Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A Skewed Perception of Security

It seems likely all American air travelers will be inconvenienced because of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s ham-handed attempt to blow up a plane in Detroit on Christmas Day. Despite the creation of the Department of Homeland Security and the Transportation Safety Administration, few of the promised technological advances promised in the wake of 9/11 have actually borne fruit.

Security checks have become more stringent, requiring everyone to put up with more invasive and time-consuming scanning, because the government is either unwilling or unable (or both) to decide who needs special attention. Seventy-year-old retired teachers and fourteen-year-old high school girls have yet to hijack or blow up an airplane, yet I know well an example of each who were singled out for detailed searches since 9/11. (The teacher was caught coming and going on her round trip.)

The systems DHS is trying to put in place are so expensive and complicated it’s unlikely they’ll ever work with complete assurance, if they ever even get completed. Why not use the data we have—always striving to refine, improve, and add to it—to sort out who deserves special attention before boarding, and spend extra time with them? It should be more detailed than mere racial profiling, though that’s not to say racial and religious characteristics can’t be taken into consideration.

Assign points for each characteristic a person shares with the most likely perpetrators. No one or two things would push you into the Special Needs category, but if you were—ust as an example—an Arab and a Muslim flying from Algeria who had attended a Wahhabi school and had been seen at a terrorist training site, then please step to the side so we can take a closer look at you, sir. That’s not to say you couldn’t be a white Catholic who rolled up an impressive score as a member of the IRA; you’d earn a closer look, too. Meanwhile, small children and people who can be assumed to be safe to nine nines of certainty can get the routine screening. Maybe they could leave their shoes on, or carry shampoo from home. The lines would move faster and we’d be safer than if we depended on some Star Wars technology that could sniff any explosive within five feet in one part per trillion, provided it was installed and worked as advertised. (How’s that missile defense system working out?)

It’s also good to remember no problem exists in a vacuum. How much are we willing to spend, and what level of inconvenience will we tolerate to avoid another 9/11—which was eminently preventable with the policies and technology in place at the time—when we allow fifteen times as many people to die every year due to inadequate health insurance?

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