The TSA: Just More Security Theater

We’ve all been there. We’ve all stood in line, in the bizarre bottleneck known as airport security, with Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officers in bright blue who yell at you to take laptops out of your bag or confiscate a harmless bottle of shampoo. We sigh, roll our eyes and rush to the airport hours before our flights to compensate, yet we tell ourselves it’s all worth it because the TSA stops terrorism.

Does it?

The simple truth of the matter is that there is no evidence to suggest that the TSA’s screening methods have ever prevented an act of terrorism on an airplane. The TSA adamantly refuses to disclose any examples of its success, supposedly in the interest of national security. This justification seems particularly suspect, especially since the organization documents confiscated items (see @TSA on Instagram for examples).

The TSA’s screening does not seem to be a necessary service but rather serves as “security theater,” a term coined by a computer security and privacy expert, Bruce Schneuder. Security theater is exactly what it sounds like: a practice that provides the illusion of security while doing nothing to provide actual security. The extent to which TSA practices are security theater was made embarrassingly clear in May 2015. The Department of Homeland Security performed a test, dispatching 70 agents to airports with a surprisingly simple task: smuggle mock explosives and firearms through airport security. 67 out of the 70 agents went undetected. When pitted against professionals (which effective terrorists usually are), the TSA’s weapon detection success rate was less than five percent.

This isn’t the only glaring flaw in the TSA’s screening system. Even the latest full-body scanners are unable to detect pentaerythritol tetranitrate (or PETN) when concealed properly. PETN is an explosive material first used in World War I by the German army. It should also be noted that PETN can also be used to treat certain heart conditions. Furthermore, smaller airports lack the technology of larger airports, and are often not equipped with full-body and CT scanners. Without the latest advancements in airport scanner technology, which already has its flaws, smaller airports are even more vulnerable to terrorist attacks.

It’s clear that the TSA’s practices have no real, measurable effect on terrorism. So now what?

First off, the TSA needs to simplify its screening process. Screening requirements that are specific to particular incidents, such as taking off your shoes (Richard Reid, the Shoe Bomber) or the 3-1-1 rule on liquids (2006 transatlantic aircraft plot) don’t make us safer, but incentivize terrorists to devise new methods of attack.

Additionally, increasingly complex screening procedures aren’t the solution. It is unreasonable to expect a scanner to detect every weapon a terrorist might invent. And besides, the 9/11 hijackers didn’t invent a new bomb. They were armed only with knives and pepper spray. Instead, increasing the number of air marshals will help prevent the hijacking of airplanes, and implementing blast-proof, locked cockpit doors is a simple and effective safety precaution. In fact, the best way to prevent a terrorist attacks is anticipating it long before the attackers arrive at the airport. More advanced intelligence gathering allows governments to detect and prevent terrorist plots before they can be executed.

Another, though unintended, consequence of TSA screening is the increase in car-related deaths. A significant number of people find the screening so inconvenient that air traffic has decreased by six percent, according to research by Cornell University. The study found that people who chose not to fly instead substituted car travel for air travel. The increase in car traffic led to an increase of about 130 car deaths every three months. As FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver articulates, these additional deaths are “the equivalent of four fully-loaded Boeing 737s crashing each year.”

This particular statistic also reveals a dangerous fact about human nature: we are far more worried about the incredibly unlikely and extreme disasters, and pay little attention to the everyday causes of death such as car accidents. 9/11 was responsible for about 3,000 deaths, while cars kill 35,000 people every year. It’s this disproportionate fear of terrorist attacks that allows the TSA’s ineffective practices to thrive. Most of us would gladly jump the ridiculous hurdles of airport security for some assurance that we won’t die on the plane. And at the same time, we expose ourselves to far greater risk almost daily, by thoughtlessly turning the key in the ignition.

If we really care enough to improve airport security and fix the TSA, the first step is putting our fear into perspective. We cannot allow political rhetoric and fear to dictate how our airports run. Rational thought and a clear mindset on what works and what doesn’t in airport security are key.