask.
    Cheers

    Gary L.

    December 31, 2009 at 3:34 pm

  3. Leo,

    your rage against the security theater is somewhat justified. However, your proposed solution is just more of the same — perhaps worst. The problem is that predictive profiling is a pseudoscience and has a very high failure rate (in the high 90’s if I remember correctly). If given a choice between hardening targets through vigorous pat-downs and employing fanciful conjecture, I would stick with the former.

    tbird

    January 9, 2010 at 11:08 pm

    • I don’t have a rage against the security theatre. I am critical of the illusion that we have created for the purpose of making the public think they are safe.

      Security is not a complicated scenario. it is developed by building layers of protection around what it is you are trying to protect. Here is an excellent article on this very subject in today’s National Post.

      -Leo Knight

      Leo Knight

      January 10, 2010 at 1:44 am

      • I agree with you on this Leo. The security of our nation is a front. Instead of doing things that look good we should be doing things that have a proven track record. Who the heck is Janet Napolitano and what qualified her for the position she holds. She isn’t from Chicago is she?

        CHZBURGR

        February 10, 2010 at 3:37 pm

  4. “Security is not a complicated scenario. it is developed by building layers of protection around what it is you are trying to protect.”

    I agree with you there Leo. However, my critique had to do with implementing security measures that have no basis in science but claim to be. Predictive/Behavioral Profiling is one such measure and does little to enhance actual security but only adds to “illusion that we have created for the purpose of making the public think they are safe” (i.e., security theater). Indeed, security at Canadian airports does need to be improved and made more rigorous, but I see little value in throwing valuable resources after a bad idea when other, more important areas can be improved upon.

    tbird

    January 10, 2010 at 4:46 am

  5. To follow up, I would recommend an article by the New York Times that sheds some light on the security situation Ben-Gurion — far better than the National Post in my estimation.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2006/08/25/opinion/25harcourt.html

    tbird

    January 10, 2010 at 6:56 am

    • You make my point for me. To say that predictive profiling doesn’t work because the TSA hasn’t trained their people well enough is specious. At Ben Gurion, the NY Times piece agrees its people who are engaged in security are experienced and well trained. And it works. And for the record, I am not claiming that predictive profiling is a scientific process. Why are you trying to complicate this? The metal detectors at our airports are fine. As is the mag wand for folks who set the detectors off. What tics me off is the pat-downs of randomly selected passengers. This is done with zero thought in it. It is stupid. Same with patting down everyone at the gate as the DHS required post-Undiebomber. Having trained people look for suspicious travellers and then question them appropriately is the right thing to do. Inconveniencing 100% of the travelling public is not. It’s not complicated.

      Leo Knight

      January 10, 2010 at 4:11 pm

      • “To say that predictive profiling doesn’t work because the TSA hasn’t trained their people well enough is specious.”

        I’m not sure you really read the NYT article, or any other literature that deals with this subject. Yes, the NYT article says that the Israelis are trained longer than American “profilers.” However, I think you’re being selective about this. The gist of the article casts doubt onto the idea of whether profiling was even truly feasible. In that sense, it doesn’t matter how long you train a “profiler” for because the whole notion of predictive profiling is flawed to begin with.

        “And it works.”

        I’m not sure what criteria you’re using to declare that predictive profiling “works.” Recently, profiling (at least how it’s currently conceived and practiced) has come under heavy scrutiny from professional psychologists. It has no theoretical basis; its wishful thinking. Practically speaking, studies (see the works of Aldert Vrij and Lenese Herbert) have suggested that professionals trained in these methods are significantly worst than your average, untrained individual in detecting liars, crooks, and other bad people. Implementing it might over-awe and deter gullible and weak-willed terrorists and criminals, but that would be a success of psychological warfare and not profiling itself.

        “And for the record, I am not claiming that predictive profiling is a scientific process.”

        We can agree here. But what I’m trying to point out is that your belief in this security measure is unwarranted. As I understand it, you’re suggesting that CATSA should favor predictive profiling over random searches. What I am trying to say is that following your advice is akin to what Canadian airports did during the Air India disaster when they replaced bomb-sniffing dogs with those stupid machines that supposedly did similar work. We know what the end result of that was.

        “Why are you trying to complicate this?”

        I’m not trying to complicate anything. I’m trying to engage in friendly debate while highlighting some of the flaws of your proposed solution to Canadian airport security.

        “What tics me off is the pat-downs of randomly selected passengers. This is done with zero thought in it.”

        No Leo, this security procedure was instituted because there was thought put into it. Random searches were instituted because they are statistically more likely to find the bad guys trying to smuggle something onto a plane than the profiling system. Granted, as Bruce Schneier points out, this just means that terrorists will not go these usual routes. Pro-profilers like to say “find the terrorist, not the bomb.” This is a nice dictum, but it’s not practical because there is no real method for finding terrorists (at least through profiling). However, there are tried and true ways of finding bombs.

        “Having trained people look for suspicious travelers and then question them appropriately is the right thing to do.”

        Perhaps. But what constitutes “suspicious” is highly subjective and unreliable. Despite what Fox’s “Lie to Me,” Paul Eckman, and others would have people believe, profiling based on kinesics is problematic and FACS was never validated for that sort of use. What you and I were taught at the academy in terms of the Reid technique and other methods of identifying bad guys through body language was crap. So, to institute these measures into the security regime is worrisome. It’s like throwing a pinch of diamond dust into plaster of Paris and claiming the resulting wall is as strong as a diamond. Nonetheless, I would be willing to hypothesize that conducting random interviewing of travelers would be more fruitful than “predicating it” on subjective criteria.

        tbird

        January 10, 2010 at 7:52 pm

      • I disagree. In the first instance, profiling is just a piece or one layer of what should happen in North American airports. The NYT piece illustrated my point when it referred to the security at Ben-Gurion. Quite apart from being all ex-military, they all go through lengthy airport specific training.

        You can bash this around all you like, but you simply cannot refute the quality of security at Ben-Gurion.

        Equally, random screening is stupid beyond belief. Searching every tenth traveller or whatever the number of the day is, is done only because the screeners are not trained sufficiently to use their own judgement.

        You seem to have taken some type of ideological position in this. I’m not sure why. Yet, in your reference to Air India you again make my point. Relying on technology exclusively is wrong. Employing appropriate tactics against a known threat is right. Inconveniencing everyone is wrong.

        Leo Knight

        January 10, 2010 at 9:17 pm

      • “In the first instance, profiling is just a piece or one layer of what should happen in North American airports.”

        I agree with you, except when it comes to profiling. As I’ve tried to explain, profiling (as is currently practiced) has not been validated or found to be reliable. Furthermore, I don’t think its wide-scale implementation throughout Canada is feasible in terms of human resources and finances, but that’s another story. To invest in this uncertain scheme is foolhardy IMHO when there are more important priorities to fix.

        “Quite apart from being all ex-military, they all go through lengthy airport specific training.”
        And research (Aldert Vrij) demonstrates that this focus on kinesic and behavioral degrades the predictive abilities of security professionals in distinguishing between innocent people and guilty persons. The only thing that these techniques do is make security professionals think that they can spot a criminal/terrorist. The actual record is less than impressive. And being ex-military police myself, I can attest to this. When it comes to this issue, being ex-military or ex-police doesn’t mean a thing.

        “You can bash this around all you like, but you simply cannot refute the quality of security at Ben-Gurion.”

        This is a strawman — I never made that argument, Leo. Ben-Gurion has quality security but it probably owes more to other things than behavioural profiling. The NYT piece makes that argument as well.

        “Equally, random screening is stupid beyond belief. Searching every tenth traveller or whatever the number of the day is, is done only because the screeners are not trained sufficiently to use their own judgement.”

        Perhaps it’s stupid, but it’s the best thing available at this time. It’s impersonal, efficient, and is statistically more reliable than profiling. You appeal to judgment, but judgment is a subjective and unreliable thing – not everyone has it. I’ve noticed you’ve berated the quality of CATSA employees before. I don’t see how giving a bunch of cluster-fucks more lee-way in making security calls is not going to cause anymore of a gong show.

        “You seem to have taken some type of ideological position in this.”

        On the contrary, it is you who has taken some type of ideological position on this. You’ve made the claim that predictive profiling “works.” You asserted this without any serious evidence. I’ve presented evidence from professional researchers (e.g., Vrij and Herbert) that dispute this. You’re response has been to re-assert your original claim, again without any substance. Belief without validated evidence is the very definition of ideology.

        Rather, my criticisms are practical: there is no evidence that profiling works. So why have anything to do with it?

        “Yet, in your reference to Air India you again make my point.”

        I think you misunderstood the Air India reference. It was not about relying of technology exclusively, which I agree is wrong. The point was to highlight the dangers of supplanting one method of security screening for one that has not proven itself.

        “Relying on technology exclusively is wrong. Employing appropriate tactics against a known threat is right. Inconveniencing everyone is wrong”

        I’m not sure at what you’re trying to get at here Leo. You seem to want security without the inconvenience. I’m not sure you can have it both ways. Additional security measures will mean more inconveniences for the traveling public. That’s the nature of the game. Why? Because for the time being real, reliable security must resort to finding the bomb and not the terrorist. It can’t be the other way around because there is no security screening method yet to do so.

        tbird

        January 10, 2010 at 11:54 pm

      • Geez, I don’t know where to start. How, on one hand can you agree with the record at Ben-Gurion but not agree with predictive profiling? You can’t suck and blow at the same time. To say there is no evidence profiling works while agreeing that security at Ben-Gurion is good is stupid. I doubt you are stupid. But, C’mon, any half wit can see through that argument.

        Profiling is what every police officer worth his or her salt does every day. Predictive profiling is done at a higher level. To say it doesn’t work simply shows you don’t know what you are talking about.

        Leo Knight

        January 11, 2010 at 12:29 am

      • No need to get hostile, Leo.

        You assume that predictive profiling is an intricate part of Ben-Gurion security and that its success rests on that method. I’ve argued that its entirely possible that Ben-Gurion’s success is owed to other, more stringent security measures. Hence, its possible to have Israeli-style security without having predictive profiling.

        Other than that, I think I will cease posting here. We’re at an impasse on this and can’t convince one another of our positions on this subject. I think I’ve articulated my position relatively well but I’ll leave that to other readers to judge the merits of my argument. Furthermore, considering the hostile and unsubstantiated feedback you’ve been giving I its prudent to end this on a civilized note.

        tbird

        January 11, 2010 at 1:45 am

  6. Leo,
    Right on the money. Mrs. C. & I flew to San Francisco last Spring for a wedding. Breezed through U.S. Customs & Immigration at YVR then got to the CATSA point where we both walked through the electronic screener without setting anything off. We were both then wanded with the same result. I was allowed to proceed unmolested but Mrs. C. was taken aside by a female CATSA screener who spent a good 5 minutes feeling her up like an 8-handed 17 year old on a prom date. Somewhat entertaining but please, let’s get real. I’m sure they’re instructed to search a set number of people each shift and to select them purely at random making the whole thing a waste of time.

    BTW, rather old looking photo of you in the article. LOL.

    Bob

    January 12, 2010 at 3:51 am


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