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A blog wherein a literary agent will sometimes discuss his business, sometimes discuss the movies he sees, the tennis he watches, or the world around him. In which he will often wish he could say more, but will be obliged by business necessity and basic politeness and simple civility to hold his tongue. Rankings are done on a scale of one to five Slithy Toads, where a 0 is a complete waste of time, a 2 is a completely innocuous way to spend your time, and a 4 is intended as a geas compelling you to make the time.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

It's Just SO five years ago

A Layered Security System.
No single security measure is foolproof. Accordingly, the TSA must have multiple layers of security in place to defeat the more plausible and dangerous forms of attack against public transportation.

Recommendation: Improved use of "no-fly" and "automatic selectee" lists should not be delayed while the argument about a successor to CAPPS continues.

Recommendation: The TSA and the Congress must give priority attention to improving the ability of screening checkpoints to detect explosives on passengers.

Those are quotes from the 2004 report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States.

And as a quick alternative reading recommendation... Ruth Marcus in the Washington Post isn't one of my must-read columnist but her column's (you may need to register at the site) about as good as any I've read in discussing last week's airplane incident.

Now, security and I have a kind of ambiguous relationship. I've ranted about the idiocy of requiring photo IDs when you check into a hotel. I'd really like to see a grass roots movement formed to protest that. Waiting on line to show a photo ID to get a visitor badge to enter any run of the mill NYC office building is a ridiculous stupid time tax that should be obliterated off the face of the earth.

But I'm also not a privacy purist. NYC has random bag checks on the subway system that do something to harden a very soft target without being silly or imposing an unacceptable time tax on three million people a day. And don't get me started again about the baseball teams that let you bring in a factory-sealed water bottle, but not an empty water bottle.

The main problem with the whole airplane thing is that there's a huge time tax imposed on lots of people that wastes goodness knows how many billions of person hours every year, and it still doesn't work. The system is so inefficient and awful that I'm tempted to say we should just do away with the whole thing entirely. But then sanity rears its ugly head. The system is an outgrowth of a bona fide problem with hijacking planes, and if we could all just cart a fire arm on to a plane... I don't want to make it so easy for people to pop on to airplanes with explosives, either.

But yet, the system we have is layered in the worst possible way. It's layered like my office IT had been two years ago. I had a system that barely worked when I started it, then kept adding on to it to do no things and more things, and bit by bit I had a system so bad that I don't think my business would have survived 2009 if the IT hadn't been un-layered in 2008.

Once upon a time we had a system that just scanned everyone very quickly for metal, so we couldn't keep on with open season for hijackers. And you know what, that actually mostly worked, there were way fewer hijackings, and if the system even then wasn't perfect (plastic guns, hijacking without guns, etc.) it worked well enough. Then we started with checking the boarding passes so that only people actually getting on flights were allowed in. Then we started with checking the photo IDs. Well, OK. Photo IDs can be counterfeited, and so can boarding passes, but OK. 9/11 happens, and we start to add more layers at the security checkpoints because we realize we need to worry about things other than just guns. Like knitting needles and nail clippers. Well, OK, some of the most vibrant idiocies of this era were eventually dialed back. But then we get the shoe bomber. Now we all need to take off our shoes, and we have the liquid rules. For a time, I couldn't even bring an empty bottle past security and then fill it up from a water fountain, and again some of the most vibrant idiocies were eventually curtailed, but the end result was still yet another layer. Now we have the Qaeda Underpants Bomber, and I'm sure some of the most vibrant idiocies of the past week will eventually be rolled back but we'll still have another layer.

Well, this isn't going to work.

The enemies of western civilization have already achieved a victory in adding all of these new layers to the process, increasing the friction and time tax to airline travel with each new layer. The ability to move from place to place on an airplane instead of being limited to the horseback riding of the typical fantasy novel is a big part of contemporary western civilization. Even high-speed train travel has its limits, and if we had only that I'm sure the bad guys would try and make that untenable as well (recent bomb on Moscow/St. Petersburg train in Russia). We can't make flying so miserable that nobody wants to do it at all.

But at bottom, I think we need to start over from the beginning, ask what we're really trying to do, and find some way that doesn't require everyone to wait on line, take off their shoes, take off their jacket, take off their belt, put the laptop in a separate tray, but the 100ml bottle of Prell into a little plastic baggie, put all of this thru a metal detector, wait around to go thru the explosives detector.

Clearly, there always has to be a chance that some people will need to do something like this, because an element of random security isn't such a bad idea. But maybe one hour it just needs to be everyone on some flights, and some other hour some people on every flight. Maybe today you get screened at the entry to the gates and tomorrow you get screened at the gate and the day after that at the bottom of the jetway and occasionally no place at all. And maybe it's a hand pat one day, a full screening of everything the next, and an interrogation about your travel plans the day after that. And you know what, Granny Wither Walker and Artie Fish Alney will need to be screened every so often, because if the bad guys know neither of them are ever going to be screened, they'll find themselves a Granny or an Artie.

But what we have now is a farce.

I know a lot of people right now who are flying less or not flying at all because they're just not comfortable with the process. I fly because I like going places, but I like the screening routine less and less with each passing flight (I did go thru a next-gen body scanner flying back from Miami in August). Now, happily, we did away with the policy where everyone who was on a one way flight, and everyone who paid cash, and everyone who didn't check baggage, was going to get the once-over. But somebody who does all three, who's on the radar of intelligence and security forces in multiple countries, and we're all being good boys and girls taking off our shoes and our belts and our jackets, and this still happens?

We've got to do better, and when the experts talk about layered security, the layers we've got going now just can't be what they have in mind. I think we'd probably be safer and more secure with less security than we have now.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I flew into Ben-Gurion airport in Israel about ten years ago, and you'd better believe that they questioned us- and that was a very peaceful time. They wanted to know why there were two young men in our group, how long I'd known them, and what our purpose was. (there were four 'young people' in a tour group of about fifty- profiling, anyone?)

At Busch Gardens in Tampa you get your finger scanned before you can enter the park with a year long pass.

How can Busch Gardens be more sophisticated than TSA?

I agree. The layers aren't working. Time for chip implants ;)