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Security theatre

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Boing Boing has a great post about how to smuggle liquids onto an airplane.

All you need to do is surrender the bottle at the screening station, wait for the the TSA to throw it
away in an unguarded trash-barrel on the "secure" side, and then retrieve it from the trash.


The reason this "smuggling" technique works, of course, is that liquids aren’t dangerous.
Everyone knows this — even the TSA. That’s why they don’t guard the
barrel after they confiscate your wine, water, and salad-dressing. The
point of taking away your liquid isn’t to make airplanes safe, it’s to
simultaneously make you afraid (of terrorists with magic water-bombs)
and then make you feel safe (because the government is fighting off the
magic water-bombs). It’s what Bruce Schneier calls "security theater."

I fly to US every month and have become an expert on and a victim of all sorts of security theatre routines. One of the things that gives them away as theatre (apart from their obvious lack of common sense) is that they are inconsistent and vary from airport to airport and even from airline to airline – at one point Virgin suddenly introduced another security check at the gates. More delays and annoyance.

The only time I was ever impressed by a security check was when flying to Tel Aviv by El Al. They were polite but firm, questioning and a bit obstreperous. I had no problems as it was a straightforward business  trip and all was in order. I still remember how after the interview the security guy recommended that we see a Chagal exhibition in Jerusalem and reminded us that our client has an amazing modern art collection. Not a conversation you are likely to strike with Heathrow security people. Not saying it’s impossible but highly unlikely. :)

The difference is that El Al invests in security people and they are looking not for a terrorist, but for a weapon for a terrorist not for a weapon. Only if you turn this upside down, you can treat water as a deadly liquid that turns into explosives when it reaches an arbitrary size…

Note: last para corrected – that’ll teach me post late at night. Thanks for pointing out.

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2 Responses to “Security theatre”


  1. Raz's Blog
    on Jul 13th, 2007
    @ 8:06 am

    More on El Al Security

    Adriana’s last paragraph is backwards though: the TSA is looking for a weapon (an ultimately futile exercise as any serious terrorist will simply fashion one with whatever comes to hand after passing through the security barrier), El Al’s security …


  2. Raz
    on Jul 13th, 2007
    @ 8:08 am

    I think that you’ve got that last thought backwards:

    - the TSA is looking for a weapon (an ultimately futile exercise as any serious terrorist will simply fashion one with whatever comes to hand after passing through the security barrier)

    - El Al’s security people are actually assessing the people that they screen, “looking for a terrorist” as you put it.

    This latter activity does of course require actually … (gasp) … communicating with the people who are being assessed, something that, by all reports, TSA screeners are yet to excel at.

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