November 24, 2006

A False Sense of Security?

Although I am primarily a technical person I have broader interests than just that, including business and marketing. Sometimes these interests intersect in areas that affect a broader cross-section of the population. This is not a technical post.

One of my sources of occasional reading is Seth Godin, author of several books including All Marketers are Liars. He also runs a personal blog, and in the wake of the Thanksgiving rush he wrote this TSA-inspired post about the stupidity of the air transport security rules and the insensitive way in which they are administered. This really rang bells with me.

Godin courageously risks being thought a whiner by ridiculing the rules that allow a full three-ounce container of gel through the screening but disallow a five-ounce container with only one ounce in it. I've spent a lot of time in US airport security lines, and people aren't generally welcoming of critical remarks. Unfortunately many of the "security" activities that we have to go through are what Bruce Schneier calls security theatre.

At the same time as the TSA are forcing even the airline staff to submit to security screenings there are airports where construction staff are allowed airside simply by swiping an identification card. So the terrorists will be targeting the construction workers, not trying to smuggle six ounces of gel through the passenger channels.

Now I know I'm not the only person to suggest that the US government's initial response to the events of 9/11 was off-target. Benjamin Franklin was spot on in saying "Those who sacrifice freedom for security deserve neither". It seems that the majority of American citizens appear to believe that the government has duty to protect them from all risk from the cradle to the grave.

Said citizens, of course, are oblivious to the fact that it is impossible to eliminate risk completely: the aim of security is to raise the cost of a breach to a level that makes the breach uneconomic. But enough is enough. Dulles International has got to the stage where "going through security" can add over an hour to the passenger processing time, and I'm sure others are as bad if not worse. If things go on the way they are, people will stop flying because of the security measures.

What percentage of the American population use the air transport system? How much is being spent every day on airport security theatre, and how many lives is it saving? How much should we be prepared to spend to save a single life? How quickly could we have fresh drinking water available for all of humanity if we spent the money towards that goal instead? How many lives would that save? Which expenditure would make the USA more secure? Isn't it perhaps time for a reassessment of priorities?


Catherine said...

I agree. I think because we all - especially anybody standing for office - is terrified of being accused of Not Protecting Us, we are doing all manner of things that don't even attempt to be logical. The point is to prove that we're Doing Something.

Steve said...

Hence the term security theatre. The economic impact of all that wasted time represents a self-inflicted blow to the American economy immensely larger than the direct effects of terrorist acts.