By Jesse Brown - Thursday, January 3, 2013 - 0 Comments
Maybe Louis CK is right: air travel is a miracle and we should all just shut up about the minor inconveniences that come along with it.
Or perhaps we can appreciate the wonder of aviation while maintaining a healthy skepticism toward authorities determined to keep us in a fog of ignorance and anxiety about it. Will 2013 be the year we finally challenge their baffling and invasive demands? Some recent developments have me hoping:
- A former TSA agent has been cheerfully tooting little whistles on his old employer. Among the revelations on the Taking Sense Away blog (get it?) are that fellow agents routinely laugh at nude photos of passengers rendered in radiation by backscatter machines, which the blogger calls “useless” and potentially harmful. Another blogger, Jonathan Corbett, posted a Youtube video documenting a pretty credible and face-palmingly simple backscatter hack that allows any metal object to pass through the machine undetected (Spoiler alert: Apparently all you need to do is put the bomb/gun/drugs/Altoids tin in your side pocket).
- The FAA, meanwhile, is under increased pressure to admit that the ban on cellphones and tablet use during takeoff and landing is based on bogus science. One U.S. senator has demanded proof that wireless gadgets create interfere, on behalf of a public “growing increasingly skeptical of prohibitions.”The FCC is demanding answers, and the New York Times’ Nick Bilton has done a terrific job of consistently challenging the FAA’s spurious claims that it’s okay for pilots to use iPads but not passengers because, when it comes to radio wave emissions, “two iPads are different than 200″ (they aren’t).
We’ve been playing along for more than a decade, submitting to illogical little rituals in the name of security. In 2002 I was scared too, and probably would have hopped on one foot in my underwear while singing the national anthem if someone in a uniform told me it would keep planes from exploding.
Today, I think it’s not selfish but fair and necessary to question some of this security theatre.
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By Michael Friscolanti - Monday, February 28, 2011 at 10:37 AM - 1 Comment
The evolution of IEDs has far outpaced that of fakes—and that’s a problem for law enforcement
Airports have spent millions installing the latest security gadgets, from industrial X-ray machines that peek inside checked luggage to full-body scanners that leave nothing to the imagination. But as the technology becomes more sophisticated, one crucial thing remains in short supply: fake bombs.
In order to test every advancement—and properly teach airport personnel how to use it—researchers need to replicate the chemical concoctions that terrorists may be hiding in their suitcases (or underwear). “The simulants must have the same combination of materials without being explosive: same atomic number, same density, same colour, sometimes even the same smell,” says Bruce Koffler, director of Securesearch Inc., a Canadian company that supplies replicas. “You can’t use live explosives in a classroom, especially the homemade types, because they can detonate without warning.”
The problem, though, is that the popularity of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) has far outpaced the market on fakes. There are so many recipes—and new ones being devloped all the time—that it’s hard to know whether the latest X-ray will spot each variation. In response, the military’s research arm has launched an “X-Ray Simulant Project” and is looking for a contractor to deliver “rapid design and prototyping” of IED replicas. “The availability of suitable, non-hazardous, non-toxic, explosive simulants is of concern when assessing the potential utility of [explosive] detection systems,” the tender reads. “Lack of simulants limits the training opportunities, and ultimately the detection probability, of security personnel using systems in the field.”
By Colby Cosh - Sunday, November 21, 2010 at 10:36 PM - 28 Comments
“We’re taking the fight to the terrorists abroad, so we don’t have to face them here at home.” President George W. Bush, June 9, 2005. Of all the nose-stretchers W ever told, this one rings the most hollow in 2010, with American air travellers said to be in a state of “revolt” against the system of industrialized sexual assault that has been implemented in their airports. The more the United States takes the fight to the terrorists abroad, the hotter the war being raged against the travelling civilian by the Transportation Security Administration. Not so long ago, there ran a common, bitter joke that we would all one day have to fly naked. Anybody laughing at that one now?
The term “revolt” is not exactly freighted with the violent overtones it once was. The most radical of the revolutionaries who have captured the American imagination in recent weeks is a fellow named John Tyner, whose blow for liberty took the form of refusing to submit to either being photographed in the nude or subjected to an “enhanced” groping, and then, most treacherously of all, leaving the “security area” of the airport without permission—a federal offence that could see him fined up to $11,000. He didn’t black the eye or batter the groin of any TSA personnel, and he certainly didn’t barrage Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano with rotten eggs and filth.
There is probably no sense blaming the employees of the TSA, although if we’re really talking with “revolt” as our underlying moral premise, not being blameworthy doesn’t mean you are not an appropriate target of abuse. The airport rage of Americans is being fuelled by legitimately illogical, cruel, dumbass moves by frontline TSA workers—errors that, for the most part, represent the inflexible application of rules in situations that either (1) were not anticipated, (2) do not arise often enough to be covered in training, or (3) simply aren’t amenable to handling according to a script or a 20-word official doctrine.
In other words, America is keeping its airports safe the way it builds its cars and fights its wars: on the assembly-line model. It has been presented with an enormous responsibility to create safety, or the appearance of safety, over a huge universe of flights and passengers; it probably cannot, unlike Israel, approach this problem by training a small corps of intelligent persons and leaving them free to improvise, applying general principles using nuance and extensive local knowledge.
Given that merely living with the threat level we were all exposed to without much complaint in the 1980s is no longer an option, the Republic has to break down the great task of making-safe into small chunks that can be taught to people with IQs of 85—and taught by people with IQs of 105. The U.S. Army helped liberate Europe, a couple of times over, by means of the same industrial methods. (There’s a reason that in both the British-Canadian fighter and bomber commands during the Second World War, pilots and other crew who displayed particular talent were made instructors very quickly; not infrequently they became instructors of instructors.)
But generals and factory owners have continuous Darwinian pressure helping them with the organizing of human capital. Airport security officers aren’t easy to evaluate, even collectively—we don’t know how much value there is in having a TSA at all. Individually, the workers are like the household tiger repellent in the old joke. Are they of any use? Well, when was the last time you saw any tigers around here?
Without competitive pressure, any industrial apparatus becomes increasingly bloated and clumsy. The market for subsidized tiger repellent is potentially unlimited. TSA is going to get worse before it gets better—especially with new arbitrary prohibitions being fed into the system every time there’s a failed terrorist attack.