Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Dear TSA: Give Up Already

According to multiple news stories, tests of TSA airport inspection by Department of Homeland Security red team agents found that 95% of simulated bombs and weapons were missed by the inspectors. That suggests that the considerable costs and hassles imposed by TSA on passengers over the past thirteen years accomplished almost nothing. The response by both government spokesmen and the media is that they just need to try harder, do a better job. It does not seem to have occurred to anyone that if, after thirteen years, TSA is still unable to keep people from getting bombs and weapons onto airplanes, perhaps it should give up.

That does not mean taking no precautions at all. There are obvious precautions that have nothing to do with inspections, such as reinforced doors to protect the pilot area of an airplane and arming pilots. Terrorists willing to kill other people are easier to find than terrorists willing to kill themselves, so it makes sense to be sure that if the person who checked a bag doesn’t board, the bag comes off. As a protection against hijackers, it might make sense to have armed sky marshalls on many flights or to train and arm members of the flight crew. That would cost considerably less money than the current system and impose no cost in time and hassle on passengers.

Those precautions will not stop someone from blowing up an airplane with himself on it, but, to judge by the results of the red team tests, neither do the current precautions. That no such events have occurred is evidence that few or no attempts are being made.

A defender of the present system could still argue that even if it only stops one or two incidents, it is worth doing, since human life is infinitely valuable. There are two things wrong with that argument. The first is that human life is not infinitely valuable, as shown by the choices humans make. All of us choose to take some risks we could avoid, to drive to visit relatives when we could stay home, to eat something short of the perfect diet, to see the doctor less often than we would if avoiding death was something we regarded as infinitely valuabie.

The second thing wrong with the argument is that the present system also has a cost in life, less visible than a terrorist attack but probably larger than the cost of terrorist attacks prevented by the TSA. The more expensive, in money, time, and hassle airline travel is, the more people choose to drive instead. Driving is a great deal more dangerous per mile than flying, so more people driving means more people dying.

We cannot calculate the number of dead without knowing the size of the shift from flying to driving produced by the TSA, but we can at least get some feel for the order of magnitude. The mortality rate from driving is about one death per 100 million vehicle miles. The mortality rate from flying is very close to zero—one estimate I found was .07 deaths per billion passenger miles. So, roughly speaking, every hundred million passenger miles diverted from flying to driving represents one more highway death.

In February of 2015, passengers on commercial airlines flew 60 billion passenger miles. Assuming the figure is the same for other months, that’s about 700 billion passenger miles a year. If we assume, I think conservatively, that one percent of passenger miles are diverted from flying to driving by TSA hassles, that comes to 7 billion passenger miles or about 70 deaths. Add that up for the thirteen years the TSA has been in operation, and it has killed almost a thousand people. Invisibly.


At 5:20 PM, June 03, 2015, Anonymous Stephen Dawson said...

I am second to no-one in my desire to see TSA eliminated. That said its failure on this test does not mean that it has not stopped what might have been successful attacks.

I think in one of your books you suggested a cheap way to reduce the risk of burglary is to leave a note on the door implying that your house contains a large, ravenous dog. The security 'theatre' of the TSA may have had a similar diverting effect. The size of any such effect is probably unknowable.

At 5:23 PM, June 03, 2015, Anonymous Stephen Dawson said...

Of course, any credibility the security 'theatre' had in diverting would-be attackers has now evaporated with the exposure of its lack of actual substance.

At 6:46 PM, June 03, 2015, Anonymous Jessa said...

Security theater has another effect, and I think it has been the real force behind the TSA: Reassuring the public. In the aftermath of 9/11, the airlines were terrified that their customers would flee in droves. There was in fact a substantial drop in passengers -- about 10% for the following three years. The airlines and their government sponsors were desparate to convince people that flying was safe. All those lines and scans and impositions make people _feel_ that someone is doing something to protect them, even if they know at the same time that it's just theater. So I doubt anything will change, especially since the TSA now has an industrial complex to lobby for it.

At 6:58 PM, June 03, 2015, Anonymous Power Child said...

I wonder how it works in England. According to Wikipedia, it was the British police who discovered and foiled the transatlantic aircraft plot to detonate liquid explosives on a bunch of airliners, including one that I had boarded. (Is "British police" a Wikipedia-ed shorthand for some analogous British TSA-type organization? If it, or the British police, were also 95% ineffective then that makes me extremely lucky.

The irony is, I probably opposed all the security theatre at the time. In fact, I still feel rather hostile towards it. I'd rather just have them profile the heck out of passengers.

At 8:30 PM, June 03, 2015, Blogger William McKibbin said...

TSA = "...thousands standing around..." -- see for yourself...

At 8:59 PM, June 03, 2015, Blogger said...

The TSA is ineffective, can't be effective and only exists to reassure the public and allow politicians to pretend to do something about a perceived (but largely non-existing) problem. After terrorist bombed commuter trains in Spain the railways instituted airport style security at the main rail stations. But for long distance trains only. That shows that from the onset it was never intended to be effective, only visible. I only needed 5 minutes on my first ever visit to Barcelona to figure out how I could put a bomb on any of their high speed trains...

It's all theatre, security theatre.

That security theatre doesn't work is something everyone with a bit of interest in the matter already knows. So the terrorists must know it to, must have know it all along.

And even the TSA were effective, it doesn't make us safer.

Bruce Schneier (read his blog: ) says: Any measure that only forces terrorists to change tactics is bound to fail. Since terrorists will just react to it by yes, changing their tactics. Even if the security theatre were effective a terrorist willing to do carnage can still do so. All he has to do is blow himself up in the queues at security. We've gathered a lot of potential victims for him and put them all together in once convenient place.

Fighting terrorists is done elswehere. This was shown when the British Police stopped the liquid bomber plot. This was not stopped by security at the airport. It was stopped by finding the terrorists and stopping their plans before they had put them in motions. The terrorists were not stopped at the airport, they were lifted one morning from their beds and carried away to prison. That is how you fight terrorism.

At 1:46 AM, June 04, 2015, Blogger Unknown said...

In addition to the ineffectiveness of the TSA, we should expect a properly-incentivized airline to offer superior security. For example if the courts could hold the airlines liable for all deaths on their watch. This might not even be necessary, since any airline who's security failed would see a massive drop in business.

I am sure the airlines prefer the government controlling security so they are absolved of this responsibility.

At 2:40 AM, June 04, 2015, Blogger Jon Gunnarsson said...

I fully agree with the overall message of this post, but since agreement is boring, I have a few nitpicks:

1) The first paragraph is in a different font than the rest of text, which is mildly annoying.

2) Your second objection to the "if it saves one life it's worth the cost" argument is in fact just an example of your first objection: people increasing their risk of death by driving to avoid airport security is one of the many examples of people putting a finite value on life.

3) Although you are of course correct that air travel is safer than driving, you overstate this effect since you failed to account for the fact that you can only fly from one airport to another, while a car can go most places that humans typically want to go to. So when travelling by plane, you usually have to drive from your home to the airport and then from the airport to your destination. So whenever someone decides to drive instead of flying X miles, this inceases the amount of miles driven by less than X.

At 6:44 AM, June 04, 2015, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think it would be interesting to let the individual airports and airplane companies choose their own security methods. Some airports would have military/police roaming around with assault rifles and police dogs with full body scanners and the like; others may take a more anonymous approach with undercover police or both. The airplane companies could then decide on their own security approaches. Some may put an undercover air-marshall or some may arm the pilot and staff. Some may have an ex-marine stand guard in the plane in a security uniform. Some may have trained dogs on the planes, etc.

I think something akin to this would be better than hiring disgruntled government employees with no police or military training to snoop through typical Americans belongings. Ex-police and military would have a more keen sense of criminality and wrong-doing than the current TSA.

At 10:31 AM, June 04, 2015, Anonymous Power Child said...

I sorta like the armed guards on the plane idea (it's also a bit disconcerting) but it only addresses the risk of a hijacking. It wouldn't, for example, have saved my life back in 2006.

It seems like some kind of on-the-ground security is necessary. It doesn't have to be theatrical, but it does have to be intrusive. It seems like profiling is effective, so long as you keep your algorithm sharp.

And I agree, ex-police and military would be better suited to this than disgruntled trained monkeys in government uniforms.

At 9:13 AM, June 05, 2015, Blogger JdL said...

I think that your one percent estimate is indeed conservative. I resolved to stop flying when they brought in the porno-scanners. No, it was even earlier, when they stopped allowing liquids to be brought on board. I insist on having the means to stay hydrated without relying on overworked stewardesses. Also, I think I snuck on an additional container of liquid that helped cope with the indignities of commercial air travel. :-)

At 11:07 AM, June 05, 2015, Blogger Unknown said...

This post assumes that the purpose of the TSA is to stop terrorists, with the costs and hassles imposed on ordinary people being an undesired price. But my view is that the purpose of the TSA is to disarm and discourage ordinary people who might otherwise commit acts of self-defense against terrorists, and more generally to condition ordinary people to submit to government authority in various arbitrary and humiliating ways.

It's a common view among elite government authorities that violence in self-defense (at least by ordinary private persons) is a malum in se crime, and often a worse one than the crime being defended against. Even terrorism. As much as they might desire it, they know that they can't go back to the days of "in the event of a hijacking, remain seated with your hands folded in your laps and let the Expert Government Agents deal with the situtation." But they are still desperate to do anything - anything at all - to avoid admitting that sometimes violence in self-defense is a proper response. Thus the current TSA. It's puprpose is not to prevent another Twin Towers, but to prevent another Flight 93.


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