Terrorists Don’t Do Movie Plots

Bruce Schneier is one of my favorite tech writers. Not only does he understand technology (he wrote the Blowfish and Twofish encryptions algorithms, as well as the original version of the highly recommended passwordsafe program that I use), but he is not afraid of pointing out what he calls “security theater”, where officials scramble do something visible, even if it is totally ineffective. Here’s the story.

An example: “The 9/11 terrorists used small pointy things to take over airplanes and fly them into buildings, so we ban small pointy things from airplanes“. Fair enough, but there are side-effects:

  • You cannot park in front of the airport (why? Has anyone even threatened to blow up an airport?)
  • Taking knitting needles away from grandmothers?
  • Thousands more low-paid Federally-employed “screeners”, who have acquired a reputation for letting weapons slip through their fingers because they are asleep on the job.
  • Non-passengers can no longer go to the departure gate to meet or farewell passengers, but security now takes twice as long, even though less than half as many people go through security compared to pre-911.
  • New governmental agencies with enhanced powers than make them effectively accountable to no-one.
  • Perhaps most important of all, flying is no longer fun.

Let’s look at El-Al, the Israeli National airline. They have a different approach: They have a steel bulkhead between the cockpit and the passenger compartment. The flight crew boards via a ladder in the front wheel well. This conversion costs only a few thousand dollars per plane and is a one-shot expense. They also have one or more sky marshals on every plane. Security is more HUMINT (human intelligence ) than ELINT (Electronic Intelligence), because finding bad guys is easier if you use trained professionals than low-paid government jobsworths.

My point – and Bruce’s – is simple. Solve problems. Don’t try to solve maybe-one-day-problems by throwing money and manpower at them.

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