Why I Hate Pointless Security

March 10th, 2007 § 0 comments

I used to think that America took the trophy for useless security measures, good for nothing except, perhaps, a show of force; what Bruce Schneier calls “Security Theater”. America may still ultimately deserve the prize, but today, at least in my mind, the title goes to the Brits, and specifically BAA, the British Airports Authority, for their ‘one hand luggage item’ policy.

After the alleged liquid-explosive plot was foiled, British airport authorities stopped allowing cabin baggage altogether for a brief period, eventually loosening the restriction to let passengers bring a single item on board per person. Anything seems to qualify as an ‘item’. Got a laptop and a roll-on case? You’re out of luck, unless you can fit one inside the other.

I see three problems with this security strategy:

First, it’s a divergent standard from the rest of the world. Even the US, with its crack security team, the TSA, allows two pieces of carry-on baggage. I’ll demonstrate why this is a problem, using an example with completely random cities: Let’s say you’re flying from New York to Berlin with a stop in London. When you go through security at JFK, you’re carrying a laptop and a camera bag, containing a total of about $2500 of photographic and computing equipment, and you don’t particularly want to hand either of them over to the baggage handling machinery. You go through security at JFK unhindered, since your hand luggage fits within the US policy. When you get to London, and are made to go through another security check upon arrival, the standard has changed, and you’ve got an excess bit of luggage that you have to somehow ‘combine’, or jettison. This seems like a ‘When in Rome’ sort of scenario, except that the British standard doesn’t seem to be published at all at JFK. Judging by the crush of passengers around the Terminal 4 screening checkpoint, mobbing the guy assigned to enforce the ‘one bag’ rule, it came as a bit of a surprise to them.

Second, the policy is loosely enforced and has massive loopholes. Using our above example, if you can cram your camera bag into your laptop bag, you’re carrying one less ‘item’, but the amount of material you’re carrying onto the aircraft hasn’t changed at all. Or, if you clip one container to the other and treat it as one, the same statement applies: less containers, same stuff. I also saw people carrying two or three things onto the aircraft, explaining to security staff that they couldn’t check the other items because they were too fragile: artwork and musical instruments, for example. It’s a valid point, and one that the policy never seemed to take into consideration in the first place, so the enforcers and gatekeepers punch holes in the rules, ad-hoc, to keep traffic flowing.

Third, I fail to see how limiting the amount of carry-on baggage a single passenger can take on board an aircraft protects the assets under threat. Those assets are, in this case, the aircraft, its passengers, and its cargo. Assume a worst-case, where some form of contraband is available that is undetectable to current screening methods. Limiting the number of bags one can carry is an extremely poor defense: one could take a single envelope full or an entire suitcase of contraband and not break the policy. Even if bags were limited by size, it would take a relatively small team of attackers to circumvent the policy and bring the contraband on board by combining their baggage allowances.

Finally, let’s say the reason behind this policy is purely procedural, and just designed to speed things up at the security checkpoint–between the shoe removal and laptop examination and coat-stripping, that is. Reason one above breaks this theory, though: if passengers aren’t expecting the rule to be there, they’ll spend large amounts of time, complaining, cajoling, combining, kicking up a fuss, and generally slowing things down.

All-in-all, this seems to be a bad security trade-off and BAA ought to rescind it immediately. Where’s the public pressure on this stuff? Why are the average news soundbites of citizens saying “Well, anything that makes us safer” instead of “This is ridiculous and a waste of time, money, and resources”?

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