What’s Wrong With The TSA?

The Transportation Safety Administration has three main areas of failure, of which employees fondling women and children is just the most obvious sign.

The worst part, or at least equally as bad as violating the personal privacy of innocent, law-abiding travelers, is that what they’re doing has no effect on the actual security of the airways, let alone the country. They’re tormenting us just for show — and to soak up tax dollars.  For why this is so, read on.

The TSA fails in at least the following ways:

All security is based on assessing and minimizing (or mitigating) risk.  We evaluate risk by the likelihood of an event endangering to some degree an asset of some value.  We evaluate a security mechanism by how well it controls the risk.  Security mechanisms or measures are often referred to as controls.

Reaction, Not Prevention

The TSA has developed a reactive pattern of controls.  Whenever a new attack method alarms someone in the bowels of the Homeland Security bureaucracy, all legitimate users of the system will thereafter be screened to prevent that specific attack — whether or not existing controls were adequate to thwart the attack, and whether or not the control is anything like the most efficient way to stop it.

Part and parcel of the TSA’s failure is the attempt to defeat an ever-growing list of tactics, rather than to identify the people most likely to use any tactics against the system.  Even their watch lists are essentially useless, because they’re just names of people.  Names do not destroy skyscrapers.

No Common Sense

This lack of a common sense approach will eventually lead to a successful attack.  Along the way it is turning Americans against their government. Because the entire point of securing the airways is to prevent another 9/11-style attack, when two simple controls — arming pilots and kicking out known terrorists — is probably enough to suffice.

Yet there are huge, gaping holes in the security of the homeland that are left completely unaddressed.  We have thousands of miles of border which is essentially open, allowing anyone to walk across armed only with a water jug, some beef jerky, and a phone number to dial when he gets here.

And we have thousands of unprotected rail intersections, interstate highway interchanges, power substations, and similar infrastructure.  Take out a small section of rail beneath an interstate highway, and the resulting traffic snarl would last for days.  Compound that with the fact that trains often carry toxic, highly reactive chemicals such as hydrochloric and sulfuric acids in adjacent rail cars, and you have the recipe for an event of De Laurentiian proportions.

Unacceptable Controls

Psychological Acceptability is one of the core principles of security design. If the perceived inconvenience associated with system safeguards is higher than the perceived value they allow, users will tend either to circumvent the safeguards or not to use the system. Therefore, measures should be implemented only if both of the following are satisfied:

  1. They can be built in to the system such that following them will be no harder than avoiding them
  2. They are more likely to mitigate a threat than to cause user frustration

If a security control lacks psychological acceptability, the users will eventually find a way to circumvent the control,  the security system, or will avoid using the resource.

If we are needing access to the launch codes for a nuclear arsenal, for instance, we will happily endure a great deal of trouble.  We would not want a nuclear device set off inadvertently or by the bad guys.

An example of a psychologically unacceptable security control is passwords that are required to be too long to memorize, or that must be changed too frequently.  Users will write the passwords down, or will find some other way to remember the passwords that obviates their use or negates their effectiveness.

When the TSA began requiring all passengers to remove their shoes for every trip because someone put a bomb in his shoes, we complied because the cost of removing shoes is not too high.  They are just shoes, so even though we knew the measure didn’t fully contain the threat, the control was acceptable.

On the other hand, the purpose of removing all cell phones, watches, and metal objects is clear to the legitimate flier.  We don’t even mind having a metal detector wand passed over us, because there is far less cost than the perceived benefit.

But the cost of being groped by a TSA bureaucrat is far higher.  This is physical contact of a kind we just don’t do in public. And legitimate users believe that the benefit to the safety of the airways is practically nil.

Failed Mission

For the TSA to say that we need not fly if we don’t want to undergo personal humiliation will have one of three consequences. We may acquiesce, go through their procedures, and take the next step down the slope toward Oceania. We may choose not to travel.  Or we may travel by another means, one that does not even afford the protections the TSA purports to offer.

Americans have reached the point of opting out of the system, or of outright defiance of it.  With the incoming Congress, there will be pressure to make spending cuts.  I suggest that some of the first cuts go to agencies like the TSA that fail to serve the public interest.

But the biggest change needed is to face what it is we are fighting.  We aren’t fighting box cutters, or shoe bombs, or panty bombs, or even guns.  We’re fighting an ideology that holds America itself to be an evil entity, and which means to destroy us. Chief among its means is to get us to abandon liberty, in the name of tolerance or any other.

And it is the refusal of our ostensible leaders to face that fact which is our greatest problem.

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