Tag: airport security

Serial Innumeracy on Homeland Security

This post was co-authored with Mark G. Stewart, professor of civil engineering and director of the Centre for Infrastructure Performance and Reliability at The University of Newcastle in Australia.

At hearings of the Senate Homeland and Governmental Affairs Committee earlier this month, former congresswoman Jane Harman (D-CA), now head of the Wilson Center in Washington, made a gallant stab at coming up with, and hailing, some homeland security functions that “execute well.”

At the top of Harman’s list was the observation that Customs and Border Protection (CBP) last year stopped more than 3,100 individuals from boarding U.S.-bound aircraft at foreign airports for national security reasons. Since these were plucked out of more than 15 million travelers that went through 15 pre-clearance locations overseas, it was, she exclaimed enthusiastically, “like picking needles from a haystack!”

Committee chair Senator Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) waxed even more enthusiastic about the number, concluding grandly that it “took very sophisticated data systems and implementation of those systems to make that happen” and that “we’re all safer as a result of it.”

This was an exercise in serial innumeracy, of course, because the relevant statistic is not how many individuals were denied entry, but how many of those denied actually presented a security threat. Neither enthusiast presented relevant data, but, judging from the fact that no one apparently was arrested (we’d tend to know if they had been), the number was likely just about  zero. Nor was information presented about the problems or costly inconvenience inflicted upon the many who were likely waylaid in error.

Moreover, it is not clear where the Harman/Lieberman number even comes from. According to Homeland Security officials interviewed by Michael Schmidt for a recent article in the New York Times, only 250 people in each of the last two years were turned away or even pulled aside for questioning as potential national security risks by pre-clearance screeners. Maybe CBP is even more “sophisticated” at picking needles from haystacks than Harman and Lieberman give it credit for. Does that mean we’re even safer as a result? Or less so?

Schmidt also supplies information that calls into question the whole pre-clearance enterprise. Stimulated in considerable measure by the failed underwear bomber attempt to blow up an airliner flying from Europe to Detroit in 2009, the program is, as Department of Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano stresses “an expensive proposition.” Although it has been instituted so far only in airports in Canada, the Caribbean, and Ireland, it already costs $115 million a year. Expansion to hundreds of other airports (including the one the underwear bomber actually took off from) is not only costly, but requires a major diplomatic effort because it involves cajoling foreign governments into granting the United States police-like powers on their own soil. The program has not foiled any major plots thus far, notes Schmidt, and he pointedly adds that it would scarcely be difficult for a would-be terrorist to avoid the few airports with pre-clearance screening to board at one of the many that do not enjoy that security frill.

But the main innumeracy issue in all this is that the key question, as usual when homeland security is up for consideration, is simply left out of the discussion. The place to begin is not “are we safer” with the security measure in place, but how safe are we without it.

We have calculated that, for the 12-year period from 1999 through 2010 (which includes 9/11, of course), there was one chance in 22 million that an airplane flight would be hijacked or otherwise attacked by terrorists.

The question that should be asked of the numerically-challenged, then, is the one posed a decade ago by risk analyst Howard Kunreuther: “How much should we be willing to pay for small reductions in probabilities that are already extremely low?”

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

Behavior Detection as Interrogation

With the Department of Homeland Security constantly spinning out new projects and programs (plus re-branded old ones) to investigate you, me, and the kitchen sink, it’s sometimes hard to keep up. But I was intrigued with a report that behvaior detection officers are getting another look from the Transportation Security Administration. Behavior detection is the unproven, and so far highly unsuccessful (Rittgers, Harper), program premised on the idea that telltale cues can reliably and cost-effectively indicate intent to do harm at airports.

But there’s a new behavior detection program already underway. Or is it interrogation?

Due to a bottleneck at the magnetometers in one concourse of the San Francisco airport (no strip-search machines!), I recently had the chance to briefly interview a Transportation Security Administration agent about a new security technique he was implementing. As each passenger reached him, he would begin to examine the traveler’s documentation and simultaneously ask the person’s last name. He confirmed to me that the purpose was to detect people who did not immediately, easily, and accurately respond. In thousands of interactions, he would quickly and naturally learn to detect obfuscation on the part of anyone carrying an ID that does not have the last name they usually use.

As a way of helping to confirm identity, it’s a straightforward and sensible technique. Almost everyone knows his or her last name, and quickly and easily repeats it. The average TSA agent with some level of experience will fluently detect people who do not quickly and easily repeat the name on the identity card they carry. The examination is done quickly. This epistemetric check (of a “something-you-know” identifier—see my book, Identity Crisis) occurs during the brief time that the documents are already getting visual examination.

Some people will not repeat their name consistent with custom, of course. The hard of hearing, speakers of foreign languages, people who are very nervous, people who have speech or other communication impediments, and another group of sufferers—recently married women—may exhibit “suspicious” failure to recite their recently changed surnames. Some of these anomalies TSA agents will quickly and easily dismiss as non-suspicious. Others they won’t, and in marginal cases they might use non-suspicious indicia like ethnicity or rudeness to adjudge someone “suspicious.”

The question whether these false positives are a problem depends on the sanction that attaches to suspicion. If a stutterer gets a gauntlet at the airport each time he or she fails to rattle off a name, the cost of the technique grows compared to the value of catching … not the small number of people who travel on false identification—the extremely small number of people who travel on false identification so as to menace air transportation.

We used this and closely related techniques, such as asking a person’s address or the DMV office where a license was issued, at the bar where I worked in college. It did pretty well to ferret out people carrying their older friends’ IDs. Part of the reason it worked well is because our expert doormen could quickly escalate to further inquiry, dismissing their own suspicions or denying entry to the bar very quickly. The cost of getting it wrong was to deny a person entry to the bar and sometimes possession of a license. These are relatively small costs to college students, unlike the many hours in time-costs to a traveler wrongly held up at the airport. According to my interview, suspicion generated this way at the airport requires a call to a supervisor, but I did not learn if secondary search is standard procedure, or if cases are handled some other way.

TSA agents are not doormen at bars, of course, and the subjects they are examining are not college kids out to get their drink on. These are government agents examining citizens, residents, and visitors to the United States as they travel for business and pleasure, often at high cost in dollars and time. The stakes are higher, and when the government uses a security technique like this, a layer of constitutional considerations joins the practical issues and security analysis.

I see three major legal issues with this new technique: Fourth Amendment search and seizure, the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, and Due Process. When questioning joins an ID check at the airport, it’s a deepening of a search that is already constitutionally suspect. The Fifth Amendment issues are interesting because travelers are being asked to confess through their demeanor whether they are lying or telling the truth. It would seem to cross a Fifth Amendment line and the rule against forced self-incrimination. The Due Process issues are serious and fairly straightforward. When a TSA screener makes his or her judgment that a person is not responding consistent with custom and is therefore “suspicious,” these judgement calls allow the screeners to import their prejudices. Record-keeping about suspicion generated using this technique should determine whether administration of this epistemetric check violates constitutional due process in its application.

In its constant effort to ferret out terrorist attacks on air transportation, the TSA is mustering all its imagination. Its programs raise scores of risk management issues, they create constitutional problems, and they are a challenge to our tradition of constitutionally limited government. The threat that a person will use false identification to access a plane, defeating an otherwise working watch-list sytem, to execute some attack is utterly small. At what cost in dollars and American values do we attack that tiny threat?

The founding problem is the impetuous placement of federal government agents in the role of securing domestic passenger aviation. There are areas where government is integral to securing airports, airlines, and all the rest of the country—foreign intelligence and developing leads about criminal plots, for example—but the day-to-day responsibility for securing infrastructure like airports and airplanes should be the responsibility of its owners.

If the TSA were to go away, air security measures might be similar in many respects, but they would be conducted by organizations who must keep travelers happy and safe for their living. The TSA hasn’t anything like private airports’ and airlines’ incentives to balance security with convenience, privacy, cost-savings, and all other dimensions of a satisfactory travel experience. Asking people their names at airport security checkpoints is an interesting technique, and not an ineffective one, but it should probably be scrapped because it provides so little security at a relatively great cost.

After bin Laden

As Chris Preble noted early Monday morning, Osama bin Laden is dead. In addition to celebrating V-OBL Day, we should take a moment to reflect on wars of the last decade and the civil liberties we have sacrificed since September 11, 2001. Malou Innocent makes the case for reconsidering our foreign policy, and Jim Harper asks if he can have his airport back. We lay out these thoughts in more detail in this Cato video, After bin Laden.

The phrase “after bin Laden” has a nice ring to it. Cato held counterterrorism conferences in 2009 and 2010, and there’s more Cato work on counterterrorism and homeland security here.

Can I Have My Airport Back Please?

Even while it was a rumor that President Obama would announce that Osama bin Laden had been killed, Americans began to digest the ramifications, asking, for example, “can I have my airport back please?”

Pleasing though it is to have in contemplation, the question is premature. Students of terrorism, such as those who attended our 2009 and 2010 counterterrorism conferences, know that the killing of bin Laden will have little direct effect on the network he spawned. Its indirect, discouraging effect on terrorism is something I mused about in an earlier post.

What about the effects on the rest of us, the people and actors in our great counterterrorism policymaking apparatus?

Osama bin Laden’s survival helped shore up the mystique of the terrorist supervillain, which has fed counterterrorism excess such as the Transportation Security Administration’s domestic airport security gauntlet. Now that bin Laden is gone, the public will be more willing to carefully balance security and privacy in our free country. By a small, but important margin, courts will be less willing to indulge extravagant government claims about threat and risk.

My friends in the national security bureaucracy may honestly perceive the contraction in their power as carelessness about a threat that they have dedicated their professional lives to combating, but the Declaration of Independence touts security only once, and freedom twice, in the phrase “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The counterterrorism debate continues.

‘Give Thanks for the TSA’?

My Washington Examiner column this week covers two developments last week that may make you somewhat less likely to “Give Thanks for the TSA” as former Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessen urged on National Review’s website.

The first is the viral video of a TSA agent at New Orleans airport giving the “freedom fondle” to a six-year-old girl. The second is Friday’s revelation that among the “behavioral indicators” TSA uses to scope out travelers who deserve extra manhandling is the “arrogant” expression of “contempt against airport passenger procedures.”

Because, clearly, making a scene on an airport security line is sound strategy for anyone trying to sneak a bomb onto a plane.

Is it possible that anyone with an IQ above room temperature buys that logic?
A lot of Al Qaeda terrorists are pretty dumb. But it seems doubtful that they’re that dumb.

The column looks at what our willingness to submit to this sort of thing says about “American Exceptionalism”:

There’s been a lot of talk lately about “American Exceptionalism,” and whether President Obama understands what makes America stand out among the family of nations.

I’ve always thought that what makes Americans exceptional is our ornery resistance to being bossed around….

Neoconservatives see America’s uniqueness as an excuse to bomb any country that looks at us crosswise. But the original idea was somewhat less aggressive. With “every spot of the old world… overrun with oppression,” America would be freedom’s home – an “asylum for mankind” – as Thomas Paine put it in Common Sense.

In the 1992 film adaptation of “Last of the Mohicans,” James Fenimore Cooper’s novel about the Seven Years War, there’s an exchange that illustrates American Exceptionalism at its best. An effete British officer berates the rough-hewn colonial “Hawkeye”: “You call yourself a loyal subject to the Crown?”

“Don’t call myself ‘subject’ to much at all,” Hawkeye replies.

You have to wonder how long that spirit can survive in a world where official federal policy requires you to stand by placidly while agents of the state run their rubber gloves under your innocent 6-year-old daughter’s waistband. And it’s far from clear that these procedures are even making us any safer.

TSA’s Pistole Says ‘Risk-Based,’ Means ‘Privacy Invasive’

There is one thing you can take to the bank from TSA administrator John Pistole’s statement that he wants to shift to “risk-based” screening at airports: it hasn’t been risk-based up to now. That’s a welcome concession because, as I’ve said before, the DHS and its officials routinely mouth risk terminology, but rarely subject themselves to the rigor of actual risk analysis.

What Administrator Pistole envisions is nothing new. It’s the idea of checking the backgrounds of air travelers more deeply, attempting to determine which of them present less of a threat and which prevent more. That opens security holes that the risk-averse TSA is unlikely to actually tolerate, and it has significant privacy and Due Process consequences, including migration toward a national ID system. 

I wrote about one plan for a “trusted traveler”-type system recently. As the details of what Pistole envisions emerge, I’ll look forward to reviewing it.

The DHS Privacy Committee published a document several years ago that can help Pistole with developing an actual risk-based system and with managing its privacy consequences. The Privacy Committee itself exists to review programs like these, but has not been used for this purpose recently despite claims that it has.

If Pistole wants to shift to risk-based screening, he should require a full risk-based study of airport screening and publish it so that the public, commentators, and courts can compare the actual security benefits of the TSA’s policies with their costs in dollars, risk transfer, privacy, and constitutional values.

Man Acquitted of Crimes Associated with Asserting His Rights

(HT: Techdirt) It is infuriating to watch the video Phil Mocek made while attempting to assert his legal rights at the airport. The good news is that he has been acquitted of the bogus charges brought against him, including disorderly conduct, concealing his identity, refusing to obey a police officer, and criminal trespass.

The video illustrates the knowledge, fortitude, and cool it takes to assert one’s rights. We owe our thanks to Mr. Mocek, who has helped to educate the TSA and society in general about the law that applies at the airport.

Perhaps he can further the educational process by bringing an action under 42 U.S.C. §1983 for violation of his civil rights under color of law. The Transporation Security Administration’s training programs might improve, or Congress might pay attention to the constitutional black hole they have created in airports—if it costs enough to threaten their earmark money.