If you don’t know who Bruce Schneier is, I hope you’re coming to my site because I wrote about the TSA, not because your a security professional. He wrote several books that are staples on almost every security professionals’ shelves. You could literally say he wrote the book on applied cryptography, since that’s the title of one his book. He’s been in the security community for a long time, he’s contributed a lot over the years. And he’s one of the TSA’s biggest critics in the security field.
Last Friday, Bruce had been invited to a House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform to talk about the effectiveness of TSA security measures. Perhaps unsurprisingly, someone at the TSA caught wind of the fact that he was supposed to be there in person, challenging TSA assertions and had his inclusion in the proceedings blocked. For some odd reason, the TSA is leery of having someone on the panel who not only understands most of the visible security measures we experience at airports, but can also articulate that in a manner the public can understand. Of course, the reason the TSA claims they had him blocked is because of a lawsuit he currently has going on against them.
The TSA (and the DHS) is well aware of their detractors and takes great pains to avoid directly confronting any of them or giving critics a chance to get real answers to charges of ineffectiveness. And Bruce Schneier has been one of the voices that’s taken them to task many times, coining the term ‘security theater’ to describe security that looks like it’s making us more secure while really providing little or no actual protection. In fact, security theater is often harmful, since it makes us think we’re safer than we really are.
One thing people tend to forget is that the TSA is a political organization first and foremost. The people who run the DHS, currently Janet Napolitano, are appointed politicians who’s primary goal is not security, is not safety, but is instead simply keeping their jobs and doing whatever it takes to appear effective. I know it’s cynical, but politics have always been about appearances rather than the actual utility of the actions politicians take. And since the TSA’s role is so well defined, it’s easier to measure that effectiveness, or lack there of, than it is with many governmental agencies. Which is why in most airports, no one is keeping count of the number of people who opt out of backscatter x-rays; if we counted, there would be metrics that could be used as a yardstick. But of course, we wouldn’t want to know how good or bad our security measures are, since that means we’d expect changes to be made to make them more effective.
I had the dangers of mixing politics and security at the TSA made painfully clear to me several years ago when I had a chance to interview Michael Chertoff, who was then the outgoing head of the DHS. At one point I asked Mr. Chertoff if there was ever going to be a time when we don’t have to take off our shoes when going through a security checkpoint. His basic answer was, “I’m a politician. The shoe bomber happened and if I don’t make sure it never happens again it’s the end of my career, so you’ll have to keep taking your shoes off for the foreseeable future.” Which told me that for a career politician, protecting his career is much more important than protecting the folks who are traveling through the airport. And by the by, Mr. Chertoff went to work for one of the companies who build and sell backscatter x-rays to the TSA when he left office. Let that one sink in for a while.
All in all, this is just one more data point in the argument that the DHS and TSA are less about actually protecting the public than they are about perpetuating a political power base built on fear of a once in a lifetime event. The TSA has created a situation where people have given up a number of personal freedoms for the very thin illusion that they may be safer while flying. But the sheer amount of inconvenience and humiliation that the TSA has heaped upon travelers is gathering more and more momentum for change as the public gets tired of it. Which tells me that we might see some sort of incident or another in the near future that will re-instill fear of terrorists in the public. Or is that too much cynicism and paranoia? It is security theater after all.