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Monday, November 22, 2010

Security Theatre

I have been saying for YEARS that I am more afraid of my government than I am of a terrorist attack.

I am not a criminal.
I am not a terrorist.

By rights I should have NO reason to fear and/or mistrust my government those that represent it. Yet I do. I should have NEVER had a bad experience with anyone who represents the government in any way, yet I have had bad experiences.

My experience with people who work for the government in any enforcing capacity has, almost unanimously, been bad. I feel like I have been a part of an ongoing Stanford Prisoner research project; only with regards to government vs citizen. Some of the people in my life say that it is because I dislike the government that I act "funny" and, thus, draw attention to myself from those in a government enforcement position. I disagree as the experiences I have had are what shaped my mistrust. Perhaps I do act "funny" now and that is what CONTINUES to draw their attention, but what started it? It certainly wasn't me. I was taught throughout my childhood that the police and the government are my friends and that I should trust them. It has been my direct experience that has changed my mind.

The recent on-goings with the TSA; bring proof (to my mind, at least) that my distrust of the government is completely founded and fully reasonable.

The highest priority legal document in this country is the Constitution. That document has many amendments that alter it. The first ten of which are named The Bill of Rights. The fourth item in the Bill of Rights is the protection against unreasonable search and seizure.
I hold the belief that the TSA is blatantly violating the 4th Amendment with each and every person it forces through the new security screening process and it is dong so FOR NO GOOD REASON.

For those who might read this who are not familiar with what is going on:
The TSA recently enacted new screening procedures. The procedures are designed to force people into new scanning machines that use X-Ray back-scatter scanning to take an image through all of the scanee's clothing. In short, they expose you to X-Rays so that they can take a nude image of you. The TSA has promised that these images are NOT stored and that they are NOT able to be taken out of the machines. They lie. The same machines have leaked images in the U.K. Similar machines that use a less potentially harmful (the effect of a single scan is so negligible as to be non-existent; it's the cumulative radiation exposure that is the concern) scanning technology (it uses high-frequency radio waves instead of X-rays for a less-clear image) but which have provided the same promise of no image retention were recently shown to NOT automatically delete the images. Gizmodo recently broke a story where they obtained many of the scanned images via a Freedom of Information request (they also have a post about the scanners I am talking about in this post). The alternative to being exposed to radiation is a fully-invasive (but still external) body search. The TSA agents MUST pat anyone declining the radiation scanner down UNDER their clothing. This means they will, essentially, be groping every passenger that does not want to be irradiated. Since the policy was first released the TSA has lightened up slightly; they're stating they will have decreased intensity searches for those 12 and under.

Here's why I think this is a BAD idea.

1. The security system in the USA is based entirely on retro-active security measures. A terrorist tries something and the TSA responds to make that approach impossible in the future. This does NOTHING to stop someone who is creative and determined. If you're only looking where someone else has already walked you will miss the newly-created trail. Basically, the way the TSA does things leaves them COMPLETELY vulnerable to anyone trying to "think outside the box" and do something new while severely inconveniencing (possibly traumatizing) MILLIONS of people.
2. Children and young adults prove to be a problem with the TSA's way of doing things. Are they going to insist of the fully-invasive groping of children and young adults? If so, how long will that go on before there are significant lawsuits for sexual abuse and long-lasting adult-life issues that are generated by any children who are traumatized by the experience? If they decide to forgo the invasive search on children then it defeats the purpose as willing and determined adults will use the children to smuggle the contraband items onto the plane. Children turn the TSA's new policy into a Kobayashi Maru scenario: they CANNOT win.
3. The level of discomfort / hassle / inconvenience / etc that this new policy generates will hurt the economy. It will damage the profitability to commercial airliners which, in turn, will make fewer commercial airline companies which, in turn, will cascade into higher costs to consumers and, thus, make fewer people able to afford commercial airfare. This overly-aggressive and USELESS new security regime will pave the way to a crumbled infrastructure where no one can move around anywhere (perhaps that's what the TSA really wants).  The USA does not have a viable alternative to airfare for rapid, cheap transit. The closest we have here are the commercial bus lines and, as someone who has traveled in a commercial bus, they are NOT an acceptable alternative to flight for long distance runs. Two to four hours in a bus is acceptable; twenty-four is not. If we destroy the ability for people to move around our country in a cost-effective manner we will shrink the economy in ways that we probably cannot even imaging right now let alone destroy the week-long vacation industry to far-away places (Seattle to Florida to do DisneyWorld during a school vacation: not anymore!).
4. The entire goal of the terrorists is to destroy our way of life. The TSA is dong that in a FAR more effective way that any terrorist attack ever has in this country. In short, we're letting our government do the work that the terrorists wanted done and we're the ones paying for it.
5. Air travel is still the safest form of travel. The BBC ran an article on this that stated that last year air travel experienced one death-causing flight accident per two million flights (granted each death-causing accident kills far more than a single individual - for easy math let's be generous and say 200 people die in each incident for a 1 in 10,000 chance that that someone will be you).  Some quick research shows that there were fewer than 40,000 fatalities from automobile accidents in 2009. There are approximately 300,000,000 people in the USA. Assuming that each and everyone one of them rode in a motorized vehicle once and only once in 2009 we have a 1 on 7,500 chance of dying. That number, of course, is artificially low. I ride in my car at least twice a day, 5 days a week. Unemployment is currently around 10%. If we assume, therefore, that 90% of the people either ride to school or work and home again and that they do so 5 times a week we end up with a figure of 2,700,000,000 car rides meaning the chances of dying in one are 1 in 67,500. More than six times higher than air travel. Yes, the figures are rounded for easy math. Yes that means there is some level of inaccuracy in the my results. It's hard to fight the raw numbers, though: car travel is more dangerous than air travel.

People worry about large-scale events because of the media and the TSA is doing something to make people FEEL better about air travel but their recent step has gone one step too far. It will make people FEAR air travel not for the possibility of an attack on a plane but because of the hassle that getting on that plane will cause. This is a clear case of the government trying to govern too much. TSA, it's time to reel it back in and be reasonable. Try different security tactics that require more training and intelligence rather than brute force, coercion and the fear of embarrassment. The people you are subjugating are NOT the people that you should be paying attention to.

Given how much hassle the TSA causes I think it's time someone makes NinjaAir* a reality. It would let you avoid being groped and avoid being irradiated (at least as far as you know).

So, the next time you fly which will it be? Groped, irradiated or ninja blow-dart?

*the link is to another blog's post that has a transcript of something Corey Doctorow said during an episode of This Week in Tech.

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