Last week, CNN reported that the Transportation Security Administration is considering eliminating security at U.S. airports that fly only smaller planes -- 60 seats or fewer. Passengers connecting to larger planes would clear security at their destinations.
To be clear, the TSA has put forth no concrete proposal. The internal agency working group's report obtained by CNN contains no recommendations. It's nothing more than 20 people examining the potential security risks of the policy change. It's not even new: The TSA considered this back in 2011, and the agency reviews its security policies every year. But commentary around the news has been strongly negative. Regardless of the idea's merit, it will almost certainly not happen. That's the result of politics, not security: Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), one of numerous outraged lawmakers, has already penned a letter to the agency saying that "TSA documents proposing to scrap critical passenger security screenings, without so much as a metal detector in place in some airports, would effectively clear the runway for potential terrorist attacks." He continued, "It simply boggles the mind to even think that the TSA has plans like this on paper in the first place."
We don't know enough to conclude whether this is a good idea, but it shouldn't be dismissed out of hand. We need to evaluate airport security based on concrete costs and benefits, and not continue to implement security theater based on fear. And we should applaud the agency's willingness to explore changes in the screening process.
There is already a tiered system for airport security, varying for both airports and passengers. Many people are enrolled in TSA PreCheck, allowing them to go through checkpoints faster and with less screening. Smaller airports don't have modern screening equipment like full-body scanners or CT baggage screeners, making it impossible for them to detect some plastic explosives. Any would-be terrorist is already able to pick and choose his flight conditions to suit his plot.
Over the years, I have writtenmanyessays critical of the TSA and airport security, in general. Most of it is security theater -- measures that make us feel safer without improving security. For example, the liquids ban makes no sense as implemented, because there's no penalty for repeatedly trying to evade the scanners. The full-body scanners are terribleatdetecting the explosive material PETN if it is well concealed -- which is their whole point.
There are two basic kinds of terrorists. The amateurs will be deterred or detected by even basic security measures. The professionals will figure out how to evade even the most stringent measures. I've repeatedlysaid that the two things that have made flying safer since 9/11 are reinforcing the cockpit doors and persuading passengers that they need to fight back. Everything beyond that isn't worth it.
It's always possible to increase security by adding more onerous -- and expensive -- procedures. If that were the only concern, we would all be strip-searched and prohibited from traveling with luggage. Realistically, we need to analyze whether the increased security of any measure is worth the cost, in money, time and convenience. We spend $8 billion a year on the TSA, and we'd like to get the most security possible for that money.
This is exactly what that TSA working group was doing. CNN reported that the group specifically evaluated the costs and benefits of eliminating security at minor airports, saving $115 million a year with a "small (nonzero) undesirable increase in risk related to additional adversary opportunity." That money could be used to bolster security at larger airports or to reduce threats totally removed from airports.
We need more of this kind of thinking, not less. In 2017, political scientists Mark Stewart and John Mueller published a detailed evaluation of airport security measures based on the cost to implement and the benefit in terms of lives saved. They concluded that most of what our government does either isn't effective at preventing terrorism or is simply too expensive to justify the security it does provide. Others might disagree with their conclusions, but their analysis provides enough detailed information to have a meaningful argument.
The more we politicize security, the worse we are. People are generally terriblejudges of risk. We fear threats in the news out of proportion with the actual dangers. We overestimate rare and spectacular risks, and underestimate commonplace ones. We fear specific "movie-plot threats" that we can bring to mind. That's why we fear flying over driving, even though the latter kills about 35,000 people each year -- about a 9/11's worth of deaths each month. And it's why the idea of the TSA eliminating security at minor airports fills us with fear. We can imagine the plot unfolding, only without Bruce Willis saving the day.
Very little today is immune to politics, including the TSA. It drove most of the agency's decisions in the early years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. That the TSA is willing to consider politically unpopular ideas is a credit to the organization. Let's let them perform their analyses in peace.
Abstract: Every day, hundreds of people fly on airline tickets that have been obtained fraudulently. This crime script analysis provides an overview of the trade in these tickets, drawing on interviews with industry and law enforcement, and an analysis of an online blackmarket. Tickets are purchased by complicit travellers or resellers from the online blackmarket. Victim travellers obtain tickets from fake travel agencies or malicious insiders. Compromised credit cards used to be the main method to purchase tickets illegitimately. However, as fraud detection systems improved, offenders displaced to other methods, including compromised loyalty point accounts, phishing, and compromised business accounts. In addition to complicit and victim travellers, fraudulently obtained tickets are used for transporting mules, and for trafficking and smuggling. This research details current prevention approaches, and identifies additional interventions, aimed at the act, the actor, and the marketplace.
Last month, the DHS announced that it was able to remotely hack a Boeing 757:
"We got the airplane on Sept. 19, 2016. Two days later, I was successful in accomplishing a remote, non-cooperative, penetration," said Robert Hickey, aviation program manager within the Cyber Security Division of the DHS Science and Technology (S&T) Directorate.
"[Which] means I didn't have anybody touching the airplane, I didn't have an insider threat. I stood off using typical stuff that could get through security and we were able to establish a presence on the systems of the aircraft." Hickey said the details of the hack and the work his team are doing are classified, but said they accessed the aircraft's systems through radio frequency communications, adding that, based on the RF configuration of most aircraft, "you can come to grips pretty quickly where we went" on the aircraft.
A Turkish Airlines flight made an emergency landing because someone named his wireless network (presumably from his smartphone) "bomb on board."
In 2006, I wrote an essay titled "Refuse to be Terrorized." (I am also reminded of my 2007 essay, "The War on the Unexpected." A decade later, it seems that the frequency of incidents like the one above is less, although not zero. Progress, I suppose.
In a proposed rule by the FAA, it argues that software in an Embraer S.A. Model ERJ 190-300 airplane is secure because it's proprietary:
In addition, the operating systems for current airplane systems are usually and historically proprietary. Therefore, they are not as susceptible to corruption from worms, viruses, and other malicious actions as are more-widely used commercial operating systems, such as Microsoft Windows, because access to the design details of these proprietary operating systems is limited to the system developer and airplane integrator. Some systems installed on the Embraer Model ERJ 190-300 airplane will use operating systems that are widely used and commercially available from third-party software suppliers. The security vulnerabilities of these operating systems may be more widely known than are the vulnerabilities of proprietary operating systems that the avionics manufacturers currently use.
Longtime readers will immediately recognize the "security by obscurity" argument. Its main problem is that it's fragile. The information is likely less obscure than you think, and even if it is truly obscure, once it's published you've just lost all your security.
The Department of Homeland Security is rumored to be considering extending the current travel ban on large electronics for Middle Eastern flights to European ones as well. The likely reaction of airlines will be to implement new traveler programs, effectively allowing wealthier and more frequent fliers to bring their computers with them. This will only exacerbate the divide between the haves and the have-nots -- all without making us any safer.
In March, both the United States and the United Kingdom required that passengers from 10 Muslim countries give up their laptop computers and larger tablets, and put them in checked baggage. The new measure was based on reports that terrorists would try to smuggle bombs onto planes concealed in these larger electronic devices.
The security measure made no sense for two reasons. First, moving these computers into the baggage holds doesn't keep them off planes. Yes, it is easier to detonate a bomb that's in your hands than to remotely trigger it in the cargo hold. But it's also more effective to screen laptops at security checkpoints than it is to place them in checked baggage. TSA already does this kind of screening randomly and occasionally: making passengers turn laptops on to ensure that they're functional computers and not just bomb-filled cases, and running chemical tests on their surface to detect explosive material.
And, two, banning laptops on selected flights just forces terrorists to buy more roundabout itineraries. It doesn't take much creativity to fly Doha-Amsterdam-New York instead of direct. Adding Amsterdam to the list of affected airports makes the terrorist add yet another itinerary change; it doesn't remove the threat.
Which brings up another question: If this is truly a threat, why aren't domestic flights included in this ban? Remember that anyone boarding a plane to the United States from these Muslim countries has already received a visa to enter the country. This isn't perfect security -- the infamous underwear bomber had a visa, after all -- but anyone who could detonate a laptop bomb on his international flight could do it on his domestic connection.
I don't have access to classified intelligence, and I can't comment on whether explosive-filled laptops are truly a threat. But, if they are, TSA can set up additional security screenings at the gates of US-bound flights worldwide and screen every laptop coming onto the plane. It wouldn't be the first time we've had additional security screening at the gate. And they should require all laptops to go through this screening, prohibiting them from being stashed in checked baggage.
This measure is nothing more than security theater against what appears to be a movie-plot threat.
Banishing laptops to the cargo holds brings with it a host of other threats. Passengers run the risk of their electronics being stolen from their checked baggage -- something that has happened in the past. And, depending on the country, passengers also have to worry about border control officials intercepting checked laptops and making copies of what's on their hard drives.
Safety is another concern. We're already worried about large lithium-ion batteries catching fire in airplane baggage holds; adding a few hundred of these devices will considerably exacerbate the risk. Both FedEx and UPS no longer accept bulk shipments of these batteries after two jets crashed in 2010 and 2011 due to combustion.
Of course, passengers will rebel against this rule. Having access to a computer on these long transatlantic flights is a must for many travelers, especially the high-revenue business-class travelers. They also won't accept the delays and confusion this rule will cause as it's rolled out. Unhappy passengers fly less, or fly other routes on other airlines without these restrictions.
I don't know how many passengers are choosing to fly to the Middle East via Toronto to avoid the current laptop ban, but I suspect there may be some. If Europe is included in the new ban, many more may consider adding Canada to their itineraries, as well as choosing European hubs that remain unaffected.
As passengers voice their disapproval with their wallets, airlines will rebel. Already Emirates has a program to loan laptops to their premium travelers. I can imagine US airlines doing the same, although probably for an extra fee. We might learn how to make this work: keeping our data in the cloud or on portable memory sticks and using unfamiliar computers for the length of the flight.
A more likely response will be comparable to what happened after the US increased passenger screening post-9/11. In the months and years that followed, we saw different ways for high-revenue travelers to avoid the lines: faster first-class lanes, and then the extra-cost trusted traveler programs that allow people to bypass the long lines, keep their shoes on their feet and leave their laptops and liquids in their bags. It's a bad security idea, but it keeps both frequent fliers and airlines happy. It would be just another step to allow these people to keep their electronics with them on their flight.
The problem with this response is that it solves the problem for frequent fliers, while leaving everyone else to suffer. This is already the case; those of us enrolled in a trusted traveler program forget what it's like to go through "normal" security screening. And since frequent fliers -- likely to be more wealthy -- no longer see the problem, they don't have any incentive to fix it.
Dividing security checks into haves and have-nots is bad social policy, and we should actively fight any expansion of it. If the TSA implements this security procedure, it should implement it for every flight. And there should be no exceptions. Force every politically connected flier, from members of Congress to the lobbyists that influence them, to do without their laptops on planes. Let the TSA explain to them why they can't work on their flights to and from D.C.
I've been reading a bunch of anecdotal reports that the TSA is starting to scan paper separately:
A passenger going through security at Kansas City International Airport (MCI) recently was asked by security officers to remove all paper products from his bag. Everything from books to Post-It Notes, documents and more. Once the paper products were removed, the passenger had to put them in a separate bin to be scanned separately.
When the passenger inquired why he was being forced to remove the paper products from his carry-on bag, the agent told him that it was a pilot program that's being tested at MCI and will begin rolling out nationwide. KSHB Kansas City is reporting that other passengers traveling through MCI have also reported the paper-removal procedure at the airport. One person said that security dug through the suitcase for two "blocks" of Post-It Notes at the bottom.
Does anyone have any guesses as to why the TSA is doing this?
EDITED TO ADD (5/11): This article says that the TSA has stopped doing this. They blamed it on their contractor, Akai Security.
Last Monday, the TSA announced a peculiar new security measure to take effect within 96 hours. Passengers flying into the US on foreign airlines from eight Muslim countries would be prohibited from carrying aboard any electronics larger than a smartphone. They would have to be checked and put into the cargo hold. And now the UK is following suit.
It's difficult to make sense of this as a security measure, particularly at a time when many people question the veracity of government orders, but other explanations are either unsatisfying or damning.
So let's look at the security aspects of this first. Laptop computers aren't inherently dangerous, but they're convenient carrying boxes. This is why, in the past, TSA officials have demanded passengers turn their laptops on: to confirm that they're actually laptops and not laptop cases emptied of their electronics and then filled with explosives.
Forcing a would-be bomber to put larger laptops in the plane's hold is a reasonable defense against this threat, because it increases the complexity of the plot. Both the shoe-bomber Richard Reid and the underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab carried crude bombs aboard their planes with the plan to set them off manually once aloft. Setting off a bomb in checked baggage is more work, which is why we don't see more midair explosions like Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988.
Security measures that restrict what passengers can carry onto planes are not unprecedented either. Airport security regularly responds to both actual attacks and intelligence regarding future attacks. After the liquid bombers were captured in 2006, the British banned all carry-on luggage except passports and wallets. I remember talking with a friend who traveled home from London with his daughters in those early weeks of the ban. They reported that airport security officials confiscated every tube of lip balm they tried to hide.
Similarly, the US started checking shoes after Reid, installed full-body scanners after Abdulmutallab and restricted liquids in 2006. But all of those measures were global, and most lessened in severity as the threat diminished.
This current restriction implies some specific intelligence of a laptop-based plot and a temporary ban to address it. However, if that's the case, why only certain non-US carriers? And why only certain airports? Terrorists are smart enough to put a laptop bomb in checked baggage from the Middle East to Europe and then carry it on from Europe to the US.
Why not require passengers to turn their laptops on as they go through security? That would be a more effective security measure than forcing them to check them in their luggage. And lastly, why is there a delay between the ban being announced and it taking effect?
Even more confusing, the New York Timesreported that "officials called the directive an attempt to address gaps in foreign airport security, and said it was not based on any specific or credible threat of an imminent attack." The Department of Homeland Security FAQ page makes this general statement, "Yes, intelligence is one aspect of every security-related decision," but doesn't provide a specific security threat. And yet a report from the UK states the ban "follows the receipt of specific intelligence reports."
Of course, the details are all classified, which leaves all of us security experts scratching our heads. On the face of it, the ban makes little sense.
One analysis painted this as a protectionist measure targeted at the heavily subsidized Middle Eastern airlines by hitting them where it hurts the most: high-paying business class travelers who need their laptops with them on planes to get work done. That reasoning makes more sense than any security-related explanation, but doesn't explain why the British extended the ban to UK carriers as well. Or why this measure won't backfire when those Middle Eastern countries turn around and ban laptops on American carriers in retaliation. And one aviation official told CNN that an intelligence official informed him it was not a "political move."
In the end, national security measures based on secret information require us to trust the government. That trust is at historic low levels right now, so people both in the US and other countries are rightly skeptical of the official unsatisfying explanations. The new laptop ban highlights this mistrust.
EDITED TO ADD: Here are twoessays that look at the possible political motivations, and fallout, of this ban. And the EFF rightly points out that letting a laptop out of your hands and sight is itself a security risk -- for the passenger.
EDITED TO ADD (4/12): This article suggests that the ban is because of a plot to hide explosives in iPads.