Airport Security Theater


Bruce Schneier has written extensively on the airport security practices that have been implemented since the 9/11 attacks and for the most part, he views them as “security theater”. This term is used to describe security countermeasures that provide the feeling of improved security or safety, but in actuality provide little, if any, benefit. Examples of such practices include the No-Fly List, random searches of passengers, and the banning of liquids in containers larger than 3.4 ounces. None of these practices actually improve airline security at all, but rather provide the illusion of improving security.

I recently took a international flight on American Airlines where I experienced an egregious example of security theater. It was even worse than theater, because it didn’t even provide the illusion of added security. On the flight home, I had a piece of luggage that I had carried on as well as a backpack. Of course I went through the usual screening and security process where my bags were x-rayed and checked for prohibited items. However, prior to boarding the plane, all passengers had to submit their items for search again. There were about 5 AA staff who forced us to open our carry-ons so that they could look in the bags. This search was cursory at best, and if I had a hand gun, for example, in the bottom of the bag, it would not have been detected. The staff were not conducting a thorough search of the bags and in fact, seemed disinterested.

This type of security theater adds absolutely nothing to flight safety. My bags had already been examined when I went through the normal security process. If I had a prohibited item in my carry-on luggage, presumably it should have been detected then. The second search was pointless. Such countermeasures cost money for the airlines, passengers, and tax payers while providing zero value.

One of the hallmarks of risk management is performing a risk analysis. A risk analysis should include an assessment of the value of the asset being protected, the cost of the countermeasure and the probability of the loss of the asset. If the cost of the countemeasure outweighs the amount of the expected loss of the asset, then the countermeasure should not be implemented. As an example, if the value of the plane is $10,000,000, but the probability of a terrorist planting a bomb on the plane is .01%, then the loss expectancy is $1000. I don’t know the actual probability of a terrorist attack on any particular plane, but I suspect it is VERY low and .01% is probably not unreasonable. Having 5 or 6 staff search the bags of every passenger on a flight certainly costs more than $1000 in terms of lost time, inconvenience and employee salaries. Based on typical risk analysis it appears this countermeasure is not a good use of limited resources. Thus, I can only conclude that this is being done to provide the illusion of security, in other words, security theater.

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