Counterterrorism in Airports

From security expert Bruce Schneier:

It’s just a pilot program, but undercover security officers are roaming Boston’s Logan Airport, looking for suspicious people who may be planning a terrorist act. It’s got a fancy name, “behavior pattern recognition,” but basically it means “be on the lookout for suspicious people.”

I think this is the best thing to happen to airplane security since they reinforced the cockpit doors.

I’ve long argued that traditional airport security is largely useless. Air travelers — the innocent ones — are subjected to all sorts of indignities in the name of security. Again and again we read studies about how bad the checkpoints are at keeping weapons out of airports. The system seems to do nothing more than irritate honest people. (Remember, when airport security takes a pair of scissors away from an innocent grandma, that’s a security failure. It’s a false positive. It’s not a success.)

Well-trained officers on the lookout for suspicious people is a great substitute.

The devil is in the details, of course. All too often “he’s acting suspicious” really translates to “he’s black.” Well-trained is the key to avoiding racism, which is both bad for society and bad for security. But security is inherently about people, and smart observant people are going to notice things that metal detectors and X-ray machines will miss.

Of course, machines are better at ducking charges of prejudice. It may be less secure to have a computer decide who to wand, or to have random chance decide whose baggage to open, but it’s easier to pretend that prejudice is not an issue. “It’s not the officer’s fault; the computer selected him” plays well as a defense. And in a world where security theatre still matters more than security, this is an important consideration.

For about a year now, I’ve been saying we can improve airport security by doing away with the security checkpoints and replacing them with well-trained officers looking out for suspicious activity. It’ll probably never happen, but at least this is a start.

Crypto-Gram: May 15, 2004