Tag Archives | Airport Security

More Airport Security Tradeoffs

Last week, I wrote about several underappreciated tradeoffs in airport security policy. Here’s another one: TSA screeners, like the rest of us, have only limited time and attention span. The more these finite resources are devoted to “security theater” procedures that have little or no value, the less of it there is available to focus on genuine potential threats. Jonathan Adler recounts that the TSA failed to check some liquids that he brought on board on a recent flight. This doesn’t surprise me. Both anecdotal and systematic evidence show that TSA personnel often miss much more dangerous prohibited items such as knives and boxcutters, even in cases where the passenger in question was not deliberately trying to hide them. This is at least in part a result of the diversion of time and effort to security theater tasks, such as ensuring that every passenger takes off their shoes and the like. A screener who is checking up on people’s shoes can’t simultaneously focus on genuine dangers, or at least can’t do it as effectively as he could if his attention were undivided. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem that the TSA is giving such tradeoffs the attention they deserve or that its political masters in Congress and the administration are putting much pressure on the agency to do so. I suspect that perverse political incentives are at least a part of the reason for these failures.

On a tangentially related note, I thought I’d point out that Hollywood screenwriter David Steinberg, whose op ed on airport security Jonathan links, is a former clerk for Fifth Circuit Judge Jerry E. Smith – the same judge that co-blogger Todd Zywicki and I clerked for (as did guest-blogger Hanah Volokh). No other blog gives you as much Smith clerk-authored material as the [...]

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Do Politicians Have Good Incentives to Promote Airport Security?

In a response to my post arguing that politicians have strong incentives to not enact good security measures before terrorist attacks and engage in “security theater” afterwards, Orin argues that politicians actually do have good incentives:

In my experience, politicians have the right incentives in this area. The American public consistently cares very passionately about these questions, and a very broad range of politicians want to “do the right thing” in this area. Different politicians strike the balance in different places, of course, owing to their different assessments of the threats both to safety and civil liberties — as well as the different assessments of their constituents. But I think the incentives are the right ones.

The core problem is not incentives but rather the extraordinary difficulty of threat assessment. Assessing the terrorist threat requires us to figure out what an undetermined group of people with cultures and life experience totally different from our own might do in response to various policies enacted around the world using constantly changing technologies we barely understand enforced by a sprawling global bureacracy we can’t fully comprehend. That’s really really hard to do.

I agree that many politicians want to “do the right thing.” And they would certainly try to do so if it were costless for them. The problem is that successful politicians are unlikely to prioritize “doing the right thing” above staying in power. And, for the reasons I indicated in my previous post, politicians who want to stay in power have incentives to adopt perverse policies both before and after attacks.

Orin also claims that politicians have good incentives because the “public cares very passionately about these questions.” I doubt that was true before 9/11 (when polls consistently showed that terrorism was not high on voters’ list of priorities), [...]

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Public Ignorance and the Political Economy of Airport Security: Why Governments Don’t Take Enough Precautions Before Attacks and Engage in “Security Theater” Afterwards

Co-blogger Orin Kerr points out that some people claim that governments fail to take proper airport security precautions before an attack happens, while others worry that they will overreact once an attack does occur. Unfortunately, these two problems are not mutually exclusive. It could well be that governments both fail to take proper precautions before an attack occurs and respond with unnecessary “security theater” measures afterward.

I. Perverse Political Incentives Before and After Terrorist Attacks.

Before an attack occurs, or when a long period of time has passed between attacks, politicians have little incentive to enact good security measures. They have limited time and political capital, and the incentive is to spend it on measures that are popular with the general public or that benefit powerful interest groups. Neither the public nor interest groups are likely to push hard for effective security measures when there is no immediate fear of attack.

To be sure, incumbent politicians might be blamed if a successful attack occurs. However, large successful attacks are fairly rare, and there is a good chance that none will occur during any given politician’s term even if security policies are far from optimal. Moreover, when an attack does occur, many voters will assume that it was unpredictable and forego imposing electoral sanctions on the incumbents. For example, neither party suffered electoral damage after the failure to prevent the 9/11 attacks. This helps explain why, prior to 9/11, neither Democrats nor Republicans made a high priority of eliminating even our worst security policies, such as the “intelligence wall” which was later heavily criticized by the 9/11 Commission and others.

After an attack, politicians have strong incentives to enact measures that make the public believe they are “doing something” to prevent a recurrence. Unfortunately, “security theater” policies often accomplish this [...]

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Bruce Schneier on Airport Security

I’m no security expert. But Bruce Schneier is a leading scholar in the field, and in this interview he makes some of the same points as I did here and here:

Air travel survived decades of terrorism, including attacks which resulted in the deaths of everyone on the plane. It survived 9/11. It’ll survive the next successful attack. The only real worry is that we’ll scare ourselves into making air travel so onerous that we won’t fly anymore. We won’t be any safer — more people will die in car crashes resulting from the increase in automobile travel, and terrorists will simply switch to one of the millions of other targets — and we won’t even feel any safer. It’s frustrating; terrorism is rare and largely ineffectual, yet we regularly magnify the effects of both their successes and failures by terrorizing ourselves. [emphasis added]….

Politicians naturally want to do something in response to crisis, even if that something doesn’t make any sense. But unfortunately for politicians, the security measures that work are largely invisible. Such measures include enhancing the intelligence-gathering abilities of the secret services, hiring cultural experts and Arabic translators, building bridges with Islamic communities both nationally and internationally, funding police capabilities — both investigative arms to prevent terrorist attacks, and emergency communications systems for after attacks occur — and arresting terrorist plotters without media fanfare. They do not include expansive new police or spying laws, or security theater measures that directly target the most recent tactic or target. …

Of course 100% security is impossible; it has always been impossible and always will be. We’ll never get the murder, burglary, or terrorism rate down to zero; 42,000 people will die each year in car crashes in the U.S. for the foreseeable future; life itself will always include

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Tradeoffs in Airport Security

In the immediate aftermath of a terrorist attack on an airplane, there are always calls for increased airport security measures. Some of the proposed new measures may be justified, though others are likely to be “security theater.” But even security measures that do increase safety create difficult tradeoffs that we don’t think enough about. Law professor Bradley Smith properly emphasizes this important point:

[A] good question is inadvertently raised [by DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano’s statement that “the system worked”]: what price are we willing to pay for more security? No system is foolproof. If by “the system worked” Secretary Napolitano merely meant that “the system” prevents most such incidents at a reasonable cost, and realistically we cannot prevent all incidents at an acceptable cost, that would be a serious argument worth considering. Americans don’t want to hear that, or course, especially in the immediate aftermath of a near disaster.

Eight plus years after 9/11, the question we have yet to really discuss honestly as a society is this: how much are we willing to pay in time, indignity, discomfort, loss of freedoms and privacy, and cash outlays in order to reduce the probabilities of attacks occuring? This is not an easy question, in no small part because it is extremely difficult to know how many incidents are being prevented by our current security measures, how many more could be prevented by further security measures, and how many more might have occured if we didn’t all have to stand around taking our shoes off in airport security lines.

An understandable kneejerk reaction is to say that no price is too high to pay for saving lives. But a moment’s reflection suggests that isn’t true. For instance, let’s say that we could reduce terrorist attacks on airplanes to zero by subjecting [...]

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More on Israeli Airport Security Measures

Orin responds to my post on airport security by claiming that the Israeli system is, overall, more time-consuming and intrusive than the TSA. I think he misses my point. I was not arguing that we should adopt the Israeli system in toto. I was merely saying that the fact that the Israelis find it unnecessary to use some of the TSA’s more annoying and invasive measures is a strong indication that those measures aren’t useful, or at least are not worth the cost. Even if the Israelis do other things that are even more annoying and time-consuming, that point still holds.

Second, I think Orin is relying on an inaccurate description of the Israeli system, drawn from Wikipedia. Wikipedia is often useful, but can also be incorrect and unreliable. In this case, it is simply wrong on several points. For example, it isn’t true that you have to arrive three hours ahead of time, or that their procedures take longer than the TSAs (at least not for the average passenger); wikipedia doesn’t actually make that latter claim, but Orin surmises it from the wikipedia statements. How do I know that these claims are wrong? Because I have actually been through Israeli airport security, and I know from talking to many others who have been through it that my experience was similar to theirs. It actually took less time than it usually takes to get through the TSA. It is true that Israeli officials ask passengers questions, some of which are intrusive and annoying. However, the process took me about 1 minute, and my understanding is that that is typical for the vast majority of passengers. The downside of the Israeli system is that it is tougher on those selected for extra scrutiny, and on many Muslim and Arab travelers [...]

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Assessing Airport Security Measures

Nonexperts should be very cautious in offering assessments of airport security measures, or any complex policy issue. There is too much that we don’t understand. Thus, the following is at best a tentative analysis. That said, I suspect that many of the measures the TSA plans to take in reaction to the latest foiled terrorist plot are likely to be either ineffective or not worth their cost. There are three reasons for that suspicion.

First, as I pointed out in this post, many of the TSA’s most intrusive and annoying policies are not used by Israeli airport security, generally considered to be the best in the world; these include forcing people to take off their shoes and confiscating all liquids other than those in special containers. Interestingly, the measures used by the TSA, but not by the Israelis, tend to be highly visible and intrusive to the average traveler. That leads me to suspect that the TSA has adopted them for “security theater” reasons, so as to make it seem that they are making a great effort to combat terrorism, and make people feel more secure. If the public sees the TSA making a major visible effort, fear will perhaps decrease and the agency is less likely to be blamed for any security failures that may occur in the future. Thus, the agency engages in “political theater” measures despite the inevitable grumbling by passengers. The Israeli public, by contrast, may demand less in the way of security theater than American voters, because of the nation’s vastly greater experience in dealing with terrorist attacks.

Of course it’s possible that the TSA experts simply know better than the Israelis. Israeli security experts are far from infallible and they surely make mistakes. On the other hand, Israel has not had a [...]

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