I’m flying to England this week, and like many other travelers, I’m pissed about the new regulations. But more than that, I’m quite skeptical that they serve any purpose other than to keep the public afraid (and therefore supportive of policies and regimes that seek to further limit their rights). One writer who has a lot of intelligent things to say about security is the cryptologist Bruce Schneier, who wrote the book Beyond Fear. He hasn’t had much to say about the recent measures, but from his blog I found my way over to this post.
Although carry-on luggage is x-rayed, in most cases the only screening that your body is subject to is the magnetometer–which only detects modest amounts of metal–and a visual screen for bulky items. Remember that 500 cubic centimeters of C-4 (less than a kilogram) is plenty to blow up a plane. An amount like this is easily hidden on your person (strapped to your inner thigh, in a wonderbra, etc.) Even larger amounts can be concealed with prosthetic bellies, fat suits, etc. So, it’s not clear that as a practical matter you can stop people from bringing this kind of material onto a plane on their person without substantially better detection technology (e.g., millimeter wave radar) or much more aggressive personal searches.
If you think that Airport Security is too good to be fooled by a fat suit in this post 9/11 world, you had better read this article Bruce Schneier wrote back in March:
It seems like every time someone tests airport security, airport security fails. In tests between November 2001 and February 2002, screeners missed 70 percent of knives, 30 percent of guns and 60 percent of (fake) bombs. And recently (see also this), testers were able to smuggle bomb-making parts through airport security in 21 of 21 attempts. It makes you wonder why we’re all putting our laptops in a separate bin and taking off our shoes.
If they can’t find a gun or bomb more than half of the time, do you think they’ll be able to spot some hidden liquid? And I still don’t get why they would suddenly have a ban on liquids now? Did nobody think of liquid explosives as a possibility a year ago? Five years ago? In an older piece, I think Schneier explains what is really going on:
Anyone in charge of security knows that he’ll be judged in hindsight. If the next terrorist attack targets a chemical plant, we’ll demand to know why more wasn’t done to protect chemical plants. If it targets schoolchildren, we’ll demand to know why that threat was ignored. We won’t accept “we didn’t know the target” as an answer. Defending particular targets protects reputations and careers.
OK, so maybe it is not be a broad conspiracy to scare us to death as I suggested above. It’s just scared bureaucrats trying to cover their asses and politicians wanting to look tough. Either way, I know I’m going to be much more worried about the safety of my brand new laptop stowed away in the cabin than I will be of the plane itself…
UPDATE: Turns out that making a bomb on the plane isn’t that easy.